Culture, Career, Hope: Interview with Carrie Herrera Niesen and Ashley Houston

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melibee003We’ve heard many tales of frustration from those searching for work in a career that allows you to cross cultures from via technology or in person. Melibee wants to offer HOPE to those of you who are still seeking your dream career!  In this new series “Culture, Careers, Hope” we will be sharing interviews with people who were once you – frustrated and in need of a light at the end of the job search tunnel.  We’ll start with two of my favorite people – Carrie Herrera Niesen and Ashley Houston – two former Melibees who have both landed utopian world gigs at a terrific company – Go Abroad!  

Carrie Herrera Niesen is the Content Coordinator at GoAbroad. Her role is largely focused on content creation for GoAbroad’s various channels, such as the articles directory, blog, and how-to guides. She works with a team of local writers as well as writers from all over the globe on idea inception all the way through our publication process. Additionally, she serves as a GoAbroad representative at conferences, committees, and college campus visits, as well as client relations and managing social media.

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Carrie Herrera Niesen and Ashley Houston – former Melibees and current Go Abroaders!

Ashley Houston is the Special Projects Coordinator at GoAbroad. This project-based role involves maximizing the user experience on GoAbroad. Her work is cross-divisional and touches on a variety of areas including: content development and curation, alumni and institutional relations (roadshow travel), client outreach, and social media management.

Melibee: In only 7 words, how can you summarize your journey to your current career at GoAbroad?

Carrie: An intentional raucous rollercoaster ending with fireworks!

Ashley: Constant and disciplined drive toward a dream.

Melibee: After years of preparing for a career in international education, you both landed at GoAbroad! Tell us what you most appreciate about landing your dream jobs?

Carrie: I love that I am in a place where I’m valued, given high responsibility, work with amazing, passionate colleagues, have a voice, can pursue endless amounts of opportunity, and am encouraged to develop and take on ideas to improve the field for both international educators and students. I cannot express how grateful I am enough to be in a place that values our mission of helping students pursue meaningful travel experiences, and working with colleagues in Fort Collins, around the United States, the world, and across an ocean with our Philippines office (where GoAbroad was born).

Ashley:  Wow, it’s really hard to put into words that others may fully understand and relate to. I think most folks nowadays, within the field of international education or not, do not have passion and/or fulfilment from what they spend 40 (or more) hours a week actually doing. Are they skilled? Yes. Do they believe in the cause? Maybe. Are they encouraged to share ideas, challenge the status quo, and then see those thoughts come to fruition? Probably not. Do they truly LOVE what they do and feel inspired on a daily basis? Rarely.

I have my dream job, but I did not just fall into this role. I worked my butt off to get where I am, and have been very intentional about the path I took to get here. By putting myself in the right places and making moves at the right time, I was able to land exactly where I am meant to be (of course, thanks to a lot of help, encouragement, and guidance from others). It certainly did not come easy the whole time, but because of it being such a purpose-driven quest, the path I followed and place where I am and is all that much more special and fulfilling.

Every day it’s still surreal that I have landed a career (not job) in THE most innovative, positive, and dynamic international education organization out there. Six months later, and I still go into “work” every day in disbelief that I get to do and be a part of this magical team and culture. I am consciously and continually grateful for the opportunity, and take great pride in what I do. I most appreciate the ability I have had to take on leadership roles right away, create, collaborate, and innovate. We are such a mission-driven group, and it is reflected in our daily conversations and actions. Our US Office is full of power women (and a couple men too!) This may not seem different from the rest of international education and it’s overabundance of women. However, we have a very special thing going with the group of young, extremely talented, and constantly surprising power women on our team. Being surrounded by strong and insanely hard working women is an inspiration in itself. I am so lucky to be a part of team GoAbroad, and I can no longer envision myself anywhere else!

Melibee: GoAbroad is located in Fort Collins, Colorado, which is not historically home for either of you. What lessons from your travels abroad have you taken to your new city and state?

Carrie enjoying the sights along GoAbroad's Northwestern Roadshow with a little selfie at Shoshone Falls in Twin Falls, Idaho, USA
Carrie enjoying the sights along GoAbroad’s Northwestern Roadshow with a little selfie at Shoshone Falls in Twin Falls, Idaho, USA

Carrie: Very early on in my pursuit of a lifestyle in international education (notice I said lifestyle and not career…it’s a way of life and I’m sure many in the field will agree with me), I realized I needed to go wherever the job is. I’m originally from small town Wisconsin by way of Minnesota and New Mexico (and various international locations in between), and I’m loving my new city that welcomes newcomers with open arms. Not many in this field can say how lucky they are to have a dream of a job and live in an amazing place, so I’m extra grateful.

