Why so many college graduates are teaching abroad

At 20 years old, Roscoe Mathieu had an associate’s degree in international studies, but no concrete idea of what he wanted to do with his life. He decided to teach English in China. About a year later, when he returned to the U.S. to find work, but couldn’t because of the Great Recession, he knew could always go back to China to teach. So he did.

Mathieu is hardly unique. He is one of the estimated 250,000 native English speakers who teach the language abroad in one of the more than 40,000 language schools across the globe.

There are as many reasons to teach abroad as there are places to do it. Some want the international experience. Others find it an easy next step after graduation when the future is uncertain — though a college degree isn’t always required for these positions. Making your way into a foreign country and finding a job teaching English isn’t necessarily all that difficult — it’s keeping your finances in order that’s often the tricky part.

“I was looking for work in California during the Great Recession without a bachelor’s degree, so you can imagine how that worked out,” Mathieu said. “While I wouldn’t make a ton of real money in China I would make enough to live on, and I would have enough time to actually study online. I bring this up because China is a good place if you want to buy time.”

There are hundreds of programs available to English-speakers who want to teach in other countries, but the experience you have, the ease of living abroad and your financial stability will all ultimately be determined by the program you choose and the country in which you teach. For some, it’s an easy way to live comfortably and travel widely, all while saving a ton of money. For others — well, it’s a bit messier than that.

Your first barrier: Getting out of the U.S.

There’s a lot to be gained from living and working abroad, personally and professionally. But first, you have to get there. That can be as simple as buying a one-way ticket to the country of your choice and figuring out the visa and employment details later (not the most secure route), or you can apply to go through a program.

No matter how you approach it, however, getting abroad takes money. Even if you plan to participate in a selective program that covers your travel costs, you still have to invest a great deal of time and effort in order to qualify for it in the first place. Most reputable programs reimburse some or all of your travel expenses, but you have to pay upfront, and you’ll probably need to arrive with money in hand to get set up before you receive your first paycheck — if you ever get one.

Mathieu, now an author in Pismo Beach, Calif., went to China to teach English in 2006, but he quit after two months because of payment and visa issues with his program. As much of a nightmare as that would be, he managed to stay in China for a year, taking a variety of English-teaching jobs.

“After that first disastrous work relationship, I heard a joke over there that there’s two ways to find a job teaching English abroad,” Mathieu says. “Number one is you can do it the safe way and look up a program online, apply online, they send you a visa and you get on a plane. And then there’s the bad — s way, where you go over to the country with a small stockpile of savings and you go looking for a job on foot. I can definitely say, for China, the bad — s way is safer.”

He left in 2007 but returned in 2010, staying for four years while he earned his bachelor’s degree online. That first stint in China left him with a bunch of credit card debt, triggered in part by his disastrous first two months in the country — he says his program never paid him, never reimbursed him for his travel expenses and didn’t help him get the proper visa, as he says they promised they would — but he eventually reconciled his finances. His experiences and the contacts he made were well worth the cost, he says.

Staying connected to home — or not

Moving to a different country doesn’t suspend your responsibilities in the U.S. If you have student loans, you need to pay them or get them deferred, if you qualify. That credit card you’re using abroad? The bill isn’t going to pay itself.

Melissa Mesku knew teaching English abroad wasn’t going to help her pay the bills back home, so she bought a plane ticket to Guatemala shortly after her college graduation in 2003, knowing she’d have to live off savings. As part of that plan, she left behind pre-written checks for her student loans, which her parents sent to her student loan servicer every month. For others, paying bills from abroad proved problematic.

Mathieu tried paying his credit card bills from his Chinese bank account, but it rarely worked. When transfers didn’t go through, he missed payments, and his credit suffered as a result.

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