Work While Studying Abroad

How working while studying abroad in France allowed me to travel Europe and learn the language better than 9 years of classes. Recommendations at end of post.

Coat check at a bar and elementary English teacher. Those were my two jobs I was able to nab while studying abroad for an academic year in Aix-en-Provence, France. Whatever student loans and small scholarships didn’t cover, I had the privilege that my parents could help me with much of the cost during the year there (the rest of tuition, dorm, round-trip flight). But any of the extras like food, entertainment, and travel was to be covered by me. Though I did have a middle class upbringing, the burden of college on my family was immense. My family lived through the chaos that was the Michigan auto industry, and I had studied in France in 2008 to 2009, when the economic recession hit. The dollar was very weak compared to the Euro, and my family and I felt it. My two summer jobs before I moved in the Fall didn’t allow me to save enough to cover a whole year of “extras”. I was determined to find a job that would feed my addiction to wanderlust while lessening the study abroad cost burden on my family.


The first month or so we were in Aix, my new study abroad friends and I would go out to the international student nocturnal spot called IPN (it’s possible it stood for “International Party Nightclub”, in English, not in French) where a few French people worked, but the rest of the workers were foreigners. I was pleasantly surprised to meet a fellow Colombian guy, Kike, attending the coat check on a slow weeknight. We hit it off, conversing mostly in Spanish. I expressed to him that I needed a job, which led him to help me get a job doing the same as him, and – BAM – I got my first job abroad! I was being paid 50-60 euros a night (depending on tips) under the table, and I was only working Saturday nights for about 2-3 months (September – November 2008). That was about $70-80 at that time, which was a lot considering I was not bartending. This covered food to experiment outside of my main choice of cheese or bread (food is expensive in France!). It also covered short weekend trips like to the French island of Corsica, for example.

European clubs stay open past 4 or 5 am , so I knew I had to look for something different or else risk my health and weekend social life (i.e. time to go on trips). There was also an incident where I once got choked by a non-French male coworker who thought he was being playful and funny. I never did or said anything about the situation because I didn’t know how to handle it. Thankfully, a fellow female coworker saw what happened and called him out. Regardless, I knew that it was time to look for a better work gig.

Through Kike, I was introduced to ALL the Colombians who lived in Aix that were around my age. This group  included a guy I would later (and briefly) date, who introduced me to his sister, Linda. Another girl, Daniela, I met randomly while working coat check because we haphazardly bonded over Shakira playing at the moment she handed me her coat, and then we became inseparable the moment we both said we were Colombian. I remain in contact with Linda and Daniela to this day. They are two of my best friends. We spent some fun nights at IPN while I worked and they came to party to accompany me, but we preferred going Latin dancing at Cuba Libre or for some cheap Rosé at Splendid.

My parents weren’t too happy that I was speaking too much English with U.S. American friends and too much Spanish with Colombian friends, which they felt defeated the purpose of being in France.  However, another Colombian, William, who was also working at IPN, worked as a Spanish teacher at one of the French public schools in the area. He told me it would be possible for me to teach Spanish or English. I was more than excited to stop staying up so late on Saturdays for work.  That way I could start having a unique and fun experience with some French youngins during normal business hours. In addition, who would have thought I would meet so many Colombians in France, and that they would make such a positive impact on my life then and now?

William organized my first and only interview with Madame Vela Tur, the principal at Bellevue Elementary School (École Primaire Bellevue), a 30-40 minute bus ride away in the bigger nearby city of Marseille, France. To prepare me before the interview, he let me know that the school was located in a neighborhood that was the government projects with low-income housing. We had one meeting, and I hit it off right away with the kids. I couldn’t believe I got the job!

I was working once a week on Fridays, from 8am to 3pm for a couple of months. I later started to work at 2 other nearby Elementary schools for about 3 hours each. I worked a loaded schedule for my remaining 3 months while still taking university classes. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the names of those elementary schools.  I was teaching 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade, about 2 different classes per grade. The best part about this experience was getting to know this unique part of France, different from what it’s famous for (i.e. fashion, luxury, Cannes Film Festival, the Eiffel Tower, Paris, etc). Marseille is a largely immigrant city since it is the biggest port of France in the Mediterranean. Most of my students were first generation African, Middle Eastern, or Gypsy. The majority of the students were Muslim. I wouldn’t take back this experience for the world, and I was happy to have such a genuine exchange of cultures: between my U.S. American/ Latin American/ Colombian culture, and their French or African or Middle Eastern or Gypsy or Muslim culture.

I ended up working there from about November 2008 to June 2009, and it was a challenging but beneficial 8 months out of my study abroad experience. In fact, I was able to help a fellow U.S. American classmate, Brandon, land a job teaching too. Because of this job, I was able to travel to 7 other countries in Europe. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the extra income.

Do not pay attention to criticisms from your family or friends. If most of your social network speaks your native language(s), yet you are working while studying abroad, the best language experience you will get is if you work with colleagues who are local. It’s usually hard to befriend locals, therefore this is the best way to connect with them, befriend them, and be immersed in their language in the most useful way that is not learned in a college course.

