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The Risks & Rewards of Teaching Abroad

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At 20 years old, Roscoe Mathieu had an associate’s degree in international studies, but no concrete idea of what he wanted to do with his life. He decided to teach English in China. About a year later, when he returned to the U.S. to find work, but couldn’t because of the Great Recession, he knew could always go back to China to teach. So he did.

Mathieu is hardly unique. He is one of the estimated 250,000 native English speakers who teach the language abroad in one of the more than 40,000 language schools across the globe.

There are as many reasons to teach abroad as there are places to do it. Some want the international experience. Others find it an easy next step after graduation when the future is uncertain – though a college degree isn’t always required for these positions. Making your way into a foreign country and finding a job teaching English isn’t necessarily all that difficult — it’s keeping your finances in order that’s often the tricky part.

“I was looking for work in California during the Great Recession without a bachelor’s degree, so you can imagine how that worked out,” Mathieu said. “While I wouldn’t make a ton of real money in China I would make enough to live on, and I would have enough time to actually study online. I bring this up because China is a good place if you want to buy time.”

There are hundreds of programs available to English-speakers who want to teach in other countries, but the experience you have, the ease of living abroad and your financial stability will all ultimately be determined by the program you choose and the country in which you teach. For some, it’s an easy way to live comfortably and travel widely, all while saving a ton of money. For others — well, it’s a bit messier than that.

Your First Barrier: Getting Out of the U.S.

There’s a lot to be gained from living and working abroad, personally and professionally. But first, you have to get there. That can be as simple as buying a one-way ticket to the country of your choice and figuring out the visa and employment details later (not the most secure route), or you can apply to go through a program.

No matter how you approach it, however, getting abroad takes money. Even if you plan to participate in a selective program that covers your travel costs, you still have to invest a great deal of time and effort in order to qualify for it in the first place. Most reputable programs reimburse some or all of your travel expenses, but you have to pay upfront, and you’ll probably need to arrive with money in hand to get set up before you receive your first paycheck — if you ever get one.

Mathieu, now an author in Pismo Beach, Calif., went to China to teach English in 2006, but he quit after two months because of payment and visa issues with his program. As much of a nightmare as that would be, he managed to stay in China for a year, taking a variety of English-teaching jobs.

“After that first disastrous work relationship, I heard a joke over there that there’s two ways to find a job teaching English abroad,” Mathieu says. “Number one is you can do it the safe way and look up a program online, apply online, they send you a visa and you get on a plane. And then there’s the bad–s way, where you go over to the country with a small stockpile of savings and you go looking for a job on foot. I can definitely say, for China, the bad–s way is safer.”

He left in 2007 but returned in 2010, staying for four years while he earned his bachelor’s degree online. That first stint in China left him with a bunch of credit card debt, triggered in part by his disastrous first two months in the country — he says his program never paid him, never reimbursed him for his travel expenses and didn’t help him get the proper visa, as he says they promised they would— but he eventually reconciled his finances. His experiences and the contacts he made were well worth the cost, he says.

Staying Connected to Home — Or Not

Moving to a different country doesn’t suspend your responsibilities in the U.S. If you have student loans, you need to pay them or get them deferred, if you qualify. That credit card you’re using abroad? The bill isn’t going to pay itself.

Melissa Mesku knew teaching English abroad wasn’t going to help her pay the bills back home, so she bought a plane ticket to Guatemala shortly after her college graduation in 2003, knowing she’d have to live off savings. As part of that plan, she left behind pre-written checks for her student loans, which her parents sent to her student loan servicer every month. For others, paying bills from abroad proved problematic.

Mathieu tried paying his credit card bills from his Chinese bank account, but it rarely worked. When transfers didn’t go through, he missed payments, and his credit suffered as a result.

Luis Aponte, an author and screenwriter in Lake Worth, Fla., had a similar experience when he went to China to teach English in 2003 to 2004. He didn’t go there thinking he’d make a lot of money  — it was all about the experience for him — but even though he could live comfortably in China, unfavorable exchange rates and difficulty communicating with his banks in the States made finances a challenge.

“I didn’t realize I wasn’t going to be able to make those payments,” Aponte says of his credit card bills. “There was a problem transferring my money from my Chinese bank to my American bank.” He also deferred his student loans. Now, more than a decade later, he says his credit has recovered from the financial hiccups he encountered.

For some, teaching abroad proved to be an opportunity to escape the high costs of American life. Heather Colb spent some time doing office work after she graduated, then taught in the U.S. for two years. She moved to Bangkok, Thailand, to teach social studies at an international school when she was 31 years old. She says she earned a comparable salary to what she would have made teaching in the U.S., but living and traveling in Asia was cheap.

“My money wouldn’t have gone as far had I stayed in the States,” Colb says. She admits she’s not great with managing money, but she had the opportunity to save more while in Thailand. She saved enough that after four years in Thailand, she could afford the expense of moving back to the U.S. and renting an apartment while she looked for full-time work.

Colb, now a teacher in Buckeye, Ariz., also had problems keeping up with her accounts in the U.S., because communicating with banks and creditors was a huge challenge. Her parents helped her with that obstacle.

“It was definitely a must having someone in the States that I could trust to deal with my financial stuff,” Colb says. “Otherwise I’m not sure it would have been taken care of.”

The True Cost of Time & Experience

The former teachers had a lot in common: Managing their money remotely required some flexibility and patience, but the life and career experiences they earned were worth the financial ups and downs. Anyone living abroad, no matter how well supported they may be at home or by host programs, needs to be prepared for such obstacles.

Mesku said teaching abroad didn’t help her save or earn much of a living while she did it, but it certainly paid off in other ways.

“For a person that just came out of the school system, lines on a resume are actually social capital,” Mesku says. “They were a huge help in my career trajectory.” While waiting on a visa to teach in Saudi Arabia, Mesku worked as a corporate English teacher in New York, and by the time the visa came through, she decided to stay where she is. Mesku now edits a magazine she founded, New Worker, in New York.

Mathieu says he has capitalized on business contacts he made while in China, and his encounters have greatly influenced his career as a writer. “I’m speaking entirely from my experience teaching in the second world here — develop business contacts while you’re teaching, or develop a side project while you’re teaching or both. … Develop a basis for a different career while you’re teaching.”

What to Do If You Want to Teach Abroad

With all the opportunities there are to live and work abroad, particularly teaching English, there’s a lot of potential to live affordably early in your career. If you plan well, you have the potential to save a lot of money. Some Americans move abroad as part of a strategy to pay off their student loans — with the right program in a country with a favorable exchange rate, it can be an effective plan.

No matter why you go, it’s crucial to stay connected to what you left behind. People who live abroad for many years often let their credit activity fall dormant, potentially leaving them without a credit history when they return. (To get an overview of your credit history, you can get your free credit report summary at Credit.com, updated monthly.)

Without a credit history, it can be difficult to obtain lines of credit and can make other things — like rent an apartment or get utilities set up in your name — a little more complicated.

“It’s not uncommon,” said Rod Griffin, Experian’s director of public education. Maintaining a credit card — while making sure you can pay the bills — is generally the easiest way to keep your credit alive while out of the country.

“In order to have a credit history and a credit report in the U.S. you have to have open active credit accounts with U.S. lenders,” Griffin said. “Your U.S. credit history doesn’t follow you across borders.”

As for the rest of it — the foreign ATM fees, the initial cost of getting to another country, the ability to make a living wage in a different currency — the costs and advantages need to be weighed carefully before you hop on a plane. International experience could jumpstart your career and your savings, but be aware of the potential for damage along the way.

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Main image courtesy of Heather Colb

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