Alumni Find Exciting Work Opportunities Abroad

Serena Runyan

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From villages outside of Botswana to Dongying, China, Whitman College alumni are living all over the world to impact the local communities and to learn about themselves.
Living abroad offers graduates different ways to develop themselves positively for the future. For Patricia Vanderbilt ’12, living abroad in Dongying in the Shandong province of China to teach English offers her constructive challenges and opens her eyes to new perspectives. Vanderbilt applied to teach in China after working as a Fulbright English teaching assistant in New Dehli, India.
“I like living abroad,” said Vanderbilt in an email. “I like the challenge of figuring out how things work in a different country, adapting to a new culture and learning a new language. I think I learn a lot about myself and my native country and culture in the process.”
Caitlin Hardee ’12 became entranced with Berlin, Germany after spending a year abroad there as a junior. She moved back the summer after graduation on a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) media grant, and spent the next few months obtaining a visa to stay there after her grant period ended.
“Berlin is fascinating as a political capital and hub of EU policy, as well as one of the nightlife capitals of the world and the true heart of electronic music in Europe. It’s also breathtakingly cheap,” she said in an email.
She is currently working in Berlin with a two-year freelance visa and completing a variety of editorial and public relations projects.
Unlike Hardee, Fritz Siegert ’12 has known for years that he wanted to live abroad after graduating.
“Since before college, I’ve known that I wanted to spend a significant portion of my life abroad. As a (still) aspiring pre-medical student, this desire was only further fueled by such silly books as ‘Mountains Beyond Mountains,'” said Siegert in an email.
“Mountains Beyond Mountains,” a book by Tracy Kidder, chronicles the journeys of  a man named Paul Farmer who attempts to spread the benefits of modern medicine to those who need it most. 
Siegert is currently living in Botswana as a 2012-2013 Princeton in Africa Fellow. Like Vanderbilt, Siegert’s desire to experience a place that would contrast his life in America drew him to Africa.
“I have always wanted to experience Africa, and more than that, [to] experience a way of living that contrasts from what I have experienced thus far. Apart from a short month-long stint in the UK, this has been my only trip overseas,” said Siegert in an email.

And, as all of these graduates desired, the dissimilarities to America these countries provide have been sources of rewarding growth, as well as challenging adjustments. Siegert has been able to experience a change from the busy lifestyle he had in America. 

“Simplicity and patience are lenses through which to view the world that are often underutilized in America. Class to ASWC to rugby to TKE to volunteering to thesis to parties to catch-up coffee dates … my last year at Whitman was as fast as it was furious. It’s been eye-opening to experience a culture and way of life that appreciates down time as much as it does busy time,” said Siegert.
This element of simplicity has given Siegert many fond memories, such as hitch-hiking to different villages.
“Hitch-hiking is [a] fairly common way to get around in Botswana. Outside of Gaborone (the capital), most people do not own cars and rely on others to get around. Some of my favorite moments in this country have come while I’m traveling to visit friends in nearby villages, in the back of a pickup truck on a sunny day, groups of ostriches running alongside,” said Siegert in an email.
Nik Hagen ’13 spent two months in Italy after graduation working as an au pair. For Hagen, being abroad served as an enriching transition to post-graduate life. In addition to Hagen’s opportunity to explore Italy, this break from his life in America gave him the necessary amount of independence for serious reflection.
“I knew I wanted to do something completely different with my summer to serve as a separation between college and the ‘real world’,” said Hagen in an email. “In the post graduation confusion and haze, I figured my time abroad would give me time and perspective to reflect on the four years of college I had just completed and give me a chance to look ahead while simultaneously experiencing a different part of the world.”
Just as Hagen used his time abroad for separated introspection, transitioning to living in India and China forced Vanderbilt to adjust to being a foreigner and has provided ample opportunity for self-definition.
“I think living abroad makes me do a lot of reflecting,” said Vanderbilt. “I’ve learned to accept that I’m a foreigner. It sounds obvious, but it is difficult to live somewhere where my appearance immediately reveals me as a foreigner, no matter how long I stay here or how well I learn to speak Chinese. I’ve learned to accept the good and bad experiences that come from being a foreigner.”
In China, where many people speak little to no English, Vanderbilt’s process of learning Mandarin has been a challenging opportunity to integrate herself more fully into Chinese society.
“It was a small moment, but my first real conversation with the grandmothers who live in my apartment community was a very significant experience for me,” said Vanderbilt in an email. “Every time they sit me down and ask me questions about the [United States], and after a lot of repeating and gesturing, I’m able to understand and attempt an answer; every time I feel a little more connected to China and a little happier about my life here.”
Vanderbilt’s unfamiliarity with the area and the language sometimes frustrates her, but ultimately it is an opportunity for growth. Vanderbilt’s experiences have caused her to be more confident independently.
“Traveling anywhere alone while abroad is always a best [and] worst experience,” she said. “It forces me to step outside my comfort zone and be vulnerable in the things I do and the connections I make. Sometimes it leads to unplanned frustrations, but as I work through them I become more confident in myself and more comfortable living in a foreign country.”
Hardee is also glad to have the opportunity to practice her language skills.
“I love constantly encountering an international mix of people, being surrounded by foreign languages and getting the opportunity to speak and write German on a daily basis,” she said.
Hagen’s experience was also difficult at times, but ultimately helped him develop independently.
“The whole experience was both incredible and incredibly frustrating,” said Hagen in an email. “The kids I was taking care of were quite the hand full and definitely tried my patience daily … but it was an incredible time for introspection and reevaluation of the things I find most meaningful about life and personal interaction.”
Hagen echoed Vanderbilt’s emphasis on personal connection abroad. His time in Italy allowed him to reflect on his priorities.
“I think the greatest thing that I learned was that regardless of the setting, I can’t find much joy in any living situation or travel experience without people I care about to share it with and interact with,” said Hagen in an email.
Siegert inevitably also experiences this relative isolation as a foreigner. For one, he works through a language barrier in Botswana when he’s not teaching English.
“Though the official language of Botswana is English … the ‘language of the people,’ so-to-speak, is Setswana. I have picked up bits and pieces of the language here and there,” he said.
And the more laid-back attitude he has learned to appreciate from Botswana has sometimes acted as a road-block.
“[T]hat same ‘simple and patient’ lifestyle that I have loved can oftentimes prove frustrating when trying to collaborate professionally with peers,” he said.
Siegert has still managed to make big impacts, however. One of Siegert’s best experiences has been designing a service trip that took six students to work at a refugee camp in Northern Botswana for a week, using models from service trips he led at Whitman.
“The kids loved it as much as I did,” he said.
Cultural dissimilarities have also introduced Siegert to more negative aspects of living in a foreign country.
“At other times, there is also a strong culture [of] misogyny that I struggle with given a good number of my close friends here are women,” he said. 

Overall, though, these experiences abroad have provided unparalleled opportunities for these graduates to learn about different areas of the world, their own country and about themselves.