“I quit my 9 to 5 to travel the world” is a narrative we hear quite often. And while that path works for some (and works for them well, I might add), it’s not for everyone. In the era of digital nomads, travel influencers, and remote workers, I wanted to offer insight to alternative paths to work abroad. Using my networks, I put out a call for fellowship alum and some incredible women answered. For those looking to pursue a fellowship abroad or a career path that includes travel, this post is for you! However, if you just want to read about some women doing amazing work, you keep reading too. I’m so excited to share the stories of Branishka, Lanice, Faith, and Michal!
1. Greetings from our travelers! Let’s get some introductions.
BRANISHKA: My name is Branishka Lewis and I am a registered nurse with my MSc in Public Health. I had worked all my life in my native country, The Bahamas. A friend that worked at UNDP actually forwarded the application form for the opportunity to work abroad with the Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia (CIDRZ) Healthcorp Fellowship Programme. I applied and was fortunately accepted for the one-year fellowship in Lusaka, Zambia where I mainly worked in Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission of HIV (PMTCT) services. I implemented a programme that would improve retention to services of HIV positive pregnant women and their HIV exposed infants. I also assisted with other research projects involving neonates.
LANICE: My name is Lanice Williams. I currently work at an NGO that does global health policy work on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. I am an alumna of Global Health Corps Fellowship program class of 2016-2017 in D.C. While my fellowship was in the U.S., in 2015, I participated in an academic research exchange program where I was able to study the Cuban healthcare system. I worked as a Policy Associate with Global Health Council (GHC) in Washington, DC.
FAITH: My name is Faith Fugar and I am a 2017 Thomas R. Pickering Graduate Fellow. The fellowship is geared towards recruiting young professionals from historically underrepresented backgrounds to work at the U.S State Department’s Foreign Service. The program provides funding towards a Graduate degree, two internships with the State Department, and a career as a diplomat upon completion of your Master’s degree. (It’s a pretty sweet deal!). So far, I have completed my graduate degree in International Development, completed my two internships at the Bureau of West African Affairs at the State Department in Washington, D.C and the other was to work abroad in the Political Section at Embassy Dakar in Senegal.
MICHAL: My name is Michal Petros and I’m working with Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative – Swaziland in Mbabane, eSwatini through the Princeton in Africa Fellowship. I’ll be here for the following year from August 2019 to August 2020.
2. Why did you choose your fellowship program?
LANICE: My attraction to work abroad with Global Health Corps was to work with other like-minded individuals from across the world. We are all committed to improving health equity. However, the challenges I saw my late maternal grandmother face in Jamaica led me to pursue a career and consider a work abroad program in global health. At GHC, I supported their work to advocate for continued U.S. funding for global health programs and strengthened their visibility and relationships with civil society and the global health advocacy community. The team at the organization was small, but amazing, work within the field of global health.
FAITH: I was looking for a career that would enable me to live and work abroad. I always had an interest in the Foreign Service, but was intimidated by the application process. It involves a series of written tests and in-person interviews which can take months! I also began applying to graduate school, so this was the perfect opportunity to get much needed financial aid for my Masters degree while exploring a career path to the Foreign Service. I also applied to the Charles B. Rangel and Donald M. Payne Fellowships which offer similar benefits and careers with the Foreign Service.
MICHAL: I studied International Relations with a focus on Africa during college, but found little to no academic or professional opportunities relating to the continent. My school didn’t consistently offer Africa regional courses, had no African or Black lecturers (as far as I was concerned), and only had two study abroad programs in Africa – Morocco and Kenya. This led me to study abroad for a full year in pursuit of a more comprehensive perspective on African Affairs (particularly through the lenses of governance and identity).
I ended up studying abroad in Kenya for fall semester and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London for the spring. Upon returning to my college in Washington, DC for my final semester of undergrad, I knew that I wanted to return to the continent to work. Yet, it’s extremely difficult to go on your own as a young professional to work abroad – especially straight out of undergrad. Princeton in Africa provides an incomparable opportunity to gain entry-level experience with organizations who make sustainable changes in their communities.
BRANISHKA: I had recently received my Masters degree and was looking for a change when this fellowship appeared. It provided me with both professional and personal development as I had never lived outside of The Bahamas at that time. Unfortunately, I had somewhat of the negative stereotypes about persons from the western world and I was hesitant about moving to Africa. I did my research and realized that Zambia is a safe country. The CIDRZ fellowship was in my area of expertise, HIV, but more specifically, PMTCT. This was the only programme I actually applied to because I did not meet either the age or Nationality eligibility (they tend to be for persons from Sub-Saharan Africa or USA).
