What´s it Like to Teach at an International School? Meet Sarah!
9 min read Along with providing online therapy to individuals around the world, I also post an Interview Series on this…
9 min read
Along with providing online therapy to individuals around the world, I also post an Interview Series on this website where I share the stories of global citizens throughout the world who have moved abroad, are traveling the globe or are transitioning to life back at home.
This week´s interview features Sarah Ketchum, a high school social studies teacher who loves to read, hike, and bike. Sarah and her husband Andrew both enjoy travel and serving others, so when an opportunity arose to volunteer and teach at an international school in La Paz, Bolivia (Highlands International School), they took it! In July 2016, the pair left their Midwest home for South America, and they have loved becoming part of their new community, learning a new culture, and adventuring in a new part of the world. You can read more about the Ketchums and their adventures at ketchusifucan.wordpress.com.
Hi Sarah! Thanks so much for being part of this interview series. Can you tell us about the first time you left your home country and what your life was like before that?
I grew up in a small town with parents who enjoyed travelling… within the U.S. I was never really exposed to international travel until I went to college. My first overseas trip took me to Greece for a month-long study abroad and I absolutely fell in love. I am a history teacher, so seeing the acropolis in Athens and other historical sites got me so fired up! I also really enjoy learning about different cultures and their origins, and travel is the best way to do that. After that first experience I couldn’t get enough. I really wanted to find a way to travel and pursue my career of teaching, so when it came to my senior year I signed up to student teach at an international school. I was randomly placed at a school in Prague, Czech Republic. This experience was a stretching one as it was the first time I had ever traveled internationally by myself! It was a tough few months as I struggled with loneliness, getting around in a country where I knew very, very little of the language, and the workload of student teaching. However, this experience was completely eye opening for me! I realized that I could live abroad – I could survive and figure out a new place and love it! – and I realized that it was something I wanted to do for my more permanent career.
What motivated you to move to Bolivia?
As I said before, my experience of student teaching in an international school made me realize that I wanted to live and work abroad. I love working with students from all over the world and having those different cultural backgrounds and perspectives in my classroom! I learn as much from them as they do from me! My husband also spent a lot of time abroad as a kid because his father runs an organization in Ghana called Mission Resource that provides loans for struggling entrepreneurs, so he was definitely open to the idea of living overseas again.
The decision to move was still a big one. For one thing, my husband is not an educator, so we had to figure out his job situation. For another, we are both very family oriented, and the idea of leaving the Midwest where both of our families lived within driving distance and possible missing weddings, graduations, births, and other big moments in our families’ lives was heartbreaking. Two things finally pushed us over the edge to just do it! One was the support of both sets of our parents. While they miss us, they have been super encouraging of us and want us to pursue our dreams. Another was the way that everything seemed to fall perfectly into place for us to move to La Paz. We truly believe that the Lord provided for us to be here – from Andrew getting a remote job in his field to the awesome school community we have become part of and are able to serve in. Essentially everything we could have hoped for in a move abroad has happened for us!
What’s the most difficult part about travel or living outside of your home country? How do you overcome these difficulties?
For me, the most difficult part about living abroad is being far from family and friends. Living an expensive plane ride away makes it impossible to be present for events like weddings and births of little cousins and holiday celebrations. It’s even harder to be away for the tough times, like an ailing grandparent or accident involving your loved one. Thankfully, these days it is not so hard to stay in touch. With things like Facebook and iMessage and especially Skype, it is easier to stay connected and actually be able to see those you miss. It is really just about being intentional to call those people up and chat.
And what’s the best part about travel and living outside of your home country?
Oh man, there are so many wonderful things about living abroad! Specifically in Bolivia I just love how many outdoor and adventure activities there are to experience. Bolivia is a country of diverse and unique landscapes, from the second largest plateau in the world, to the snowcapped Andes, to the jungle, to the world’s largest salt flats – there is so much natural beauty to see and explore!