The last place I lived for three years was best suited for young families and it was more difficult as a young professional, so it was harder to find my ‘people’ and didn’t quite feel like home for me. In addition, I knew it wasn’t permanent because it wasn’t in my desired career field and my contract had an expiration date (thankfully since that served as another motivator to work my way into the field!). Most green international education professionals have to begin their path in less than ideal locations, so living in a thriving academic community, being surrounded by mountains, and staying busy with festivals, museums, and social events in Fort Collins on the weekends has been a wonderful breath of fresh air. Lots of folks in Fort Collins are also transplants, so it’s been easy to connect and make friends.

Ashley: Believe it or not, I have wanted to live in Colorado for over 10 years. Yes, since high school. And to be honest, I have a tough time defining what “home” means anyway! I do consider Fort Collins one of my homes already, and I have taken a lot of lessons away from moving around so much. The one that stands out most is: Say yes. Say yes to everything! In my many moves I have learned a lot about adjusting to a new place/space. It can be incredibly challenging, frustrating, and lonely depending on where you are. My move to Fort Collins was surprisingly seamless and immediately comfortable. This was different from all of my other experiences moving, but was a sign to me that I had finally found my place. Right away I had a giant friend group (though I came out to CO knowing only a couple of people), was integrated into social events, and felt happy every day. EVERY DAY! Perhaps our 300 days of sunshine helped out a little too:) This instant integration into a new place typically does not happen after a big move across country, especially when not knowing anyone. So, if someone invites you out, say yes. Scared to try something new or different? Say yes. Say yes to it all, don’t worry about overcommitting. If you are not entirely open and willing in a new place, you limit yourself and your ability to assimilate.

Melibee:  Interestingly, you were both volunteer bees at Melibee Global at the same time. Can you share an example of something you learned at the hive that helped you on your career path?

Carrie: About two years ago, Ashley and I met on a webinar through Melibee, and after discovering we were both Minnesotans at the time, we made plans to meet up. Our first meeting resulted in closing down the restaurant in awe of how similar and like minded we were. The first lesson I learned with Melibee is to not hesitate to reach out, ask questions, and make meaningful connections.

There’s a great deal that I learned at Melibee Global that I use to this day that are crucial to my success working in a binational organization, and learning how to collaborate across time zones and with people I still have yet to meet is a skill I honed and continue to develop. However, the most important thing that I learned to do while volunteering with Melibee Global was to listen to my inner voice. It’s easy to get caught up in the job search and lose yourself in the process, especially with how emotional it can be in a highly competitive field. I felt like I needed to tell my entire story with each job application I submitted, in every line of my resume, and it took me a long time to realize that the cover letter and resume are just conversation starters.

When I wasn’t getting interviews or call backs, I felt crushed despite following the advice and the path that I was “supposed” to do (BA+MA+experience abroad+being bilingual=job, right? Not necessarily…). During what was a tough and largely disappointing time, Missy and my fellow Melibees were always there to coach me, remind me why I do what I do, and keep me going strong until I finally landed in an out of this world spot. Easier said than done, but sticking strong to my core values and beliefs were key throughout the process.

Ashley driving the RV on the start of this year's 1st Roadshow through MO, IL, & IA (USA)
Ashley driving the RV on the start of this year’s 1st Roadshow through MO, IL, & IA (USA)

Ashley:  There are two big things that stand out from my time at Melibee that have had a supreme impact on me. The first is to give, and the second is to show gratitude.

As a generalization, my generation is used to having things given to them, rather than working hard and giving of themselves. I am guilty of this. Giving my time as a volunteer/intern in the Melibee “hive” showed me that not every worthwhile job you have will be paid. Yet, the opportunities for you to give of yourself without necessarily expecting anything tangible in return, can be even more rewarding for personal and professional development than a paid position.

The gratitude piece comes in as a result of working with Missy. She constantly took the time to show gratitude (verbally, through her mentoring, and her work), and encourage others to do so. I have tried to practice this more (thanks yoga!) and have seen the positive impact on my life and my relationships with others. When people feel valued and appreciated, there’s nothing you can’t work with them on (and they may surprise you in going out of their way to help you!) We give thanks this time of the year more than at others, but what if we tried throughout the year to be more mindful of sharing our gratitude for and to others?

Melibee:  What words of encouragement would you give to others who are so very keen to be sitting in your position one day?  

