Helen Godfrey, MA, NCC, BCC, LPC

Career & Life Coach; Licensed Professional Counselor in Houston, Texas

5 Compelling Reasons You Should Study Abroad or Work Overseas for at Least 1 Year

Learn about yourself

Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.-Seneca

You don’t know what you don’t know and until you live in another country, you will not really understand your own culture. Why is this? We assume that how we do things is the way everyone does things.  When I lived in Japan, I lived right near a noodle shop which was near the train station-a pretty loud place. Actually, I was referring to the noodle shop. As I was walking by, I heard some interesting sounds. I was confused for a moment ….I looked around… Oh! As I was passing by the noodle shop I saw that everyone was vigorously slurping their noodles. I was a little bit surprised, to say the least, considering I come from a culture where I was taught to NOT slurp my soup in no uncertain terms.

As I walked by the noodle shop I thought, “Well, if you are using chopsticks to eat noodle soup…how else might you eat it?” It was a small observation but, for me, it was an eye-opener:  What other areas of my life was I seeing as 1 non-negotiable choice? There are a lot of gray areas in life where there is not necessarily right/wrong, good/bad…there are just different ways of doing things. It opened my eyes to all the possibilities and choices we have in different situations. It made me stop and reflect on the choices I was making while I lived there too. What was normal? What was polite? Impolite? Gracious?

Learn about others

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.-St. Augustine

When I lived in Europe, Africa, and Japan, I was very conscious that I may be the only American that people met. I wanted to make sure I made a good impression and offended as few people as possible. Being in a new culture means acclimating to the differences even when you don’t know the differences. Sometimes I learned things by accident. As much as you read and study a culture, there is really nothing like living there. Although understanding some generalizations about a culture can be helpful, of course, that is painting with a pretty broad brush. There are individual differences, regional differences, generational differences…the list goes on. Half the fun is learning, many times, accidentally.

One of my favorite stories was when I visited on of my friends in London.  We went to visit one of her friends who had the most gorgeous cat I’d ever seen. Really. This cat was so pretty, she looked fake. I looked at her friend and said, “Your cat is so gorgeous that she looks like a stuffed animal.” I didn’t expect her reaction. Her eyes got really wide and I could tell I said something wrong even though that was not my intention. I was trying to give her a compliment. When my friend and I left I brought it up to her. Well, apparently, in England, a stuffed animal refers to taxidermy. WHOA. Well, I definitely wouldn’t have guessed that! In case you are American and wondering how they say “stuffed animal” in the UK well, they say, “a cuddly toy.” Yes. Yes, they do. Grown-ups walk into a toy store to buy a stuffed animal for their niece/nephew and ask for a cuddly toy. Hahaha! I love it! So, here we are supposedly speaking the same language (she says I speak “American” not English so I will give her that) and we ran into those differences. Imagine when you are using a completely different language. You guessed it-mistakes will happen, differences will arise and, at least in my experience, those make the best stories. When you travel, leave plenty of room in your suitcase for humility, a sense of humor and a willingness to be vulnerable. You will need all 3 when you are in a new country.

Learn or improve your language skills

The limits of my language are the limits of my world.-Ludwig Wittgenstein

Learning a new language can be overwhelming. I completely overwhelmed myself when I was in high school and was required to take 2 years of a foreign language. I thought, “I should study at least 3 hours a day.” What I actually did?  Very little. My goals were simply too high. I decided to break my gigantic goals into bite sizes. I decided to study just 10 minutes a day and honestly, it didn’t feel like such slow progress would get me anywhere at the time. However, the cumulative effect of gradually building my vocabulary and really learning the material, as opposed to just memorizing it for a test, worked like a charm and is a strategy that I continue to employ when I have gigantic, overwhelming and wonderful goals.

My 2 years of required French in high school turned into the foundation for amazing, life changing experiences.  Long story short, I ended up majoring in French in college, studying abroad in France and living in a francophone country in West Africa for 3 years.  At the time, I had no idea that French would change my life.

The great thing about learning a language is: no matter what you learn, you will be able to use it at some point.  I’ve loved being able to speak French. I wasn’t raised bilingually so my French isn’t perfect and it probably never will be but  I can get by and I’ve met some wonderful people whom I wouldn’t have met without it. Not only that, it is so rewarding to speak another language. For me, it’s been fun to find my sense of humor using French. It’s hard to explain but it’s a little bit different than my humor in English. The essence of me is the same but speaking French allows me to explore a part of myself I wouldn’t have accessed without it. As Charlemagne said, “To have another language is to possess a second soul.”


Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.-Helen Keller

Going somewhere new can really change your perspective. It gives you a deep sense of appreciation for your own country, for the country that you are visiting and for all the people you leave behind and meet along the way. It gives you fresh eyes in which to see the world and makes the world feel more rich, more interesting and, at the same time more personal. At least in my experience, regardless of where I’ve lived, I’ve always met amazing people and they showed me that we are more the same that different.

Convinced? Things to consider before you go:

Looking for the adventure of a lifetime? Do you want to learn about yourself? Meet amazing, lifelong friends? See the world? If you said, “Yes!”  (Wow! Some of you were pretty loud –I heard you all the way over here!) Living and working overseas may be the perfect solution. Before you pack your bags, here are some things you may want to ask yourself:

  • Am I in a financial position where I could volunteer? Will I have a place to stay when I get back to the States and I am trying to get back on my feet?
  • Am I willing to commit, depending on the program, at least 1 year to the company where I accepted the offer? (Keep in mind, if you have never lived abroad, culture shock can hit you pretty hard. You may want to give up. Be patient. This too will pass and my very biased opinion is: you will benefit greatly from hanging on.)
  • What is my plan after I get back to the States?
  • Do I want to live in the States or would like to be a globe hopper? If the latter, do I want to pick a country to stay put?
  • What am I hoping I will learn by living overseas? What skills am I trying to acquire? Language? Technical? Industry specific? Is any experience is a good experience because I am an entry level applicant?

Here is a final quote to consider as you potentially embark upon your new adventure: To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.-Bill Bryson

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