Finding Solace Abroad: Alumni leave the Hill for Opportunities Afar

Compiled by Hannah Grace O’Connell’14

Whether it was a positive experience abroad junior year or a desire to escape the confines of the United States, a small number of Hamilton alums choose to pursue unique opportunities by traveling or working outside of the United States. Here are some of their reflections and stories in their own words.

Kelsey Lawler ’11

As senior year rolled around, I had no idea what I was going to do after graduation. While Facebook-stalking a Hamilton alum and thinking long and hard about my thesis, I discovered a program called Princeton in Asia. I began to research PiA and other programs that allow recent graduates to teach English abroad. Now, almost a year later, I live and work in Khon Kaen, Thailand.

I’ve been here for over three months now, and just completed my first semester of teaching English to University students. My students range from 18-year old Hotel Management majors to 24-year old dentists (who don’t know my age and have convinced me to floss more).  My days usually consist of teaching for four hours, grading, planning lessons, eating lunch with my students who are always teaching me new Thai words and customs, and attempting to read a Thai menu at dinner.

Khon Kaen is a strange place that can hardly be described. It’s one of the only major cities in the area, so people from villages many miles away travel here to sell food, try to start businesses, and use resources like the University and the hospital. The government corruption that nobody talks about, the inequality that no one seems to notice, the period of time I had to wear the same two dresses continually because the Princess died and the country went into mourning for two weeks…well, these things remind me I live in a developing country far from home. I’ve loved my experience in Thailand so far, and I’m excited to see where the next 6 months take me.

Martha Hawley, Kirkland ’73 

The line-up: I’m writing, editing, on a short break from teaching, and about to head for Beijing for several weeks. I’ve lived in the Netherlands for over 30 years, although the USA always feels like home-home. Colombia (visited while a student at Kirkland College) offered a new idea of home when I was least expecting it. I set up shop in a few other places in-between: Paris, Hong Kong, and Sri Lanka. A few years after that, Amsterdam became (another) home; travel was frequent for my job as a producer for Dutch international radio.

A lot happened in the New York suburbs where I grew up, but I always knew I wanted to get a different perspective. I had been to Puerto Rico before, and as a Kirkland freshman, I felt I had to get to South America as quickly as possible. A study abroad program with Antioch College accepted all levels, so as a sophomore off I went to Bogotá, Colombia. 

Has anything learned at college proved useful? You bet, thanks to the teachers who managed to get past my awkwardness and belligerence in my rush to get out in the world. I eventually found a job, which continually required adjustment to a new perspective.

I still haven’t really left Colombia: if my laptop fits, I think I’ll start using my colorful new bag – just received as a present from my hermanita in Bogotá – as carry-on luggage.

Michael Williams ’11

Clinton is a small town. Four years of life on the Hill conditioned me toward an attitude of wanting to escape from the confines of the 13323 zip code; in short, I knew that I would have to be in as disparate a location as possible from upstate New York within a few weeks of graduation. As I write this piece from Cambodia, I must say that I am fairly proud of my conviction. However, the further I travel, the more I recognize that I am not here through any act of rebellion, but rather I am indebted to Hamilton for my current location.

After a short family vacation to Ireland to toast the last tuition check my parents would ever have to pay, I took a Ryanair flight to Madrid, and from there set out by bus and rail to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The trip took about eight weeks, 10,000 miles, and 16 books. As I traveled, I began to fully appreciate the education I had gained during my time at Hamilton.

It’s often hard to specify the material benefits that a degree in History gives one, and that’s because there really are no material benefits. Rather, I found the effects of my education in my appreciation of sights both inconspicuous and renowned. Without my classes in Chinese history, I wouldn’t have scratched my head in amazement at the Confucian-styled Great Mosque in Xi’an, China, and wondered how it survived the Cultural Revolution; had it not been for my senior thesis, which centered on the political symbolism of dead bodies, Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body in Hanoi would have simply seemed a product of Madame Tussauds to me. The fantastic education I had received at Hamilton was actually the force pulling me towards these amazing destinations that I would otherwise have never been interested in. Without Hamilton, I would probably be complaining about a layover right now.

Isabelle Van Hook ’11

You may have heard in the news lately that a lot of people are without jobs. I am one of those people. However, I am currently training to be an English as a Second Language teacher in Barcelona, Spain. Hopefully, I will soon join the ranks of people who have jobs.

Before graduation, I didn’t have a concrete idea of exactly what I wanted to pursue in life, so I decided that exploring another country and culture would be a great way to postpone my adult life. Getting paid to travel—what could beat that? I decided to apply through LanguageCorps, a recruiting company that places English teacher candidates in certification schools throughout the world. Eventually, I made the decision to move to Spain. Besides wanting to see landmarks such as the Park Güell in Barcelona, I wanted to learn a language that was used throughout the world and that would give me a leg up in the competition for “real world” jobs.

I’ll admit, moving to a country that speaks a language different than my own has not been as easy as I expected. The fact that most people in the city of Barcelona speak a language entirely different from Spanish hasn’t exactly boosted my navigational confidence either. However, the Park Güell is even more beautiful than it seems in the pictures, the beaches are lovely, and I’m learning how to get around more and more each day.

Douglas S. Glucroft ’76

One of the choices I had to make while at Hamilton was whether to enroll in the junior year abroad in France, or stay on College Hill and pursue my work as an editor of The Spectator. I chose the latter course and became editor-in-chief, which helped me launch an interesting, although short-lived, career in journalism. Still, I always wanted to have an experience living abroad, and it’s fair to say that I’ve more than made up for that year I missed. Of the 35 years that have elapsed since I graduated, I’ve spent about half of them living in or near Paris – first for a brief stint as a journalist and then as a lawyer.
Every expatriate has in his or her head an unwritten book on life abroad – all those stories about the foreign bureaucracy, the eccentric and frustrating locals, the misunderstandings, and the unexpected. As I tried to distill expatriate life down to its essence, there are two words that come to mind: perspective and openness.

First, life outside one’s own country provides the luxury (and sometimes the burden) of perspective that only distance can provide: we expatriates are physically distant from our homeland and many of our loved ones, and psychologically and culturally detached from our host country. Separateness from the host country can shrink over time, but never quite disappears. C’est la vie, as we say here. But the perspective is always interesting and intellectually stimulating.

Second, life abroad requires openness – to new ideas, different ways of doing things and a constant willingness to avoid drawing the wrong conclusion. The skills I had to bring to my first job in Europe as a journalist – observation and analysis – have served me well ever since.

Perspective and openness to new ideas were dished out in generous portions while I was a student at Hamilton, and I’m sure the feast continues unabated.