Frannie and I met in September 2011 in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Specifically, at Soria Moria’s $1 Wednesday night deals, where everything on the menu is one dollar. Yes, this is a real thing. As two of the few American expats teaching in Siem Reap, we became fast friends. As young 22 year olds, we did what every normal recent college grad did, which was to dance, drink, and lie to tourists about where we were from. While I went home after one year, she has taught for the last 6 years in Cambodia, Kuwait, and Guatemala…

Tell us about what led you to your first job abroad:

I learned to love traveling when I did my study abroad in Rome. I studied Elementary Education and Special Education at St. Mary’s, and did a summer internship going into my senior year at a primary school in Kyurosozi, Uganda. That was my first real teaching abroad experience, and knowing I could do two things I love at once - teach and travel - prompted me to apply to every teaching job possible after I graduated.

Every job?

I really applied everywhere! Using tieonline.com. I got a Skype interview with JPA in Siem Reap, they had me come to Chicago for an in-person interview with their sister school there, then went through a summer internship with them, and off to Cambodia!

Was Cambodia on your radar? Did you know anything about it before going?

Haha, no. I didn’t know anything about Cambodia before going.

Can you tell us more about JPA?

Jay Pritzker Academy (JPA) is a college prep school located in Siem Reap, geared towards the best and brightest Khmer children. The goal is to have these kids eventually leave Cambodia, study abroad in Australia, Europe and the United States, and come back to help rebuild Cambodia. A lot of their vision is still in progress and they need to figure out how to keep kids connected to their culture when they’re living abroad.

Sounds like very admirable goals. What did you do there?

I taught in their first Pre-K program. There were 2 classes, 30 kids each. The school day was 7:30am to 3pm in English, and it was everything from reading, sounds, letters, and such. I signed on for 2 years.

How were the kids?

They're incredibly bright, and all came from the Thma Pouk district, which meant they had to be under a certain poverty line. So the process is pretty intense to choose kids because obviously all families want their kids to have access to education, 3 meals a day, doctor visits and dental care. There were 500 applicants for 60 slots.

What was it like to live in Cambodia for two years?

It was a perfect country to start my time abroad. Everyone was so friendly. And being 21-23 years old, it was easy to meet people, big going out scene, everything was easy going.

Were you ever homesick?

Oh yeah. It was so far away! I was able to go home early into my stay when there were massive floods and the school closed for a month. Before that, I thought maybe this was the wrong decision, what have I done!? But then I went home… and everyone was loving life, and I would have been happy at home I guess, but it was all the same, and will be the same when I get back.

Did you learn any cultural nuances from living in Cambodia?

I adopted a strong British accent. It’s true. What I can say is that Khmer people are incredibly friendly and want to help so badly. They never say no, just always “maybe cannot.” Cambodia is the only place so far that I felt the most immersed in the culture, I had a lot of Khmer friends and went to a few weddings while I was there.

Where did you go during time off while in Cambodia?

I went home every Christmas, did a lot of trips within Cambodia, and visited Thailand and Malaysia.

So after 2 years, you left for Kuwait, how was the process of finding your next job?

Well, I was deciding between the most dangerous border town in Mexico, and Kuwait City. On my interview with the school in Mexico, she said “it’s totally safe if you’re in the compound by 7.” So, I chose Kuwait. But not only because it was safer, but also because the director really sold me on the school.

View from Frannie's classroom in Cambodia

And did you know much about Kuwait?

Nope! Is that a theme? Haha.

Where did you work in Kuwait City?

I spent 3 years at Fawzia Sultan International School (FSIS), which is an all special needs school.

Was it similar to JPA at all?

Actually no, it was a crazy different teaching experience. I had 8 kids in my classes with 2 adults at all times. But these kids were all special needs, so they needed a different type of management. In Cambodia, the kids were pretty on par with development, but here the kids were on all different grade levels.

The kids were all also from wealthy families. I felt I was making more of a difference in Cambodia, but Kuwait is a very wealthy country and most of these children have nannies and private tutors. In general I love working with younger students because they’re still little and excited about the world.

I don’t know much about Kuwait either, but I know they don’t allow alcohol. How was that?

Legally there’s no alcohol, but there were some interesting workarounds. My guy friends made vodka and rum, which were comparable to paint thinner or moonshine. I technically know how to make wine, but turns out it’s a long process and plastic bottles are not ideal.

What kind of expats live in Kuwait besides teachers?

Well, it’s definitely not a tourist destination. There’s an army base, American contractors, teachers, and most people I’d interact with on a day to day basis were from other countries. For instance, taxi drivers, waiters, waitresses, maids, nannies were all from Egypt, Yemen, India, Phillipines or Indonesia.

What are all the Kuwaiti people doing?

They work but they’re pretty elite. I asked one of my students what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he said “I don’t want to be anything.” So I said you have to think of something, and he said, “Ok, I guess I could work at the airport like my dad. He goes and signs his name on things and drinks tea with his friends.” A lot of Kuwaitis have inherited jobs.

On the 25th anniversary of liberation from Iraq, the government gifted thousands of dollars in every Kuwaitis bank account.

What? How many people are in Kuwait?

I don’t know!

I’ll Google it. (It’s 3.36 million)

Okay so Kuwait, great school system. Where did you get to travel to while living there?

That was the best. The Middle East is the middle of the world. I visited Lebanon, Oman, Dubai, Bahrain, Ethiopia, Egypt, and who would have guessed, I went to a softball tournament in Prague.

3 years went by and then you moved to Guatemala City, tell us about that decision…

It was time to move on! I was deciding between Guatemala and Ecuador, and knew I wanted to be in South or Central America. I’ve been in Guatemala City for 2 months at the American School of Guatemala (CAG).

Perks of living in the Middle East

And the job? How does it compare to Kuwait and Cambodia?

This is my first job without a classroom! I’m part of the student support services, which means I push into classrooms or pull out small groups in Pre-K, Kindergarten and 1st grade. So, I’ll work with small groups in small settings on reading, writing and number sense.

What’s your take on Guatemala City so far?

It’s my first time living in a city that feels like a city. It’s big, there are skyscrapers, it’s kinda hard to get around. Where I live is safe, but I have already been through various zones and slums that are less safe. The landscape changes pretty fast, but I am digging the green vegetation.

Where will you travel while living in Central America?

Tons of places to see in Guatemala. I already did a road trip to Honduras and can drive to El Salvador. I’ll head to Nicaragua in a couple weeks, Belize in December and Cuba in the summer.

Sounds perfect. I’ll see you in Cuba. So, is living abroad the dream or what?

The best part about international teaching is you get on a plane and someone is at the airport on the other end. They take you to an apartment waiting for you with a fully stocked fridge. You get introduced to other teachers and make new friends. I can see why people get sucked in, it’s a comfortable, easy and exciting way of life.

When you put it like that, it is easy. You’re entering your sixth year teaching abroad, can you say that you have a favorite?

They are all very different and I certainly compartmentalize. It’s hard to compare. As far as a city, I liked being in Cambodia and I’d love to live in Siem Reap again. In terms of schools, I’d take bits and pieces of each school to make a perfect school. Mold my perfect school in Cambodia, that’d be great.

And what about the future? Will you be teaching forever?

This will be a telling two years. For the first time I thought, Oh, 27, I guess I should start to figure out what I want. If I want to stay in Guatemala for longer, stay abroad, if I go abroad, do I need to find a place that I want to settle? If I had to answer right now, I would say that I’m not coming back to the States for a long time.

But I mean, I’m 27 and I don’t think we’re old. What about your other coworkers? Anyone with families?

In Kuwait and Cambodia, I was always the youngest teacher. In Siem Reap, there was a high school teacher from Wales with an Italian wife and two beautiful girls under the age of 8 who spoke Flemish, Italian, English, Khmer and Chinese. They led this cool life of traveling and seeing different things, with well adjusted, awesome kids who went on to live in Egypt.

The director of FSIS now lives in Guatemala. She’s Canadian, her husband is an American contractor, and her kids can speak Arabic (party tricks) and Spanish.

I’ve seen other people with families and lives abroad who make it work.

Is there anything you miss about the States?

Just friends and family. I miss the food from Kuwait more than food from home (Middle Eastern). Though, it turns out I’m a big fan of traffic regulations stateside, but I do not miss driving.

Thanks Frannie, this is awesome. Any lasting words of advice to those contemplating a life abroad?

If you want to travel and work abroad, interview to as many places with openings. You can be happy wherever.

Views of Pacaya Volcano in Antigua, Guatemala