Recommendations
It can be tricky to find a job while studying or living abroad depending on visa restrictions. Here are 3 easy jobs to research online before you travel to the new country, and/or on the ground when you arrive there:

Teach. The easiest job to find as a foreigner with a student visa is teaching English or another language like Spanish or Portuguese. Many require a TEFL certification, but some don’t. Do your research to see what exists in the area you will be in because chances are there are plenty of elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, universities, and adult evening classes for you to teach. Connect with other foreign students who teach since they know direct contacts to people who hire for these positions.

Au Pair. Basically, you get room and board paid for while you take care of a family’s kids. Most times you get an extra stipend to spend for yourself and access to a motorized vehicle. This might be tricky if you have a set school schedule, but it is possible to balance the two. Daniela, my Colombian-French friend I mentioned earlier, worked as an Au Pair in the UK while she completed her studies AND worked at a nearby school.

Work at a bar or restaurant. You may be able to find a job that pays you under the table by bartending, bussing, or other jobs like coat check. Try the bars or restaurants that are frequented by a lot of international students or run by foreigners, especially if there are other Latinxs there. Be wary that “under the table” isn’t always the best option since things can go wrong or the workplace might be unsafe.

Odds and ends. Translate documents to English. Babysit. Task Rabbit offers remote jobs, or find a similar local app. Intern for a company that wants English/Spanish/Portuguese speakers. Find work you can do remotely for your university, with a connection, or for a company.

Even if you aren’t able to secure something before you arrive to your destination, remember that it’s always easiest to find a job on the ground. Network with people who are foreigners but who have lived there for at least a year, they will have the best knowledge in terms of connections for foreigners, and will empathize with you the most. You will most likely find something quicker on the ground rather than sitting at home researching online. You have to be active about talking to people or else you won’t find anything.

For more photos of my teaching experience, click here!

Stay tuned for a future post about my summer internship experience in Paris that followed my academic year in the South of France.

Were you able to find a job while studying or living abroad? What did you do? How did you find the job?

 

8 Comments

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  1. Loved this! Thanks for talking about the ups and downs of your experience honestly. I studied for a semester in Aix and I didn’t feel as if I met as many locals as I could of. I spent much of my time cooped up online watching No Reservations episodes, and on weekends I’d travel to different countries. While I did see a lot of Europe, I do wish I’d gotten a job on the side in order to integrate more within my community.

    I’d love to hear more about what it was like teaching underprivileged youth in Marseille. That sounds fascinating.

    • Alexandra Tracy Chavarriaga May 31, 2016 — 4:12 pm

      Thank you! We have so many similarities, it’s all so funny! Maybe I will talk about that in another post one day. It might take me long to draft something like that because I don’t know if I remember much! Thanks for the comment 🙂

  2. Great post, Alex. I’ve gone back to Aix-en-Provence twice since moving to Japan. Miss you, ohhhh the memories! Good job:-)

    • Alexandra Tracy Chavarriaga June 3, 2016 — 8:30 am

      Thank you for your words Brandon! I knew you had gone back once, I didn’t realize you’ve gone back twice already! Congrats, I’m so jealous! Miss you and hope you can come to Colombia in a few years, I’m getting married there ❤

  3. I do agree with your parents, I mostly avoided Spanish speaking people when I am abroad, or hang out with other foreigners so we will all speak English most of the time. Also, most Mexicans I know would avoid me for the same reasons; when we are abroad, we are trying to learn a different language. Though I have also met people who were hanging mostly with other Mexicans.
    It would be interesting to teach classes of English/Spanish to immigrant kids. I am in Quebec now, and I loved it. If things go the right way, next year I will come to study French!

    • Alexandra Tracy Chavarriaga June 3, 2016 — 8:37 am

      I agree, I should have only been interacting with French-speaking people since I was there to learn the language. However, the reality was that it was super difficult to meet French people or french-speaking people who actually wanted to spend time with me (and I wasn’t the only Foreigner, or US American who endured this). That’s why I recommend working while studying abroad, because that forced me to practice in order to interact with co-workers. It was the best experience, and it is how I learned French the best! In the end, Colombians helped me get these jobs and the provided me with a lot of “familial” support that I needed being so far away from my own family (in the US or Colombia).

      I wonder why Mexicans avoid you? Maybe they feel the same as you where they don’t want to be speaking Spanish.

      I love Quebec! Have you gone to Montreal? I lived in Michigan, very close to the border with Windsor, Canada. We went to visit some Colombian cousins we have in Montreal twice 🙂 Have a wonderful time with the Quebecois!I recommend the Canadian movie “Bon Cop, Bad Cop.”

  4. Hi Alexandra.
    A great post, and very useful for people arriving in a new country.
    I found my teaching job in Spain asking around, as you say, when I arrived. It was very easy in those days, (a long time ago) as there were very few foreigners in the town I landed in. But I still think that must be the best advice.
    Well done on some very good, clear writing.
    Regards. Marie.

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