Written by Sarah Sanderson
CIEE Study Abroad, Semester in Santiago, Chile, 2005
CIEE Teach Abroad, Changzhou, China, 2009-2011
The CIEE study abroad posters lined the halls of Hope College, my undergraduate institution, and the upperclassmen who had participated in their programs returned home raving about taking mountaineering classes in the Andes, hiking to Machu Picchu and learning a language so well that speaking it felt natural instead of from a textbook. I began my own journey with CIEE studying Spanish for a semester in Santiago, Chile in 2005. Not only did I take my own montañismo classes and backpack to many historic and natural wonders of South America, I returned home with a new group of friends, the love of a Chilean homestay family and the gift of the Spanish language.
Going abroad with CIEE started me on the path of language learning and international understanding which ultimately led me to my dream job of being a U.S. Foreign Service Officer.
Because I had such a meaningful and productive experience with CIEE in Chile, after graduate school, my boyfriend (now husband) and I decided to teach abroad with CIEE in China. We were both interested in teaching English, but without any experience or connections in the region, we chose CIEE to help us with finding a school placement, obtaining a visa and working out travel logistics. CIEE’s teach abroad program gave us an orientation, in-country support and connections to other English teachers all over the continent.
Sean and I had such an incredible time teaching English to Chinese university students that we decided to stay for an additional year. Along with learning about the country’s culture and language, we became friends with other Chinese and American teachers and connected with hundreds of students in the classroom and during outreach events like “English Corner.”
For us, teaching English in China with CIEE was an amazing opportunity because it was a challenging and rewarding job that also offered a lot of chances to learn and explore.
During the winter breaks between semesters and during the summers between academic years, Sean and I took once-in-a-lifetime backpacking trips all around China as well as to Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and South Korea. Teaching abroad with CIEE gave us valuable classroom experience which helped us get future jobs and also taught us how to do international travel safely, respectfully and independently.
After participating in the CIEE teach abroad program in China, I went on to live and work in New Zealand on a working holiday visa, teach in Brazil on a Fulbright fellowship, teach in Japan on a Rotary Peace Fellowship, and teach in Uganda on a U.S. Department of State English Language Fellowship.
Because CIEE was my first experience studying and teaching abroad, it stands out in many ways. Now, as a U.S. diplomat, it is easy to see how those first years set me on a path for success in international relations and public service. I learned how to study and practice foreign languages in different places and with new people. I became used to living in challenging environments and solving my own problems and grew more confident and interested in exploring other places in the world. CIEE also gave me compelling stories and examples for job interviews and fellowship application essays and CIEE program directors, along with my local administrators and teaching colleagues, wrote letters of recommendation for me and stayed in touch with me long after the program had ended.
As I finish up my initial training as a new Foreign Service Officer, my relationship with CIEE feels like it has come full-circle because my first tour of duty will be back in China and I couldn’t be happier to return to where it all began. Last month, I reconnected with two good friends who I had met in Santiago with CIEE and who are now also Foreign Service Officers and last week, I met up with two other close friends who are American teachers and who had taught with me in China also with CIEE teach abroad. I remain close to my CIEE Chilean homestay family and they even traveled all the way to Michigan to attend my wedding a few years ago.
The connections, skills, experiences, relationships and memories that I gained studying and teaching abroad with CIEE still impact my daily life and I am grateful to the organization for helping me reach my dream job that I have today. Most of all, however, I am thankful to CIEE for instilling the curiosity and the sense of adventure that consistently encourages me to ask myself, “Where should I go tomorrow?”