Reflections on Leaving and Returning to a Career in International Education


Today’s blog posting is inspired by finding some of my grandfather’s writing.  My grandfather, who we lovingly called “Poppa”, was a closet writer.  He would grab lined paper and a bic pen, whenever he wasn’t talking your ear off , to write down his memories of his youth.  Poppa waited a lot longer than I did to start writing, but perhaps this is where my desire to blog comes from. I like to think so anyway.

Poppa grew up in New York City, in a part called “Hell’s Kitchen.” He lived on West 45th Street and 10th Avenue, a primarily Irish neighborhood, although he was of German and Latvian descent. This was the only part of town that his family seemed to be able to afford, and his father didn’t dare teach him German or Russian because he did not want his son to have an accent. Poppa wrote,  “The area became known as Hell’s Kitchen, not because of its roughness but because the Irish couldn’t pronounce the word Heil.  A German named Heil had opened up a restaurant on West 39th Street somewhere between 10th and 11th Avenues. The restaurant was famous for its German food and the big spenders went there.  It was the thing to do after theater.”

I would listen to Poppa’s stories when I was small and as I reflect, I wonder if his stories about living in Hell’s Kitchen and the multicultural community of first generation families somehow influenced my interest in the field of international education. It certainly explains my love for the history of New York City. Reflecting upon Poppa’s writing brings me to my own story:  how I fell in love with the field of international education and then left it, somewhat suddenly, to explore a career in the “corporate world.”  And then how I came back.

I always found tales of the “other” fascinating.  When I was approximately 8 years old, we had a guest speaker come to my classroom to show us African art.  I remember my jaw dropping as I viewed these cool statues and the incredible dyed materials.  Where was this place Africa and how could I get there? I was hooked, somehow, even at that young age.  I began to explore and question the world around me. What was the origin of certain words that I learned in Spanish class? I read a book about the Peace Corps when I was approximately 13 years old.  How could I go abroad?  And then in high school, I wondered how a Rotary Club student from Brazil could live with my family for an entire year and not miss home enough to return?

I eventually graduated with a Master’s degree from the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont and set firmly on my career path.  My first position was as the Assistant Director of New York University’s Office for International Students and Scholars. I eventually left that position to become Director of Study Abroad at Marymount College. And then something strange happened. I opened the paper one day and saw an ad for a company that handled International Assignment Services. They were looking for people who had lived abroad and had experience with other cultures.  So on a whim, I submitted a resume and within a couple of weeks I was being offered a position as an Account Executive in the world’s largest international relocation firm.

After much consideration, I gave my notice and took this new opportunity.  My career path suddenly took a major turn; I was no longer an International Educator, I was “working for the man.”  My Fortune 500 clients drove my calendar, my time was no longer my own.  I was on planes with little notice preparing reports on costs and relocation needs of assignees and repats. I was in Cairo one day presenting to the global Human Resource team for the 3rd largest cement company in the world, then dashing home to meet with local companies who were moving tri-regionally and looking for best practice consulting.  It was exciting, financially rewarding, satisfying and certainly a lot of fun to work with people from so many different walks of life.

But I left.

Why, you may ask?  The short answer is 9/11/2001.

While at home on a tri-regional conference call that fateful morning, I flipped on my television while waiting for all the team members in Singapore to arrive on the call and suddenly a reporter declared that a plane had hit the World Trade Center (Twin Towers).  I immediately knew this was not an accident. I’ve flown in and out of New York City airports my entire life and you don’t just accidentally hit the towers.  You could see them far below you on the right side of the plane on a certain arrival pattern into LaGuardia, but you don’t come anywhere near them.  While discussing this with my colleagues on the phone, I witnessed the live feed of the second plane hitting the towers. I hung up the phone in utter disbelief as I had to call my sister, who worked in Manhattan and also to check in on my brother in law who was a UPS driver. His territory was the Trade Center.

To make a long and horribly difficult story short, thankfully, my family was “fine”. Or perhaps I should say as fine as any New Yorker could be after living through that day and the months of smoke, the stench of death in the air, the horror of knowing that everyone we encountered in our daily lives knew someone who died in the attacks.  It was a time I will never forget and it bled into my glamorous new career like an ulcer that wouldn’t be ignored.

Within days of 9/11, I learned that one of my colleagues from Afghanistan had trash thrown at her while walking down the street in a city in Connecticut.  People yelled “go home” to her, although she is a US citizen, highly educated and fluent in 6 languages.  They saw her darker skin and spewed words of hate and ignorance. I found her at the office, gave her a heartful hug and promised her that we would change this ignorance. I wasn’t quite sure how, but I had to try.

I went to our Human Resource office and asked if I could have their permission to talk with local schools about bringing our incredibly diverse and multilingual staff into their classrooms.  I explained that hate is a learned behavior and that if we could catch the local children early, we could perhaps prevent them from repeating the ignorance that some of their parents were spouting in the community. HR was extremely supportive of the idea. They let me craft some language for a brochure and asked me what we should call this pilot program.  My response was swift – I named it the Global Education Initiative (GEI).  We asked department directors to share this program with the teams on the floor, and within days we had a list of volunteers that represented more than 20 countries. I found myself presenting the idea to the local School Board as well as teams on the floor. The day the war broke out in Iraq,  my Colombian American colleague and I were in a classroom with 50 schoolchildren under the age of 7 who were singing “Its a Small World After All” to a group of schoolchildren in Cairo, Egypt.

I knew I could not stay in my glamorous job any longer;  it was time to return to my first love, International Education. It is where I knew that I could make the most impact.

That was nearly 8 years ago and many things have happened.  The US is still in Iraq.  The GEI program won the State of Connecticut “Gold Award” , the highest honor, for innovation in business.  I started Melibee Global, took some time off in between to teach ESL in my community, started blogging and work full time in the field that I adore.  And while I don’t jet set weekly and there is no more flying business class, I do know that I’m part of a unique group that puts beliefs before money, social change before social status, and typically chooses international visitors before visiting family!

And you know what, I am so thankful that I returned to this field. No paycheck could replace the gifts that I receive every day in my work and the stories that I get to share with my friends and family. One day, I hope to be writing my story of “these days” in more detail as my Poppa did. And as he taught me, I wouldn’t change a thing about the journey.