3. Have any dos (and don’ts) of the application process?
MICHAL: The application process is extensive and is opened at the end of August every year. I started mine soon after it was released. There are various info sessions at universities and online webinars during the application period, and then the application itself is due on October 30th. Applicants are notified about their status in late December and interviews are conducted on Princeton’s campus in early January. Although Skype interviews can be arranged, in-person interviews are preferred.
Applicants are then notified that they are in the “Applicant Pool” as Princeton Fellows in February – but then there is a whole second interview process in which are matched to organizations from February to May. Some fellows are placed early on, some are placed close to orientation, and a small number of people unfortunately aren’t placed. A major roadblock I had was getting an interview with an organization in April and not getting the fellowship position. I was then put back into the applicant pool where I got matched with my current fellowship post (only a month before orientation)!
FAITH: I began applying the fall before I planned on going to graduate school because they were due in January. The deadline for these programs have now changed to September. The process involved submitting a personal statement, two recommendations, financial need information, and optional GRE/GMAT scores. More info on the application process for Pickering can be found here. Next, I was notified that I made it to the interview stage. Interviews were held in D.C and I was currently living and working abroad in Nairobi, Kenya so I had to pay a flight to D.C which was a financial challenge. God came through! The program does cover travel expenses for those coming from other States in the US.
BRANISHKA: The application was pretty standard. You select your top three choices for placement. After application submission, I was emailed requesting additional information and a questionnaire to complete before my interview conducted via Skype. Months went by before I heard back from them so I actually pushed it out of my mind, until July 30 I received a text message from CIDRZ asking me to urgently check my email. They were offering me a place with the 2018-2019 Health Corp cohort! I had to make a decision ASAP and I am elated that I said yes.
LANICE: The application process was a bit long. Outside of the online application, there was a semi-finalist and finalist round. The semi-finalist and finalist portion of the process consisted of interviews. The semi-finalist interview usually is with a Global Health Corps community member, and the finalist interview occurs with the placement organization. The first time I applied for the fellowship was for the 2015-2016 fellowship class. However, I was not accepted into the program until my second time applying for the program.
4. What’s the best advice when applying to work abroad?
FAITH: The best piece of advice that I received was to write my statement of interest in a way that told a unique story about how my experiences so far prepared me for a life in the foreign service. For example I talked about how being a child of immigrant parents, and the idea of obtaining the American Dream, inspired me to join the Foreign Service in order to share those values with other countries and represent the diversity of Americans abroad as I work abroad.
LANICE: The best piece of advice I received during my application process is to “be patient and know that every happens in its appointed time.”
MICHAL: The process can be anxiety inducing when applying to a work abroad program. Be sure to keep other options open and apply to other programs! Also be mentally prepared for any outcome. There are so many factors that go into why people are accepted or rejected from opportunities, but you need to remind yourself that your affirmation needs to come from within – not from job opportunities or any other external factors. As I was getting closer to the PiAf orientation, I wasn’t matched to an organization. I had to remind myself that although I really wanted this opportunity, it’s not the end of the world or my professional career if I end up on a different path.
5. What’s the hardest part about living and working abroad?
BRANISHKA: The hardest thing about living abroad was being away from my family, friends, and missing so many life events. I missed three weddings, two births, and one high school graduation. Professionally, it was adjusting to a new work environment. It was as simple as going from having my own office with private bathroom, to know working at a cubicle on an open floor with no air conditioning. Despite these challenges with my work abroad, I became acclimated to life in Zed in a short time.
FAITH: The hardest part was not being 100% fluent in the local languages. Although I could understand French and knew a few words of Wolof, I felt left out of certain conversations and felt that I couldn’t truly express myself because of the language barrier.
MICHAL: I think the hardest part is getting stuck in the expat community. As someone from the African diaspora, I greatly value the connections I make with other women my age on the continent. Since I’m working a 9-5, it can be difficult to meet people my age. Making local friends can be difficult, but having that perspective during your time in a new country is invaluable. I encourage those thinking of living abroad to really get out of their way to make new friends. Join a sports club, attend dance or language classes, go to arts events, etc.). In any country you’ll get annoyed with little aspects of daily life being different and seemingly more difficult – such as not having central heating or not having the most convenient stores (hello, Target). Yet, these are truly minor issues that you overcome as you deal with culture shock.
6. What do prospective applicants HAVE to know?
LANICE: I will say that individuals should educate themselves about the application process and the program before applying. They should know that there will be challenges throughout the fellowship, but there are a community of people that will support them throughout the program and beyond.
