UPDATE: Five years later I’m still going strong!
Next week marks the two-year anniversary of the day I graduated from college.
Holy cow, does time fly.
In that time, I’ve lived in two countries, traveled across three continents, and had too many adventures to count — and (except for one six-week period) I did it all while holding a job abroad, or with another one lined up.
First, let me back up a second and explain why I’m writing this.
It seems nearly every travel blogger in the world has some line in their bio that states a version of: I hated my 9-5 so I quit my job and sold my house/car/belongings to travel the world.
And I’m not putting them down, not in the least. I think it’s great whenever anyone gets to travel, regardless of timing or catalyst.
But I wanted to share my story, partly inspired by this post, because so many bloggers give you the why of travel (often using themselves as an example: “Don’t be like me, don’t wait, go now while you’re young and still free!”) but there are few posts on how it’s actually been done.
To reiterate, this is not Why you should travel after graduation (a quick google search will give you endless reasons). Nor is this a guide to becoming a permanent traveler or expat — what worked for me, might not work for someone else.
This is simply my own personal story, to show that it CAN be done.
So this part is kind of long. If you don’t care about my story, you can skip to the advice part further down.
The Singapore Chapter
After graduation, I wasted no time. I gave myself two weeks to say goodbyes and organize logistics (legal papers, banking, etc.) then I packed up and said goodbye to America. I’d always known I was going to move and stay overseas after graduation — I also knew that being an expat and working abroad would be the only way to support my travel habit, as I had very little money saved.
My first stop was a five-week trip to Shanghai. This was more personal than professional; I went with my mom and sister and spent most of that time visiting family and friends. I had no intention of staying in Shanghai (I loved the place too much; I knew if I stayed, I would never leave).
However, I did have job offers there, so I kept it as a back-up option: I didn’t have an onward ticket to anywhere, so if I couldn’t find any other alternatives, I would stay in Shanghai. Just for a little while more.
Around the same time, one of my good friends was relocated to Singapore for work. He had a spare room in his company-provided apartment, and said I could move in if I wanted. I took it as one of those things people say just to be nice, not actually to be taken seriously (like when you tell a friend you’ll definitely visit them in their new home in Farawayistan, or saying “Let’s stay in touch!” to someone you know you’ll never see again).
But the offer was serious, and the draw of free rent was too enticing. I booked a one-way ticket to Singapore.
Singapore was not somewhere I ever saw myself visiting, never mind living.
But I did some research and found out that Singapore has a little-known, fairly new Working Holiday Pass program. I applied online and was quickly granted a six-month working visa. Well that was easy enough, I thought.
It took me six weeks to find a job. I didn’t do my research; I had no idea Singapore was such a tough market for entry-level foreigners. The one upside to unemployment was that it gave me a lot of free time; time I used to volunteer at the Singapore Youth Olympic Games — a role that would end up changing my life. But I’ll get to that.
I eventually found a job — on Craigslist, in fact. It wasn’t in the field I studied (politics), but it was in my field of interest (social media). I went for an interview, and though I had little experience, I got the job. For the next nine months, I was the digital strategist for an Asian supermodel reality television show.
The International Sports Chapter
Working for the Olympics has always been a dream of mine — one of those impossible dreams I never thought would come true, like my other childhood dream of being an ambassador.
A friend heard about my move to Singapore, and he put me in touch with his friend who was already there, working at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games. I happened to arrive just days before volunteer training started, and I had all the free time in the world. So thanks to my friend’s connection, I became a volunteer supervisor in the main media center.
Through those Games, I met some wonderful people in the Olympics circuit. I talked to everyone about how working for the Olympics was my dream, and people said my passion shone through the way I worked, even as just a volunteer. I’m not trying to boast; I’m just saying that my passion was obvious — and because of that, a few months later one of those contacts reached out to me out of the blue:
X needs help at the Summer Universiade Games, can you go to Shenzhen in August?
Y needs help at the World Sailing Championships, can you go to Perth in December?
So even though I quit my television show job in June 2011, those two gigs gave me security — and that’s how I was able to spend so much time traveling last year. From June until the end of the year, I traveled worry-free, secure in the knowledge that I had positions waiting for me in August and in December.
The Paris Chapter
But I had no idea what I was going to do after December. I started to get worried: what was I going to do after I was finished in Perth?
I definitely didn’t want to go back to Singapore — like Shanghai, I had started to love the place too much and was worried if I went back, I’d never leave. I thought about moving to Vietnam or staying in Australia on a working holiday visa, but neither idea appealed to me. Nothing against teaching English or waitressing — I’ve done both before — but I wanted to continue finding more career-oriented jobs abroad.
And that’s when luck struck again.
I realized knowing French would make me more valuable to the international sports and media field, so I had posted my resume on a few job websites in Francophone countries (France, Belgium, Switzerland). I was determined to find a job in one of those countries — something that could pay the bills while also allowing me time to take French classes.
In November, as Mike and I were traveling around China, I received an email from an employer in Paris who wanted to hire me immediately as a private English tutor. We only had two weeks to get through all the red tape of French bureaucracy, but it miraculously worked — I got my visa for France only hours before I boarded my flight to Perth.
