What is it like to work on-site in Thessaloniki, Greece with 200 first-semester students? The Commission for Global Dimensions of Student Development recently put out a call for blogs, and I was excited to share my insight to the unique and challenging opportunity to work as a student affairs professional abroad.
For many of us, we found this line of work after being in awe by our own life-shaking education abroad experience. We love working with students, are passionate about education, and the fact that we get to support an educational experience abroad for college students is the icing on the cake.
What may be difficult to anticipate as an international educator entering this role is the all-encompassing nature of this work. This is the expectation that you are available for all of the late-night visits to the hospital, that you sleep with one ear open in the event that your emergency on-call phone rings, and that you lead by example 24/7 in a residential community that to some might feel like a fish bowl.
I could have told you after my first semester working on-site in Thessaloniki, Greece that this role has its challenges. I saw some of my coworkers struggle with the degree of ambiguity, lack of routine, and lack of community outside of our work lives. In these types of roles where the boundaries between work life and personal life dance around a narrow margin, it is important to ensure that this role is a good fit for you as an individual and that you have clear expectations of what’s ahead.
I would give you a run-down of my daily life abroad, except that every day was different. The things that I loved about this role were flexible work hours, an amazing group of talented, curious, and ambitious students, and in the case of Greece, fried feta cheese. Sometimes, this role allowed for lesson planning in my PJs in the middle of the day, or grading papers in one of Thessaloniki’s character-packed quaint cafes. Sometimes, I would lead programs at 10:00pm on a Friday night, or plan and execute a program occurring on the weekend to give students the opportunity to visit one of Greece’s National Parks.
But sometimes, I would interrupt a Community Council meeting at a moment’s notice to take a student to the hospital for an unknown amount of time. I’d bring what I needed, not knowing if it would be a 30 minute visit or a weekend spent in and out of the hospital. At other times, I would struggle to communicate my needs to a local vendor, or not know if a program met all of the budget requirements as little as a day before an event. (Universities are bureaucratic machines. Add in a few time zones, language translations, and purchasing constraints and voila – you have ambiguity.)
The beauty of these types of roles is that they are dynamic. I wore many hats as I was an instructor, community council advisor, conduct manager, emergency responder, coordinator of events and programs, and marketing guru. Time “on” and time “off” become ambiguous, as there is the chance of being approached by students with a variety of questions whether it’s 8:00am and you’re eating breakfast, or it’s 11:00pm and you are coming home from a 3 hour meal at your favorite Greek restaurant and your student needs to know their grade on a past assignment.
One evening towards the end of the semester, I sat on the balcony of my accommodation overlooking the Thermaic Gulf of Thessaloniki (yet another perk of this line of work and the N.U.in Greece Program) and bounced around thoughts and ideas about what really makes one successful in undertaking on-site student affairs work abroad. The characteristics, values, and competencies that will make one successful in this type of work are these:
- Endless optimism
- Belief in the value of students’ experience
- The ability to set and honor boundaries
- The ability to maintain personal well-being despite the lack of routine
- An appreciation for a high degree of student face-time
- Acceptance of and enthusiasm for the concept that this work is all-encompassing
- A commitment to being there for your students first, always
I am so grateful for my time working on-site in Thessaloniki – a place that is now one of my favorite cities in the world. Should you find yourself with the opportunity to work abroad in international education – go for it – but manage your expectations beforehand.