The thing I love best about living outside of the U.S. in general is having my mind opened in tons of different ways. So often we have these cultural blind spots – things that we think are “normal” that are really on relative to our own backgrounds! This can be something as big as a religious belief or as small as assuming people will show up on time to an event. Getting outside your home country and outside of your comfort zone opens your mind to so many new things. For example, in South America, time is viewed differently than in Western societies. People are more valued than tasks, and this has been a lifestyle and mindset I have really appreciated. While it annoyed me at first for people to show up late to events, now I value the fact that they were late because they were having a conversation with their loved one or spending that extra time to really ask how someone they met on the street was feeling and listened to their answer. Living here has taught me a lot about the value of relationships, among other things.
What is one thing in your new country you wish everyone could see?
Lake Titicaca! It is absolutely gorgeous.
What has living outside of your home country taught you about life?
There are two main things I have learned through this expat experience. The first is that people are so different. The second is that people are so similar. J That might sound silly, but it’s true. People here speak Spanish. They shop for their groceries in large street markets instead of supermarkets. A lot of people here dress as “cholitas,” with big skirts and bowler hats. People view time differently and tend to be more indirect. There are a lot of differences, but those differences are awesome! There’s a ton to be learned from diversity. Even with these differences, people are the same. They get fired up about the success of their favorite sports team. Grandmothers still spoil grandchildren. My high schoolers here worry about the same things my high school students in the states worried about – being liked by their peers, getting into a good college, having attention and approval of who they are. Living abroad helps you appreciate both the diversity and the unity of humanity.
What are 3 things on your bucket list?
Andrew and I really want to get to Patagonia while we live in South America. We love to backpack, hike, and rock climb, so Patagonia is definitely #1 on our bucket list!
I´d also really love to visit the British Isles someday. Andrew and I both have Scottish ancestry and I have never been there!
We’d also both really like to visit Vietnam and Southeast Asia. The photos look amazing and it would definitely be a new cultural learning experience.
What advice do you have for people who are considering relocating to a new country, but are feeling doubtful?
Just do it! There will always be a reason not to go, and there will never be a “perfect” time to pack up and move. Right after we had accepted the job at Highlands International School, we found out that my grandpa had an advanced case of pancreatic cancer. I second-guessed myself, thinking that now wasn’t the right time to move, I should stay with my family. However, my grandpa is the very person who convinced me to go! He said he was proud of us for taking a leap of faith, trying something new, and pursuing our goals. It was tough to be away during this time, but it was also so rewarding. There will always be an excuse or a reason to wait, but you could wait forever and never have a stress free time to move. Just do it!
Do you have a favorite quote, book, movie, TED Talk, etc?
I have tons of favorite books, but one two that relate a lot to my relocation experience are “1491” and “1493”, both written by Charles C. Mann. These books are in the genre of historical journalism. The first, “1491,” is about the Americas before Columbus, and the second, “1493,” is about the impacts of those two worlds colliding. Obviously, I am a history nerd, so I loved these books, and living here in Bolivia has been awesome because I’ve been able to see a lot of the places and things talked about in these books in real life! For example, Tiwanaku, a ruin of a large, pre-Incan empire in South America, is only a 2-hour drive from where we live now! If you enjoy history at all, I highly recommend these books. They are super interesting and read more like a magazine article than a textbook.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself before starting this journey?
Pack more trekking gear and less clothes! I do love my clothes, but honestly, living in Bolivia for the first few months without our gear was the worst! There are so many backpacking trails to hike and rocks to climb… Wherever you travel, pack the things that are going to give you amazing memories and experiences, not the things that will make your Instagram photos look good.
What do you hope people say about you on your 70th birthday?
That I never stopped learning, and that I loved other people well.
Thank you so much Sarah for giving us a glimpse of what it´s like to teach at an international school and experience life abroad in Bolivia. If you want to connect with Sarah and her husband Andrew you can check out their blog at ketchusifucan.wordpress.com/ or Pinterest. I´m certainly going to be getting in touch for any future trips to Bolivia!
If you’re living outside of your home country or are an avid traveler and want to be featured in a future interview, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!
About the author of Intentional Expat: Melissa Parks moved from Seattle (USA) to Madrid in 2009 to spend what was supposed to be just a year abroad working as an English teacher. Over 7 years later she’s still in Europe and recently relocated to Amsterdam. She currently works as a psychologist providing online therapy for people living outside of their home country and her favorite hobbies include travel, meditation, yoga, SUP, dance, and writing.