Carrie: A dear mentor of mine coached me on identifying my four key job ingredients, and it’s served me well throughout this process. What are your non-negotiables? What won’t you bend on or stand for in a full time position? You’ll be spending more of your time and day in a full time job than anywhere else, so it’s important to support it wholeheartedly. The focus tends to be on the organization/university/company that it’s easy to overlook that you are also trying them on! Make sure they’re a good fit for you just as much as you are for them.

For me, my ingredients are valuing the organization’s mission and people as opposed to making money, earning a sustainable wage, a team based environment, and autonomy/flexibility with opportunity for advancement. If a job didn’t have one of these four, I didn’t apply for it or declined on continuing with the process. It’s tempting to take whatever may come your way in this field just to have a job, but it’s also important to stick with what will make you happy as it’ll avoid issues in the long run. These ingredients helped me turn what seemed like dream positions down so I could focus on what I had worked incredibly hard for.

Any lesson is useful, so take risks even if they seem last minute and crazy. I went to Spain last year to teach English after being coached by many veterans in the field saying the only piece missing from my resume was more significant experience abroad. When an opportunity to teach with the Spanish Ministry of Education’s Auxiliares program (albeit quite late…one month before the start date when regular participants get four months to prepare!), I didn’t hesitate and I took it. Two months later, I was in front of elementary/middle school aged science students teaching them to the best of my ability about the solar system, geothermal energy, and the difference between an invertebrate and a vertebrate. In the end, it wasn’t a good fit for me and I ended my contract early, but it was a good lesson in listening to my intuition. If things don’t work out as planned, it doesn’t mean they were done in haste as there’s always something to learn. Learning what doesn’t work for you or what you don’t like is just as valuable as learning what you do.

Lastly, one of the best things I can tell international education hopefuls is to connect and ask questions. You’ll soon realize that most (if not all) people in international education are incredibly giving and are willing to tell their story. Ask them how they got into the field, what they did to get their foot in the door, and what they would recommend you do that you aren’t doing already. Be clear about your goals and what you want to do, and it’ll be easier for them to help you. I connected with lots of folks over the years at NAFSA conferences, state organizations like Minnesota International Educators, and even community based young professional associations (look for them through your local Chamber of Commerce). Each person I connected with provided sage, honest advice on angles I had not considered before, people I should meet, or things I could be doing to strengthen my skills.

Ashley:  Don’t give up. It took me 6 years to break into the field. I knew from the time I was in high school that international education was where I wanted to be (yes, this is rare). I directed my studies, work, and travel towards this purpose. I worked in higher education for 4 years building my experience as an academic advisor. I taught. I interned. I went back to school. I volunteered. I kept trying. It would have been easy to give up with each roadblock or disappointment I ran into. But I didn’t, and it has paid off 10 fold. Sometimes the best things take time, and let me tell you, they are so worth waiting (and working!) for.

Be resourceful. Use what’s out there! Technology today has a lot more to offer than when I started my quest. There are tons of blogs (how did you find this one?) that can provide you with insight, tips, and opinions. Review them. Subscribe to listservs. Stay up to date with current events and trends in the field. Familiarize yourself with how others broke into the field, or see what their LinkedIn profile (or Twitter) can tell you about them. I’m not sure I would be where I am now if it wasn’t for some Twitter connections I made years ago (shout out @ttmharrison).

Stand out. What sets you apart? What unique skill can you offer an organization? How can you be different from every other person out there that studied abroad, loves travel, and wants a career in international education? What is the WHY behind your passion and purpose? Build your personal brand and create a solid online portfolio (this includes social media) to stand out and be seen.

Network. There is no greater or all encompassing tip than this. Who you know is an incredible addition to what you know, and what you have done. Networking, informational interviewing, and general connecting increases your visibility in the field and can help you understand different roles and organizations. You never know where or when someone might come into play later in life.

Find a mentor. Not just anyone, but a good match for the specific skill or area you are looking to build. Just having a mentor won’t help. You have to know what you want from the relationship and be clear in your articulation of that. Mentors can help with not only career and skill development, but also leadership training. They can provide insight, serve as your champion, connect you with others, provide feedback, and keep you accountable to your goals.

Melibee: How can others find you?

Carrie: You can find me at LinkedIn and Twitter!

Ashley: Please feel free to connect with me! I love to serve as a resource, listener, guide, and mentor for those looking to network or break into the field. Don’t hesitate to reach out via e-mail: [email protected] or connect with me on social media: Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram