Aniya Dunkley had just started working as a lawyer at a D.C. firm when an associate slipped into her office, closed the door and started to sob. Her advice for the upset co-worker? “You have to make a change.” Two and a half years later, Dunkley found herself shutting the same office door so she could cry.
It was Dunkley’s turn to make a change. And she did: She quit her job and left the country.
Moving abroad is a common fantasy for working stiffs — and one that’s generated extra buzz this year, as folks despair over the state of American politics. What often prevents people from ultimately pulling the trigger is uncertainty about their futures, says Ronda Ansted of Be the Change Career Consulting in D.C. But boarding that airplane might be just what their résumé needs.
One of the most important factors when job hunting, Ansted explains, is self-awareness — or, as she puts it, “Do you know what you’re good at and what you want your life to look like?” An international experience can help clarify the answers to these questions. “Abroad, you have to adopt and maneuver and change your pace,” she says. And that process prompts self-discovery.
That’s certainly true for Dunkley, 45, who thought she was just headed on vacation for a few months when she bid farewell to her job (and the U.S.) back in 2010. “My plan was to take a break, relax a bit and then be ready to go back into law,” she says.
Her travels took her in a different direction. She picked up a pink tourmaline stone in Brazil, and then met a jewelry artist in Argentina who taught her to set it into a ring.
Fast-forward to today, and Dunkley is living in Florence, Italy, where she’s earning an MFA in contemporary art jewelry. Life is infinitely more comfortable now, she says, and not just because she can wear jeans and take a gelato break whenever she wants.
“I still have structure. I’m busy every day,” says Dunkley, whose latest project involves treating and drilling wood. “But it doesn’t feel like forced effort. I’m excited about getting up in the morning.” She’s decided the move is permanent — she sold her Brookland condo last year. After graduation, she hopes to launch her own line of jewelry geared to professional women in need of pieces that are “understated, elegant and unique.”
One future customer could be Anne Mauney, 34, who also has a tale of transitioning between fields while overseas. In Mauney’s case, the miserable D.C. job was in communications for a government contractor.
“I wasn’t doing what I was meant to be doing,” she says. “But I was waffling about what direction to go in.” The one thing Mauney knew for sure is that she liked the idea of teaching English abroad, which is how she ended up moving from Arlington to Prague in the fall of 2008.
She didn’t know a single person there. She didn’t speak the language. It was perfect.
“One day, I had to buy a pair of scissors. It was a whole-day odyssey, but it was so fun,” Mauney reminisces.
She never managed to pick up Czech — “I could see a Czech word and pronounce it and not sound like an idiot. I considered that a victory,” Mauney says. She did, however, sharpen her communication skills though her job at a primary school and regular tutoring sessions with adults.
Because she wasn’t into the local cuisine (“heavy meat and gravy meals” is how she describes it) Mauney started devouring food blogs and experimenting with recipes.
By the end of the school year, she’d cooked up a new direction for her career: dietician. Mauney knew it would require years of additional education, but that didn’t seem so daunting after the leap she’d already taken. “It showed me that I could create my own destiny,” she says.
After a year in Prague, Mauney is now back in D.C. running her own practice specializing in intuitive eating and sports nutrition. And the blog she started to keep her friends and family up-to-date on her European adventures has evolved into fANNEtasticfood.com, the website that’s a key part of her business.
Possessing social media skills can make an overseas move easier, says France Francois, 30, who spent a year strategizing and saving for her escape to Panama this past January. She had been in Washington for eight years — for graduate school and then a job in international development that demanded long hours and a limited social life.
“When I talk about it, I say, ‘I worked in D.C., I didn’t live in D.C.,’ ” Francois explains.
Her goal is to learn Spanish fluently, so after Francois picked a destination, she offered language schools a trade: She’d help them with English marketing in exchange for free classes.
That dramatically lowered her costs, which is helpful when trying to stick to a budget without full-time employment. “You have to hustle,” says Francois, who has been writing, tutoring and doing photography to make ends meet.
There’s still been plenty of time for surfing, savoring fresh seafood and volunteering at a nonprofit that works to prevent gang violence — a field she’s now considering pursuing after she returns to the U.S.
Keeping your re-entry in mind is crucial, urges Ansted, who emphasizes the importance of always building and maintaining your network. “One joy of living in another country is to get to know people from another culture,” she says. At the same time, she adds, don’t let key relationships in the U.S. get stale. “Send an email saying, ‘How are you doing? I thought of you,’ ” Ansted says.
While enjoying yourself should top your list of priorities, Ansted says, it’s still critical to be able to address any career gap on your résumé. Spending that time teaching or studying is typically attractive to employers. They’ll be less impressed if you write that you just hung out on the beach in Tahiti, she adds.
And realize that you may not have an epiphany about your career while abroad, and that’s OK, too. You’ll be bringing back invaluable life skills, says Ansted, who can point to herself as an example.
Ansted was in her 30s when she did the Peace Corps in South Africa. From there, she went into international development, but it wasn’t the right choice for her. It was only through the accumulation of her experiences — in D.C. and abroad — that Ansted found her calling in career counseling.
So for anyone considering an overseas adventure, but hesitating, Ansted offers this advice: “If you know you want to do it, do it.”
Do you take visa?
When it comes to picking a destination, it’s not just a matter of finding where you want to go, but where you can stay.
Aniya Dunkley, who is living in Florence on a student visa, has decided she’d like to be in Italy permanently. “I’m clear in my mind, anyway. I don’t know that the government is clear,” she jokes. Keeping her visa up to date is a tricky process that requires dealing with red tape every year.
For Anne Mauney, who taught in Prague, visa challenges prevented her from moving to France, which had been her top choice for a European year abroad. Some places are more welcoming to Americans than others, says career consultant Ronda Ansted, who recommends doing your homework on potential legal issues. The Department of State’s website can point you in the right direction.
If that’s too overwhelming, there’s always the Peace Corps: “They take care of everything,” Ansted says.
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