Can You Come Out on Top?

Travelling abroad to “find yourself” has been a cliche of college students and graduates for as long as Universities have been in business. It is assumed that every young college student, at one time or another, will wander off to Corfu Island or Southeast Asia, do some wacky drugs, cavort with other travelers, and return home to face the rest of their daunting lives.

The problem with that plan these days is that students are leaving school with unprecedented amounts of student loans. Along with the soaring cost of a university or college education is the fact that in order to get a job that might begin to pay off those loans, you cannot stop at one simple undergraduate degree. The glory days of well paid jobs for BA grads is long over, and the cost of 5-8 years of school can be crippling for years to come. So how is our generation of wild oats supposed to quench their wanderlust?

There are several ways to get overseas without having to pay, and a couple that will pay you. Unfortunately, not many will bring you months of sitting wasted on a beach, but they can give you a taste of a new culture and the ability to travel and get to know a country, culture and language much more authentically than the casual traveler.

If you are not looking to make a fortune, but rather value the experience that doing volunteer work will bring, there are programs that the government recognizes enough to defer your student loans while you are involved. A good example is the US Peace Corps. Not only will the government defer student loans if you enter the Peace Corps, you can apply to have your debt reduced by 15% per year you are involved. In order to check into the deferment of loan payments, check with the organization you will be volunteering with and with your student loan lender.

If it is paid work abroad that you are looking for, many universities have an international center or a work abroad program office that will give you resources on the programs available and resources to find the best program for you. If your college doesn’t have one, go online and check out other universities’ resources. The University of Michigan’s International Center, for example, has many resources available to the general public on their Web site.

If you are looking to go overseas and just work to survive, the options are quite limitless. If you are a native English speaker, then one of the primary opportunities available to you is teaching English as a second language in a foreign country. Where you go depends on your teaching background, education and salary expectations. A few years ago, all it took to teach English overseas was having English as your mother tongue. When it became apparent that this any-asshole-can-teach-English approach brought a host of interesting, and not necessarily intelligent, characters out of the international woodwork, many countries opted for some minimal general training. Now, in order to teach in a country where you can hope to make money, you must get what is variously called TEFL, TESOL, EFL, ESL, or TESL, all acronyms for teaching English as a second language. That program will cost you money and you should start looking into it at least 6-12 months before you are planning to leave.

If you have done some research, you will find that many people are drawn to Asian countries such as South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. The draw to these countries is that their foreign teacher programs are fairly well developed, organized and reputable (for example, the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program-JET-is well organized and has an excellent international reputation). Also, they are among the higher paying countries. China, Eastern Europe, Russia and the Newly Independent States are not nearly as well paying, and Africa and Latin America offer mostly volunteer positions to teachers. Western Europe has jobs, but many of them are taken by Brits, Scots and Irish folk who do not need a visa under European Union agreements.

Another option is to apply to companies that have an international reach. Research companies that have regional offices around the world and make it known that you are interested in being placed in those international offices. To up your chances, take language courses and learn about regions where you are interested in working. That way you will not only get the experience of traveling and living in a new culture, you will have the security of a job abroad and at home when (or if) you wish to return. Also you are putting in time at a company, as opposed to putting a career on hold in order to work and travel.

There are important issues to find out when you are going to look for work abroad. Do some research and talk to people with first hand knowledge to find out which programs have good reputations and which to avoid. Find out if there are fees attached to applying to a program, and what those fees include. Find out what your job entails (hours, responsibilities) and what it excludes (what is your holiday time like? will you be able to pick up freelance work while there to pad your earnings, or are you restricted to working within your contract?). Find out what your salary includes (accommodations, furnished or not; health insurance; travel costs; teaching materials). These factors will be important in determining if you are going to be able to come home with a nest egg to knock off those student loans.

If you are going overseas with a notion to make some real money, see if you can’t find a good job in your field. There are several beautiful islands, such as the Grand Caymans and Bermuda, where they are willing to pay beautiful tax-free American dollars for professionals who wish to head down and spend a minimum of two years using their teaching or accounting degrees in a tropical paradise.

Whether you end up going overseas to make money, or simply to subsist in the face of crushing student debt, what you will come back with will be an incredible experience in which you became immersed in a world totally unlike your own. The culture becomes a part of who you are and the skills and experiences you pick up will only make you more marketable in our shrinking globalized job market.

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