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Why you should go abroad for travel and life experience

Photo courtesy of Brittany Thurston

What are you planning to do next year?

It’s the dreaded question you’ve spent four (or five or six) years avoiding. As you register for convocation and start putting your resume together, the question is becoming more urgent and you’re feeling the pressure to come up with something better than casual avoidance.

Before you scramble to throw together grad school applications and add to your astounding balance of student debt, consider going abroad to teach in South Korea.

Brittany Thurston, a second-year master’s student in international development and globalization at the University of Ottawa, taught in Korea three years ago and credits her experience with providing invaluable life lessons and ultimately influencing the direction she’s taken with her career.

“Obviously I started on a very different path from the one I’m currently on,” she says.

Originally from Rhode Island, Thurston did her undergrad in advertising and marketing communications at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and did a semester abroad in Italy.  When she graduated in 2008, the recession had impacted the job market, so she decided to travel to Korea because it was the easiest place to find work overseas with a non-teaching degree.

She took a certificate before leaving, although it wasn’t necessary to get the job. She says it helped her with lesson planning, but “nothing really prepares you for that first day when you step in front of 20 children who can actually smell the blood in the water.”

As the first foreign language teacher her school had ever employed, Thurston was able to help create the curriculum, as well as design marketing material.

While she did become a better teacher, after 18 months she left because she felt she had got everything she could out of the experience and knew she “didn’t want to be a teacher forever.”

Her time in Korea served as a step towards working in global development. When she finished her contract, she backpacked and volunteered in India, then taught in Vietnam before coming to the U of O. Through her program here, she’s been able to go to Malawi for her co-op which helped change her focus from education to health.

“Korea’s a good starting point because it’s very organized,” she says. “The whole experience was very controlled. They took you step by step.”

Teaching contracts in Korea typically include airfare there and back, a furnished apartment, health insurance, and a contract completion bonus. With a lower cost of living than Canada, it’s an opportunity to pay down student debt and bulk up your savings account while you figure out what you want to do.

Thurston says the ideal person to go to Korea is “someone who’s open-minded, not easily defeated. I think you have to have a bit of a hard shell, not take things too personally.”

She also says it’s a great way to be a different and better version of yourself.

“If you’re kind of an introvert and maybe a little shy, I found that going to Korea, I was able to really explore a different side of me,” she says. “Not to have a different personality, but to be able to step outside of my comfort zone and speak up a little bit more.”

The culture shock of living in a new country can be intense at times, but Thurston says that ultimately “the highs are really rewarding, so it’s worth it.”