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Home  > Article

Across Asia, Chasing a Career in International Relations

By Michelle Lillie

I did everything right. Or at least I thought I did.

Graduating in 5 years with both my Bachelors and Master's degree in International Relations, doing a sophomore-year internship with UNICEF, and spending junior year in Rome for study abroad, I assumed that once I graduated my hard work would earn me a top job at a major international organization.

Armed with not one but two degrees, and a resume and sparkling cover letter to match, I began applying for jobs within the international development field. Nervous to leave my college friends, I started by applying for domestic jobs with major international organizations. After months of rejections, I began to apply for jobs with smaller international organizations, then larger not-for-profits, and then local not-for-profits, and the trend continued to get smaller until soon I had run out of jobs in my field for which to apply. All my rejections came back with the same reply: not enough overseas experience.

I found myself caught in the proverbial "catch-22" of college graduates. I needed overseas experience to get a job, but how could I get a job to get overseas experience without experience? With only my diplomas to console me, I took a "temporary" job at the bar down the street. After 6 months working at the bar and watching my college friends begin their careers, I could no longer feign happiness for their successes. Somewhere around Christmas that year I hit rock bottom, took a leave of absence from the bar, and went back home to Michigan for a month.

After a month of sleeping non-stop, lying on the couch and watching bad reality TV, I moved back to Chicago and began working at my "temporary" job again. After a week of falling back into my old habit spending countless hours aimlessly searching the Internet for overseas jobs, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Four hours later, I had purchased a one-way ticket to Thailand, six hours later I told my roommates I was moving out, and eight hours later I put in my two weeks' notice: I was going to be an ESL teacher.

Teaching English as a Second Language sounded fun and exciting. I would get to live in a new exotic country, meet new people with my same interests, make some great overseas contacts, and most importantly, get overseas work experience. There was only one problem; I was not certified to teach English as a Foreign Language. Getting a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certificate is normally a bit expensive.

The one-month, 160-hour class can run anywhere from $1500 to $5000, including housing; however, many schools offer the same class at a much lower price if you agree to sign a 4-month contract teaching ESL at a school of their choice. I spent one month on the beach of Ban Phe, Thailand getting TESOL certified through TEFL International. Our accommodations were in an American hotel overlooking the ocean, our teaching practices at the local Buddhist monastery. During lunch break, we went swimming in the ocean--all for $500 plus a four-month contract teaching at Phuket Technology College on an island off the west coast of Thailand.

Phuket Technology College is situated on the side of a mountain. Every morning for class I had to walk up seven flights of stairs cut into the rock to get to my classroom. My open-air classroom was home to giant frogs, lizards and the occasional monkey. I taught Business English, English Communication, and English for Hotel and Tourism, as most of my students were planning careers in the tourism industry.

Although I was living in paradise, I knew that Thailand was not considered a major bed for international relations, so I declined the offer to stay for one more semester in order to gain overseas experience where it mattered: China. Within days of looking for a job, I found exactly what I wanted, a large university job teaching ESL to English majors in Beijing. In October I began my job at the North China Institute of Science and Technology.

Working at the International Cooperative, I found myself doing much more than teaching English. I was helping plan programs and working with the Chinese professors on lectures and talks for the school. After working in Beijing for a few months, it dawned on me: I was finally getting overseas work experience in the field and country that I wanted.

My contract in China will expire at the end of January and I have decided not to renew it for another semester. While I enjoyed my time in China, I feel its time for me to move to another country in Asia. Ideally I would like to spend one year abroad in three different countries; since I left days after my 24th birthday, my goal is to return to America before my 25th birthday.

As well as meeting new people and making great contacts, my time abroad has cultivated my interest in Asia, which is essential for the field of international relations. In graduate school I was a "generalist," which meant that I did not have a region of the world on which I wanted to focus. Now my regional interest is Asia, and this is where I plan to focus my efforts in the future. I know I will be back to job searching when I return to America, but now my cover letter will proudly state "experience living and working abroad in three different Asian countries," and with a little luck my overseas experience will improve my job-hunting chances.

Michelle Lillie is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago.

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