I’m really excited to share with you this week’s interview with an expat who is fulling embracing her experience abroad. Born in the U.S., and currently pursuing grad school abroad in Ireland, Amelia’s path towards becoming a global citizen first started back when she was in high school and spent a year living abroad in Sweden. You’ll have to read on to find out how that year in Scandinavia ignited her interest in Spanish and Latin American culture…
Tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Amelia and I am currently living in Dublin, Ireland. I am originally from the US, but have been living abroad for the past seven years with a brief stint back in the US in between. Currently I am doing a PhD in Dublin so will be here for a good few more years and then who knows! I enjoy playing soccer, (salsa) dancing, reading, running, good food and wine, travel and learning other languages. I am very passionate about Spanish, Spain and Latin American- something I have never been able to shake since my first interaction with Spanish speakers while living abroad.
What motivated you to move abroad?
I first moved abroad when I was sixteen to study abroad in Sweden for a year. The idea to move abroad was initially sparked by a former high school guidance counselor who told my class about a fully funded high school exchange program to study in Germany. I entered the competition and while I only ended up as a semi-finalist, another youth exchange organization offered me funding. Long story short, I ended up being placed in Sweden in a small town an hour from the Arctic Circle. That year altered my life course as well as presented me with the many new challenges and experiences. I learned Swedish, saw the northern lights, learned to live with the extreme contrasts of dark and light, and saw wild reindeer for the first time. Perhaps one of the most poignant experiences there was becoming friends with another exchange student from Argentina. Unlike most of the US which had experience large influxes of Spanish speaking migrants, my own home state, WV, had remained largely untouched by the cultural and linguistic influence of these migrants. It was only in Sweden, through my friend, that I began to hear Spanish and learn about the Argentinian culture. It was this experience that festered my love for Spanish and provided the impetus for my future travels to live abroad in Latin America and Spain.
Where all have you lived abroad? What place was your favorite and why?
I have lived in Sweden, Mexico, Peru, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Ireland. Favorite still probably has to be the two years I spent in Peru as a Peace Corps Youth Development volunteer. I lived in a village in the northern Andes Mountains and worked with a local Health Center and Municipality to facilitate public health awareness programs. While I had a good amount of Spanish under my belt, I was not prepared for the challenges of grass root community development, especially in another culture and language. Many projects did not pan out as I had expected and I quickly learned that establishing ‘confianza’ or trust with community members was just as important as the actual project. Establishing partnerships with community members to improve existing projects and programs was also far more effective than ‘reinventing the wheel.’ Probably one of the most effective projects was a youth radio program which involved partners from the health center, the municipality and the local radio station.
Most dear to me during those two years were my host family and friends; the individuals who were there for me during the good and bad days to laugh, cry, and talk for endless hours. I recently returned to Peru after five years to visit my host family and friends. As with being away from any place for that long you always worry that relationships may not withstand time. However, despite many changes (including new little ones!) the conversation and laughs flowed with ease. Peru holds a special place in my heart and I look forward to returning soon.
What’s the most difficult part about living abroad?
The most difficult part is the rollercoaster of emotions one experiences and sometimes all in one day! Each time I move to another country I have this idea that it will somehow be easier to adapt because I have lived abroad before. However, I have realized that no matter where I move to I still experience many of the same mix of feelings and they really are part of integrating in to a new place: being overwhelmed, excited, happy, sad, frustrated, loneliness, anxiety, sadness, etc. I think the most important thing is to recognize that these feelings are normal and they WILL pass. As you settle in and learn the language/culture the roller coaster of emotions eventually subside, or at least you don’t experience the shifts as frequently.
What’s the best part?
The best part is the stimulation you get from being immersed in a new country with all of the unknowns that experiencing something new presents. There are always new foods to try, new friends to make, new customs and traditions to experience and new sights to see. I think brains in general thrive when having to process so much ‘new.’ J
What have you learned from living abroad?
Keep busy, stay involved and network. I have learned that it is extremely important to get to know people both native to the country and also from abroad. It is so important to have a group of people you can turn to for support and advice. Generally, I have found making friends with other people who have lived abroad is fairly easy as you automatically have something in common, i.e. both living abroad and some of the challenges and adventures that come with that. While getting to know individuals from the country you live in can sometimes be a challenge, I can’t stress the importance of this. If you really want to learn another language and gain a better understanding traditions and cultures, these are the individuals who are the experts. They also know all of the ins and outs of their towns and countries and are great resources for negotiating bureaucracy, which I guarantee will follow you wherever you happen to live abroad.
What is your secret to keeping a positive attitude while living abroad?
I try to stay active and surround myself with a solid and supportive network of friends who I can rely on when things get tough and also share many laughs with J I am also an avid soccer player and runner, both of which help me not only stay healthy but gets the ‘feel good endorphins’ flowing as well as provides an outlet to meet new people!
What´s the best place you´ve ever traveled to?
It is probably between Machu Pichu, Peru and Crete, Greece. My first glimpse of Machu Pichu took me back to my ten year old self and my first glimpse of a photo of Machu Pichu in my history book. I never imagined I would have the opportunity to see it. Crete was my first official backpacking trip I took with a childhood friend, my brother, my mom and a Swedish exchange student we hosted my senior year of high school. What sticks in my mind from this trip is my first time seeing the blue Mediterranean, the smiles that would erupt as I greeted the older Greeks out for their morning strolls, and the shimmering waves of plankton I saw one evening on a remote beach.
Do you have a bucket list? Would you share with us a couple of things on that list?
1) Run a marathon 2) Watch a US Women’s World Cup soccer game 3) Travel to Asia 4) Finish the PhD! 5) Return to Peru to visit friends post-PhD 6) Learn another language at least to speaking proficiently ( still trying to get there with my French..)
Do you watch TED Talks? What´s your favorite one?
I don’t watch them a whole lot, but one that sticks in my mind is ‘The power of introverts’ by Susan Cain. Probably because I felt I could relate to many struggles of introverts.
What advice do you have for people who are considering moving abroad, but are feeling doubtful?
I think there is quote somewhere that says, ‘Life is too short to stay in one place.’ I truly believe this. Humans were hunters and gatherers moving from place to place long before settling permanently. We are actually very adaptable beings and the challenges of living abroad are natural processes of adapting to a new place. Living abroad opens up your mind to new languages, foods and ways of living that are not possible as a tourist. Don’t let you fears hold you back!
Thanks so much for being part of the interview series Amelia! Not only have you offered some great tips on how to navigate life abroad, but the variety of experiences you’ve lived overseas certainly has inspired me to start daydreaming about other places I’d like to call home abroad!
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!