Working Abroad: Go Local, Escape the Expat Path

by Dr. Jessie Voigts /
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Jan 29, 2015 / 0 comments

Martina Clark is a freelance writer (travel and memoir) and an MFA Candidate at Stony Brook University in New York City. Prior to writing full-time, she spent 20 years with the United Nations and other international organizations working on HIV awareness and education. She has lived in Switzerland, Belgium, France, Australia and New Zealand, had extended work assignments in Madagascar, Malawi, Albania and Eritrea and has traveled to 90 countries privately or for work. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. You can find her online at


Martina Clark. From Working Abroad: Go Local, Escape the Expat Path

Photo: Diana Peters


What motivated your decision to work abroad? How/why did you choose where to go?

I had been working in the States on women and HIV and was offered a chance to join UNAIDS in Geneva and do global work. So the job and location chose me.

The Arve at the edge of Geneva, overlooking the Saleve

The Arve at the edge of Geneva, overlooking the Saleve


How did you find your job? What resources did you use?

Again, the job sort of found me through work I was already doing in the States so this question might not apply to me.


What was your experience like? Can you share some favorite memories - and challenges?

My experiences were overwhelmingly positive. I learned a lot about myself and my ability to adapt and thrive in a new setting. Setting up phone service was a bit of a challenge because it took forever. Mainly my observation is that in Geneva, things are set up with the notion that a person can be at home at any given time so as a single working woman it was not always easy to accommodate appointments. Aside from that, my experiences were more along the lines of pinching myself every time I caught a glimpse of the Alps or smiling when I realized my French was getting better and better and that I was being understood with less confusion on either part of a conversation. I loved living in Geneva, specifically, and overseas in general. And I always joke that Switzerland is a perfect starter country for learning French because they tend to speak more slowly than the French or Belgians!


Random sign in Belgium

Random sign in Belgium


What skills did you develop from your experience? Do you feel changed from your experience abroad?

I believe that I strengthened my listing and observation skills, as I wasn't always clear on the language so I had to rely on other tools to understand others and be understood. Geneva in particular was good for this because beyond just the francophone locals, there are dozens of other languages being spoken by the international residents so listening and watching became that much more important to understanding those around me. I am certain that after nearly four years in Geneva, I am much more observant everywhere I travel now.


Has your experience helped you get to where you are today?

The work experience helped my career, although having lived overseas has been more of a benefit personally than professionally. In terms of the UN, they wouldn't really consider Geneva an overseas experience as they place higher value on having lived in less developed countries where the UN has program work versus the headquarters locations such as Geneva or New York.


Nut stand in the souk, Damascus

Nut stand in the souk, Damascus


Any advice for students thinking about working overseas? What are some highlights or things that you gained or changed your perspective?

My advice is to do everything possible to spend time with locals and go beyond your language comfort zone a little more each day. Learn about the food or music or other things that only a local can tell you about, so that you are forced to learn from them and, if possible, in their language. Staying with other students from your home country might be easier but in the end you won't learn as much and ultimately, you'll have richer memories if you venture into the local culture and get to know the people of your host country.


Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

Living abroad is definitely one of the greatest experiences a person can have as it forces you to learn about yourself and where you limits are set versus what can be pushed. I believe that the more people who experience living in another culture, the more quickly the world will move towards a more accepting and tolerant collective mindset.


Monrovia, Liberia

One of my favorite pics from Monrovia, Liberia - a local Tower Records!?





All photos courtesy and copyright Martina Clark, except where noted