BRANISHKA: Prospective applicants to work abroad should be patient during the application process. Once accepted to the fellowship, know that you are not tied down to one specific project. If there is another project that piques your interest, inquire about it and try to get on that team (provided your main project is not sacrificed in the process). At the beginning of your fellowship, you will most likely get frustrated and question your decision to be there. Talk it out with someone! I actually got to that point where I was headed to Emirates office to change my ticket. But I mentioned it to good friend (ONC) and he sat down and talked me off that ledge.
MICHAL: Be prepared for the waiting period of being matched to an organization. It’s anxiety inducing to hear radio silence on an opportunity that you really want, but just remember that the staff is putting in the work to match you to the best possible organization. Overall, I think the fellowship was very straightforward on what this opportunity would be which is a great entry-level experience that also requires a large degree of adaptability and flexibility. If you’re ready to step out of your comfort zone for a year and immerse yourself in a new country, this is a great fellowship.
FAITH: I would say you must be a U.S Citizen to apply for the fellowship and fellows must pass and maintain a security clearance throughout their fellowship. After the fellowship you are obligated to work for the U.S State Department as a Foreign Service Officer for at least 5 years.
7. Any tips on culture shock and cultural immersion?
BRANISHKA: I don’t think I experienced culture shock. Maybe it is because I was coming from a predominantly Black country and a lot of the things we do home I could see in the Zambian way of life. The fruits and vegetables were familiar to me, maybe called by a different name, but this made it easier for me to cook Bahamian foods for me and my Zambian friends. I tried to immerse myself in the culture by learning the language, but I failed at that. I tried to not only spend time with the expats and make friends with Zambians. I was adventurous with the foods, like crocodile ribs, but not adventurous enough to try Mopani (caterpillars).
FAITH: Since I had previously studied abroad in Senegal during undergrad, I knew a bit about what to expect culture wise but I did experience cultural burnout. I had a few moments of being frustrated with the language barriers and generally being unfamiliar with places. I immersed my self in the culture by hanging out with Senegalese co-workers and friends, attending sporting events, participating in Senegalese holidays, and learning how to cook Senegalese food.
MICHAL: My mom joined Foreign Service when I was 12 so I have traveled from a young age, but I have always experienced culture shock. Perhaps the most obvious part of culture shock in eSwatini so far has been communication differences. My boss expressed that she thinks Americans can passive aggressive because of their fear of offending others (talking with a lot of fluff instead of giving direct critiques) whereas, although I have found Swazis give direct opinions, I haven’t experienced direct communication when they are making requests/asking favors at work. We have laughed at the way we often misunderstand each other’s communication styles but it has also reinforced the point that, as a foreigner, it’s important for me to adapt and develop a communication style that resonates with the people in my new social and professional circles.
8. Did you travel during the fellowship? Give us details.
BRANISHKA: Moving to Lusaka afforded me the opportunity to do the maximum amount of traveling in the least amount of time. I visited South Luangwa, Mfuwe, in Eastern Province; Kitwe on the Copperbelt and Livingstone and Siavonga in Southern Province. I actually made three visits to Livingstone because I loved it so much. Mosi-oa-Tunya, aka Victoria Falls are a spectacular sight to see and swimming in Devil’s Pool was probably the craziest thing I have ever done in my life!
Additionally, I got to travel outside of Zambia to Zanzibar, UAE, Botswana, Mauritius and Kenya. I spent Christmas in Stone Town, Zanzibar and fell in love with the place. I don’t know if it’s because it was a substitute since I couldn’t afford the ticket home; or if it was the melting pot of Muslims and Christians living in harmony or the simplistic beauty of getting lost in the maze of old streets in Stone Town, but I just love that place!
MICHAL: I arrived in eSwatini about a month ago, so I feel like I’m still settling in but I am already planning trips to Capetown, Johannesburg, Durban, Maputo, Lusaka, Victoria Falls, etc. Southern Africa is a great region for travel!
FAITH: During my work abroad in Dakar, I got to go to Lac Rose which is the world’s only natural pink lake, the Museum of National Civilizations, and a Senegalese wrestling and soccer match.
LANICE: During my fellowship, I had the opportunity to travel to Tanzania. After my time in Tanzania, I traveled to Zanzibar and Tanzania.
9. Let’s talk money, budgeting & finances. Have any tips to share?
MICHAL: PiAf is straightforward work abroad program that details what is and isn’t covered on their website. I’d say the biggest expense fellows have to cover is the flight to and from the country. PiAf covers housing, gives a solid living stipend, provides medical insurance, and primarily covers the mid-year retreat. All fellows pay $75 to attend no matter where they are located on the continent or where the retreat will take place. There are definitely some costs on the fellows’ side, so it’s important to check out the website and see if it’s a feasible option.
