A whole new world

As the economy continues to struggle out of a recession, the opportunity to live overseas, become a de facto international ambassador and take part in advancing national security becomes increasingly attractive for recent grads.

Teaching abroad as a form of continuing education may seem unconventional, but programs like the Council for International Educational Exchange show why its quickly becoming the path of choice for many recent grads.

“People are realizing doing this is better than doing nothing, living at home,” said Marshall Johnson, program coordinator for CIEE, who taught in Thailand in 2006. “There is definitely a trend in our numbers … teaching abroad has always been a good option for people, but basically what’s changed can be attributed to the economy.”

Johnson said that those who teach abroad can learn more than in a real job or graduate school. “[Teaching] shows initiative and independence; picking up and moving abroad is a big step,” he said.

CIEE offers teach-abroad programs in Chile, China, South Korea, Spain and Thailand and applicants are required to have a bachelor’s degree in any major, U.S. citizenship and native English fluency. The Chile and Spain programs require Spanish language proficiency.

Program participants are typically recent college grads between the ages of 22 and 24. There is a fee for CIEE programs depending on the country and duration of assignment. Johnson said the fee goes toward insurance, housing and a one-week in-country orientation for participants, many of whom ask why students should pay for CIEE to get them a job.

“I’m very straightforward with them,” Johnson said. “The benefits differ for each program …[but] all of the countries we work in have study centers and staff on the ground familiar with the country.”

Johnson said that while CIEE offers recent grads the opportunity to help students and communities through their teaching, the program is different than the Peace Corps or Teach For America, where there is a distinct service component.

“What people need to remember is the extent to which they are going to help this community … that they are in desperate need of your help is an unrealistic perception,” Johnson said. “You recognize pretty soon that there is a huge sense of achievement when you hear a student use English and you know it’s something you taught them and you’re like ‘Wow, I’m actually making a difference here’ … that’s the biggest reward.”

Recent Gettysburg College graduate Kelly Korpiel taught in Spain through CIEE last year and said she is glad she decided to teach through a program like CIEE after college.

“After that year with that experience even only after a year, I grew up a bit and saw the real world, and now I’m back, a more cultured person,” Korpiel said. “You see things about another country you didn’t even realize.”

The ambassador role teaching abroad takes on is a key component of CIEE and the Alliance for International Educational & Cultural Exchange, an advocacy organization based in D.C, of which CIEE is a member.

“We do a lot of work on the Hill to promote international exchange …[to] get recognition that studying and teaching abroad is more than just a feel-good thing; it’s really a crucial component of not only an individual student’s personal or professional growth … but also on a broader level, we push that this is a national security priority for the United States,” said Mark Overmann, assistant director and senior policy specialist for the Alliance, who taught English in China after college.

Overmann said the Obama administration has been generally supportive of international education initiatives. That’s especially true of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who has made diplomacy a cornerstone of his approach to national defense, Overmann said.

“You’ll hear the secretary of Defense talking about diplomacy as an integral part of the national security strategy and I think you’ll see with time that when you have the leader of the largest military of the world talking about how important educational exchange is, that’s something to pay attention to,” Overmann said.

The national security component of teaching abroad is something Overmann says he emphasizes in his dealings with the State Department and lawmakers on the Hill. He said international educational exchange programs not only offer the opportunity for participants to broaden perceptions but also create an environment where cross-cultural understanding naturally occurs.

“The more we can encourage that kind of interaction among as many people as possible, the more we’ll see that understanding is actually possible,” Overmann said.

For more information on CIEE visit their Web site at www.ciee.org.