And that leads me to where I am today; in January I flew from Australia straight to Paris. My job here might not be as career-oriented as marketing and journalism were, but I’m okay with it because working a career-type job was not my main goal of being in France. I came to become immersed in French, so to me, this is still a career move. I’ll be here for at least a year, and I’m currently working on getting to London this summer.
Like I said from the very beginning, this is not a how-to. I know I’ve caught a few lucky breaks. But honestly, I don’t think it’s luck so much as just a result of being abroad. The world has so many surprises, and increasingly more opportunities, that you just won’t find at home — all you need to do to find them is take that first leap of faith, and GO.
So, fresh graduate who wants to move abroad, here are the things I’ve learned:
On the practical side:
Scout out places where cost of living is low. That way, even if you don’t find a job immediately, at least you’re not blowing through money too quickly on just the basic necessities like rent and food. I didn’t do my research; what I spent in six weeks in Singapore could have easily lasted twice as long in Thailand.
Research visas and working holiday passes. Sounds obvious, but nothing kills a good plan like a tripping up on a technicality like overstaying a visa (or not having one at all — see Vietnam). For each country you may be looking at, know how long you can stay on a tourist visa, find out the process for getting a working visa, and check if there is a working holiday program.
Take a TEFL course online while you have free time. If you have a degree in say, business or engineering, you probably have a better chance of finding a job in your field. But for us politics, history, and other liberal arts majors, more often than that our best bet will be teaching English — and most schools prefer to hire teachers with TEFL certification. You can do a course anytime online, but it certainly makes the job hunt easier if you’re already certified. I’ve always kicked myself for not doing one with all that free time I had senior year.
Buy a one-way ticket. If you’re going to move abroad, commit to it. This isn’t just another vacation. (And after booking it, you will most likely freak out. Totally normal.)
Before you leave: Set up online billing and payment for any credit card bills or college payments you have. Call your credit card companies and tell them you’ll be out of the country, so they don’t block your card. And I don’t know how necessary this is, but I gave my mother power of attorney before I left. You can get PoA forms at any office supply store (or even online) and then just go to a notary to have it authorized.
Other tips and advice:
Don’t be afraid to look in unconventional places for jobs. Craigslist ended up working for me, but there’s also library bulletin boards, networking events, or even the old-fashioned newspaper or magazine ads. Not every job opportunity will be on Monster.com.
Give yourself a deadline and a back-up plan. No point beating a dead horse and trying to get a job where there isn’t one. Give yourself a deadline so you don’t waste too much time; if that day comes and you still can’t find something in that city, go to your second choice. Or third. When I moved to Singapore, I gave myself two months to find a job, and my back-up plan was teaching English in Saigon. My back-up back-up was taking a job in Shanghai.
Make yourself useful/Volunteer. Just because you don’t have a job doesn’t mean you should waste your time. Keep yourself active and make yourself useful — it not only looks good on a resume, but also comes handy when an interviewer asks what you’ve been doing for the last x weeks. Saying you spent your free time learning new skills or volunteering comes off a lot better than, “I sat at home and watched reruns of Community.”
It can also lead to something better, be it a paid gig or even just meeting new people. I would have never imagined one volunteer gig at the Youth Olympics would have led me down such an incredible career path.
Step out of your comfort zone. I could have easily accepted those jobs in Shanghai after graduation. I knew I loved the city; I had established friends and a good life there. But how would I have seen the world then? Sure, I would’ve taken holidays here and there, but that wouldn’t have opened my eyes to nearly as much as moving to Singapore did.
Don’t be afraid to say yes to a job or opportunity. Even if you think you won’t like it. I can guarantee it will at the very least be a learning experience; and you never know where it might lead. I didn’t think I’d like Singapore; I didn’t think I’d be able to work in marketing. Both were good opportunities at the time though, so I took them anyway — and they worked out unbelievably well.
Be passionate. Notice I didn’t say follow your passion, because, well that would go against the point I just made above. We’re young and entry-level and most likely won’t have the luxury of being able to get our dream job right away. But you can still find something to be passionate about, either in your work or outside of it. And that passion will shine through, and it will pay off in the future.
Network, network, network. Talk to anyone and everyone — you never know who you’ll meet that might end up changing your life. It might even be someone you already know — if it weren’t for my old college buddy offering me a place to stay in Singapore, I would never have moved there.
Even if you were shy before, you’re in a new country now. No one knows you’re shy. Just start talking.
Be patient and flexible. My move to Singapore seemed like a failure at the beginning. But because I didn’t give up and had a little patience, it turned into an unbelievably incredible journey. I’ve not only been able to travel all over the world, but I’ve gained experience in new fields and started chasing my dream career; not to mention getting to meet some of the best damn people in the world.
Take risks. This sums it all up in a nutshell. Everything you do after graduation, hell everything you do in life, is a risk. So don’t overthink it; just do it. Take a risk, and move to a new country. Take a risk, and apply for a job that might not be in your field. Whether it’s in work, or love, or life, you won’t get anywhere by playing it safe.
Congratulations to the class of 2012, and happy travels.