When and where did you work abroad? What was your position?
From 2012 to 2019, I worked for Doctors Without Borders on seven different contracts of various lengths in Kenya, Laos, Ethiopia, Liberia, Kyrgyzstan, South Sudan and Sierra Leone as a Construction and Logistics Manager. In February of 2020, I began working for the US Department of State in Sri Lanka as Operations and Maintenance Transition Coordinator.
What made you want to work abroad?
In 2009, I left my job in commercial construction to backpack and volunteer around the world. One and a half years later, when I returned to the US, I sought a job that would enable me to continue to travel and provide assistance to communities in need.
Describe the application, interview, and selection process. What made you successful?
Because of my construction and international travel experience, I was quickly hired by Doctors Without Borders USA (MSF USA). Their hiring needs vary, but at the time they were in need of Logistics Managers. I submitted an online application and they called me for a quick phone interview. Before hiring me, they flew me to their office in New York for a two-day orientation about what the job entails. It requires highly motivated people to thrive in low-resource environments. From application to hire, this process took about two months.
The application process for the State Department was quite different; it was seemingly impossible! Typically, State Department vacancies are only open for two or three weeks. So the first obstacle is finding a job posting that fits your skill set. Setting alerts on their job site is the best way to stay up-to-date. Once I submitted my application for Foreign Service Specialist, it took eight months before I got a call back. This wait time varies based on the position and the hiring queue. Fortunately, the interview process is quick. After receiving a conditional job offer from a successful interview, you must pass a medical, security and suitability check. This process varies greatly based upon your background. For me, it took two years!
Did you participate in extra-curricular or social activities through your work abroad? If so, how did they differ from social activities in your home culture?
I take a rugby ball with me wherever I go. I have done everything from playing catch with co-workers to having friendly games in the community to coaching youth teams. In many of the places that I’ve worked, rugby is a new sport and people are eager to learn the basics. I don’t think that differs very much from what I’ve experienced in the US.
What made your work experience abroad a success?
Working for Doctors Without Borders can be extremely challenging but the rewards are immediate and inspirational. Among others, I have helped HIV patients get treatment in Kenya, provided a water supply for a district hospital in Laos, renovated health care facilities for refugees in Ethiopia and maintained a functioning Ebola treatment center in Liberia.
How did you finance your trip abroad and did you find any creative solutions to stay on budget?
Both of my employers have provided nearly 95% of the financing for my trips abroad. From visa fees to airport transportation to housing and food. I think it’s very important to discuss what is and is not covered in a work contract before agreeing to its terms. Because my financing has always been covered, I find it very easy to stay on budget. I mainly use my wages for food and extra-curricular activities.
What was the biggest challenge in adapting to your international work environment?
My biggest challenge was working in Laos with a translator. I work in construction and my translator had no background in the technical aspects of what we were doing. So, in order to communicate with the construction team, I had to first describe what I expected and needed to the translator, who then explained to the workers. If the translator did not understand what I was talking about, the conversations were pointless. As a result, I found myself doing a lot of teaching and explaining, just so that I could get basic tasks accomplished from the workers.
How did you deal with the cultural divide in the workplace?
My biggest cultural challenge was trying to facilitate construction activities during Ramadan. When I was in Sierra Leone, Ramadan occurred at the height of summer and trying to get workers to do heavy labor tasks in 95-degree weather with no food or water in their system felt wrong. I had to concede that productivity would be completely lost for the entire month. For me, maintaining their faith (and health) was more important than the work we were doing.
What did you miss most about home?
The convenience of and access to food is probably the biggest luxury of living in the US. For instance, in Sierra Leone the grocery store closed at 6pm and on Sundays, so that essentially limited my shopping to Saturday only. In Laos, I brought a box of cake mix to celebrate my birthday, however there were no ovens in the entire village; everything was fried! In Ethiopia I discovered that during the month-long orthodox Easter holiday, meat would no longer be available at my local market or restaurant.
Any further thoughts on your cross-cultural experiences?
I've had quite a few times in the workplace where I learned that my American style of operating clashed with foreign work culture. Typically, in American construction time is money; the faster you complete a task, the more money you can save in the long run. But in a lot of other cultures rushing and pressuring people to perform tasks is considered rude. In Kenya, I quickly learned the Swahili term "pole pole", which means slow down or take your time. It was frustrating because I felt that productivity was being lost, but part of moving abroad is learning how to adapt to a new culture. If they move slowly, no amount of pushing or follow-up is going to speed things along.
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps by working abroad?
If signing a contract prior to moving abroad, I highly recommend discussing your terms and conditions in detail. Some of the more important details that you should solidify before leaving are:
- How your visa process works (Do you need a visa prior to leaving? Do you need to convert a tourist visa to a work visa? Who covers the fees? Who does the paperwork? etc.)
- What are your accommodations (Do they provide hotel/housing? Will you need to find your own housing? Is there communal living? etc.)
- Transportation (Do they provide flights to and from the host country? Will they pick you up at the airport? How will you get to work each day? etc.)
- Pay, per diem (if necessary), holidays and sick leave
- Medical and travel insurance
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
I am on a two-year contract with the State Department. When this contract ends, I will renew it and move on to my next assignment.
Carille already knows what’s next for her global career, though she doesn’t know where in the world her next State Department contract will take her. We commend her for her hard work and willingness to adapt to life and work in multiple nations and cultures, meeting the challenges of cross-cultural communication and immersion head-on. Her story offers a great example of how a passion for globetrotting can lead to a lifetime abroad, and how the dedication of organizations like Doctors Without Borders can impact developing nations. Since Carille is already pursuing a highly international career, we simply say: Bravo! For those wishing to follow in her footsteps, check out this further reading on the MyWorldAbroad site.
- MyWorldAbroad features a full section of advice for those interested in working in NGOs & International Development.
- Those in construction and engineering should dive into Engineering Careers Abroad
- For those who spend long periods of time working abroad, it's important to keep track of all the skills you're building. Find guidance in An Inventory of Cross-cultural Skills.