I frequently get emails from people asking about how to start a career teaching abroad. These people are often highly educated in a field that is not education. Yet because teaching is so well known as a ticket to move overseas and have a career, we sometimes get in this mindset that it’s the only way. It is not.
Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down with Eleesha Lewis. She graciously answered some questions for me so I could better understand the path that she personally took to become an expat. Eleesha is a Foreign Service Officer with the State Department and has lived in places that would give anyone travel envy; the Philippines, Mexico, India, Portugal, Singapore, and Bermuda.
Eleesha grew up outside of Baltimore. She studied Psychology at the University of Delaware as an undergrad and went on to get her Masters in Organizational Psychology from George Washington University. After graduating she worked in her field within the United States until she met her then-husband who worked for the State Department. When he was posted overseas, the family, which included a 9 month old baby girl, then moved to Lisbon, Portugal and Eleesha became what is commonly referred to as a trailing spouse. This term just means that her husband’s job is why they moved and she, at least at the start, wasn’t working. During that time, Eleesha welcomed the birth of her son. Eventually, Eleesha was able to secure employment as a local hire, doing clerical work at the embassy. The position itself lead to further training and opened the door to other opportunities within the State Department.
The family then moved to New Delhi, India for 3 years. But what started as a 3 year post in India for her husband’s career led to her joining the State Department as a specialist. Here she applied and was hired to become an office management specialist. After New Delhi was Mexico City. It was during this time that Eleesha passed the Foreign Service exam and moved from a specialist to a generalist. This involved going back to the US to make the transition to becoming a generalist, but it also involved higher pay and now being recognized herself as a Foreign Service officer. Her first assignment as a generalist was in the Philippines doing consular work: for example, conducting visa interviews. After the Philippines, Eleesha and her kids moved to Bermuda for two and a half years where she was a management officer. It was a smaller post, actually a consulate, and she found herself wearing many hats, but she gained valuable experience working in financial
management, property management, and human resources.
Following Bermuda Eleesha was able to return to the US working for the State Department in a different capacity, providing management support for embassies and consulates in the Middle East region. Currently, Eleesha works at the U.S. Embassy in Singapore where she is gaining valuable experience on the policy side of things. As the embassy’s human rights officer she is responsible for drafting the annual, congressionally-mandated Human Rights Report, Trafficking in Persons Report, and the International Religious Freedom Report for Singapore. In addition, she covers Singapore domestic politics and regional counter-proliferation issues. Her next job is taking her back to Mexico to work in a border post as a management officer.
Best and Worst
When asked what has been the best part of living overseas Eleesha didn’t hesitate. “Being able to see the world.” Before moving overseas she was working for a market research company in the US and didn’t travel nearly as much as she did once she moved overseas. She has also had the opportunity to meet former and current presidents, secretaries of state, and visit some of the most remarkable places, such as the Petronas Towers, the Brandenburg Gate, and the Taj Mahal. It has afforded her and her family with amazing opportunities.
But living overseas also has its more difficult aspects. The hardest part according to Eleesha-being away from friends and family. You make lots of friends as an expat, but you move every couple of years. Moving around every few years can be hard on the family unit. “This life is not for everybody. You miss weddings, funerals, births, school reunions.” Thankfully now with technology, keeping in contact has become much easier. But it wasn’t always that way and even things like the time difference complicated things for Eleesha.
I’ve personally heard about jobs within the Foreign Service, and I’ve even taken the Foreign Service Officer Test myself, but my biggest takeaway was how many job opportunities exist within the State Department. Joining the Foreign Service as a generalist can be a lengthy process, but it all starts with taking the test. This test is free and is offered both overseas and at home in the United States. Eleesha said it personally took her a few tries to pass the test, and she urged being patient throughout the process. It was reassuring to hear her say that anyone regardless of his or her background could be successful. She highly recommended people take the exam if they are interested, especially those with a liberal arts background.
“Don’t give up on taking the test. Be patient during the process. It is lengthy. But if it is what you want to do, by all means do it.” One can also enter the Foreign Service as a specialist, which means you have more specialized skills, like human resource or financial management or even law enforcement.
Her coworkers haven’t had a singular background or profile. She has worked with lots of people from all different academic backgrounds and life experiences, including people that have switched careers. It’s more about having transferable skills. Click here for more information on the process.
In addition to Foreign Service careers, there are also other jobs overseas. Embassies and consulates hire locally. So, if you’re already living overseas and searching for job opportunities, Eleesha recommended searching the embassy or consulate website frequently because you never know what they will post or when the jobs will close. She also mentioned that other U.S. government agencies have positions overseas that operate at embassies and consulates overseas. So it’s possible to work overseas with the Department of Defense, Department of Commerce, Department of Transportation, Department of the Treasury, Department of Justice, etc. Just at the embassy in Singapore, there are 18 other agencies besides the State Department that are represented.
Another take away was learning some of the perks of being a Foreign Service Officer. With teaching overseas, we are responsible for our own retirement planning. But as a Foreign Service Officer, if you start working early, you can retire at 50 if you have 20 years of service with a full pension. The State Department also offers student loan repayment programs and in some cases provides a cost of living adjustment and a hardship differential in salary, depending on where you are stationed. You are responsible for paying U.S. taxes while you are overseas, but you are paid in US dollars and your housing is provided and school tuition for grades K-12 for your children is covered. It’s comforting to know that the job insures that your children have the same level of education they would have in the US.
Eleesha’s lengthy resume is impressive to say the least. And one just has to speak briefly to Eleesha to see what a wealth of knowledge she has. Eleesha frequently has to travel back to the US between job postings for training and has also had to learn the languages of some of the countries she’s been posted to. As we were having lunch, Eleesha mentioned some of the higher-level Spanish she is learning for her new position and I was blown away with both the level of learning she is doing, and also just what that says about her as a person. The position strikes me as the perfect job for someone who loves to learn and constantly challenge themselves. Also what really impressed me was how Eleesha has been able to balance all of this while raising two children. Eleesha is no longer married, but her children have been fortunate to travel the world with both parents, living with their mother and visiting their father in his overseas posts. Her daughter will be starting college in the fall and her son will get to finish up high school in the US, both taking with them not only a passport full of stamps but also experiences seeing the world of which some people only dream.
I’d like to offer a heartfelt thank you to Eleesha for sitting down with me. I hope her story inspires others. I think it just might have convinced me to take the test again.