I graduated in December and saved money from January-August, and I feel like I won’t dip into savings too much unless I want to take a large trip at some point this year. Further, each fellowship’s budget will look different due to the various countries and types of organization’s PiAf works with so often you won’t know your exact income for the year until you receive your offer letter
FAITH: Thankfully, Pickering provided $21,500 per year for tuition costs. This didn’t cover everything but it was a big help. Pickering also provides living stipend for housing during the school year, and a living stipend and housing were given for the two internships. I covered the remaining balance of my tuition by working on campus which came with a tuition credit.
LANICE: Before starting the fellowship, I worked a full-time job, so the change in how I paid was an adjustment. For the fellowship program, I gave up my apartment and moved into the housing that Global Health Corps provided to fellows. They also provided us with a utility stipend to cover the cost of utilities, health insurance, travel to training for the program, and professional development. I would recommend to save some money before starting the program and budget your finances each month.
BRANISHKA: The CIDRZ fellowship offers a monthly living stipend, accommodations, and medical insurance (that included vision and dental). I am coming from a country with a high cost of living. I found Zambia to be inexpensive for both food and accommodations, and I didn’t party a lot in Lusaka. That helped me save and allocate that money for traveling! I looked for specials and purchased tickets well in advance. My ticket to Dubai was bought three months in advance when Emirates had special fares available.
10. What was the best part of your experience abroad?
FAITH: The best part was deepening the relationships that I previously made in Senegal while I was studying abroad. It had been 5 years since I last visited and I was grateful that my old Senegalese host family and friends welcomed me back with open arms during my work abroad.
BRANISHKA: The best part of this work abroad experience was meeting so many new people and hearing about their lives, whether it was from my co-fellows or just random people I met while traveling solo. I was able to bond with the most amazing people and even though the interactions were brief, they will forever have an impact on me.
MICHAL: I guess this isn’t too applicable since I am just beginning, but I love immersing myself in the culture of a new country. My first month has been amazing with many braais (BBQs), the annual Umhlanga Reed Dance (a beautiful ceremony in which thousands of women all over eSwatini dance for the King and the Queen Mother), learning to drive in mountainous Mbabane, attending poetry and theatre events, and exploring night life with new friends.
11. To work abroad for an extended period of time can get lonely. Was that an issue for you?
FAITH: I did feel lonely at times. To combat this I would schedule skype calls with family and friends back home or cook foods that reminded me of home.
BRANISHKA: I did get lonely and felt sad, but thanks to technology, I was able to keep in touch with family and friends back home. Even with the six hour time difference. Making friends was easier for me because I was a part of a group. There were nine of us in the cohort and four of us were in the same carpool together at one point in time or another.
Also, I sat with the “cool kids” on my floor. I had a flatmate who introduced me to her friends as well. But I think my most random friendship happened when there was an urgent Facebook request in “Expat Zambia” for blood donation. I was willing to donate, but I did not drive. They arranged for a young lady to get me and she and I kept in touch and even made a spontaneous roadtrip together! My suggestion is do not get caught up in the “expat community”, you did not travel all the way to wherever just to hang with folks from your home.
MICHAL: Living abroad is lonely in the beginning. It’s important to be patient with yourself and remind yourself that you did one of the scariest things one can do – uproot your life to a new place where you know nobody. I look back to the semester where I directly enrolled into the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London and truly felt the loneliest I had ever felt for the two months. I began joining groups, like women’s football and the East Africa Society, and making friends in my flat. Two years later, one of my best friends that I made in London will be visiting me in eSwatini. Relationships take time to build, and my relationships in London definitely didn’t strengthen overnight. Appreciate the time you have on your own and use it to reflect and really think about what you want to gain from your time abroad.
LANICE: While I did not live abroad for my fellowship, I live in a city where I am not close to my family. There are times where things can get lonely. However, I have a great group of supportive friends.
12. What was the greatest lesson you learned from your fellowship abroad?
FAITH: One of the greatest lessons I learned from my work abroad program was it is important to create a balance when immersing yourself in another culture. Learning and adapting to another culture takes time and it is important to not forget your own culture and identity. That way, there can be true cultural exchange. For example, I had to stop being hard on myself for not learning French and Wolof as fast as I thought I should and instead embrace the progress I had made.
LANICE: I learned the importance of being flexible and that life begins outside of your comfort zone. I believe in following your dreams and never giving up in the face of adversity. Things may not always happens in our timing, but it all works out in its appointed time.
BRANISHKA: As cliché as this sounds, believe in yourself. Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t good enough to be there, but then I realized that if I were not good enough, I would not have been there. So I was able to build my professional confidence because of this fellowship and work abroad.
13. Alright, we’re at the end. Thanks for joining! Let us know where possible applicants can connect with you! Social media, website, anything!
FAITH: Possible applicants can reach me through email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for the opportunity to share my experience!