Alumni Column – Living and Working Abroad

At last month’s “Real World” weekend, over 100 seniors attended a panel on the topic of living and working abroad. Most wanted to know how to obtain work visas or jobs abroad, but the more interesting issue we examined was why someone would want to live abroad in the first place.

Having lived in London since 1982, I can certainly think of a few good reasons that work for me!

By far the biggest draw has been the opportunity to live among friends I met while studying outside the U.S. They provide different perspectives and diversified interests that expand my own take on the world.

A second reason was the feeling of excitement that came with being in a different culture. At times being from another country made me an exotic center of attention — a distinct advantage when meeting people in both a career and a personal context! And there’s a certain inspiration that comes from the feelings of risk and thrill associated with doing something not many other people are prepared to do.

There’s also the extra independence that goes with living abroad. By the time I graduated Colgate I had been thoroughly socialized as an American. Much of that process happened unconsciously or at such a young age that I didn’t have much say in how it happened. It’s exciting to go through it again as an adult. It was a bit of an assault on the senses at times. But it provided me with a whole other level of freedom of choice as I compared and contrasted the alternative ways of doing things.

But perhaps the best reason of all was the challenge. I had reached a point in my life, about five years after graduating Colgate, when I realized that if I didn’t try living abroad, I would go through the rest of my life wondering, “What if I had?” That’s no way to live life.

Another side to the challenge was recognizing that once I settled in London I would need to gain control over my situation. What I mean is that I had to establish myself before I could really know if it was right for me. Returning to New York with my tail between my legs because I couldn’t afford to live in the city of my choice would have been unthinkable. If I returned, it would only be because I wanted to.

Of course there are many ways to achieve the objective of living and working abroad. You can get a job with a big company and get posted abroad. The Peace Corps – Colgate ranks tenth among all small colleges and universities producing Peace Corps volunteers – offers excellent opportunities after a relatively short training period. The path I selected, and the one I can tell you something about, was to acquire a visa to work as a self-employed individual.

I had no intention of working or living abroad as I approached graduation from Colgate. I had been on two study groups, to Barbados and Britain, and had thoroughly enjoyed them. While I had a great experience majoring in social anthropology, at that stage of my life I had more commonplace priorities.

I wasn’t ready yet for the “real” world and, like many others before me, fell back on further education as a means of delaying my entry into it. I concluded that a law degree would give me a commercial value, please my family and perhaps allow me to be taken more seriously at a younger age when I finally entered the business world.

To make a career in law more interesting, I gave my degree an international angle by taking specialist courses in admiralty law. I attended a further study group in Britain on European Law.

In the semester I studied law in England, I met friends who are still among my best. During the four years I practiced law in New York City, many of them flew over to begin travels through North and South America by spending a couple of months with me. I also took vacations to Barbados in order to strengthen my ties there.

The law firm I joined gave me the opportunity to internationalize my law practice, but after four years I had outgrown that firm and needed to move on to find more opportunity. I was 26, living in a rented flat, did not own a car and had recently split up with a girlfriend. English friends had just traveled through on their way home from Argentina, and the thought came to me: “Why not work and live in London?”

Applying my personal history to the UK visa system today, under which you need 75 points to qualify for the applicable visa, a 26-year-old American with a law degree who earns $60,000 scores 115 points. The only other requirement is to arrive with at least $4,000 to cover initial living expenses.

So the legal requirements aren’t really the issue. I recommend you look within, examine why you might want to live and work abroad and then consider how you would go about pursuing your goal. In my case the thought took a few years to mature into a decision, but once made, I wanted it enough that nothing was going to stand in my way.