Reflections On Life As An Overseas Educator

Written By, Doug Zaideman

Learning To Trip Lead

Becoming an Overseas Educator (OE) with Carpe Diem wasn’t something that I always knew I wanted to do, in fact, I hadn’t even heard of formal gap year education programs until after I had already made my way through school and had the opportunity to travel internationally for the first time. During a trip to Southeast Asia, I would meet student groups in hostels and find myself talking with the trip leaders of the groups, asking them what they did, how they found that type of work, and so on. I was definitely intrigued, but still had exploring and learning to do on my own.

A year or so later, while lying in a hammock on a barge, floating down the Amazon River, I decided I’d reach out to an organization that runs summer adventure travel programs for high school students that I had gone on a trip or two with during my teenage years. Those trips had made me a more confident, educated, and adventurous person, and I remember the trip leaders being instrumental in helping young people like me achieve their potential and reach for new heights. I had a new professional goal: to be one of those facilitators; someone who could be a positive role model for young people, use the world as a classroom, and pass along some of the life & travel skills I had compiled over the years. 

A prospective trip leader doesn’t just jump into leading 3 month international programs. First, I had to prove to myself that I both enjoyed the work enough and was capable of leading safe programs for extended periods of time. This meant starting my trip leading life on guided weekend canoe trips, and facilitating day long student programs to get the hang of speaking in front of groups and running various team building and leadership style activities in an outdoor environment. Sure enough, initial success with these short programs led me to feeling I could do longer programs. Next up was leading summer trips for high school students, similar to what I had done when I was younger. After two years leading multi-week programs in Southern Africa and the Western U.S., it felt like I was ready for the next step.

Finding Carpe Diem

I heard about Carpe Diem through a friend in the industry who had led a semester or two with them and had really enjoyed their experience. I applied for a position, and it immediately felt as though I was speaking with folks who shared common interests and goals, and were eager to continue learning, exploring, and pushing themselves to be better versions of themselves. The more I got to know about the organization, the more impressed I became with their belief in experiential learning and education that comes along with international travel.

I appreciate Carpe Diem's focus on community, and that was cemented by attending my first staff training, always one of my favorite aspects about working with Carpe Diem! Whenever I find myself surrounded by our HQ staff and the other OEs, I find myself inspired and motivated to take life by the horns, follow my dreams, and feel comforted by the fact that there are others out there doing the same. It’s hard getting a large group of vagabonds in one location for too long, and when we do, the energy is palpable. We all leave these trainings feeling excited to work with students, to lead with an amazing co-OE, and get to do it all while traveling to some of the most beautiful places in the world.

Working With A Co-Overseas Educator

Imagine being paired up with a random individual who you likely have never met or worked with before, and you two are then tasked with working side by side for the next 3 months, all while looking out for the physical and intellectual well being of 12 teenagers in a foreign land. Sounds like a reality show, right? But for OEs, it’s just reality. You travel together, laugh a lot, cry some, share countless meals and hotel rooms, plan out lessons, and learn every little detail about what makes the other happy, sad, annoyed, and every feeling in between. When I mentioned earlier that I feel motivated and inspired to do better and be better by my peers in this profession, that is especially true of my team of co-leads, they are the reason I keep coming back year after year and are a big part of why I enjoy this job so much. I am truly grateful for how much they have taught me and the friendships that have come from those working partnerships.

The Group Semester

I get the same feeling every time I am about to meet a new group in the airport and start a trip. It’s a mixture of nervousness and excitement, a sense that I am about to meet a group of people that are all going to share life changing experiences together. For many, it’s their first time traveling alone or out of the country, and what’s great about a Carpe Diem program is that students come on the program alone, so everyone is getting to know each other at the same time. Usually within a few moments, all of those nerves are out the window as we begin to get to know each other and share some laughs.

I love the pace of a Carpe Diem semester. Traveling to new destinations every week or two and immersing yourself in new themes and environments keeps everything fresh and exciting. It gives you time to build meaningful connections with your host families and organizations, and also find ways to contribute in meaningful ways. Without a doubt, some of the most inspiring and interesting people I have ever met were contacts on Carpe Diem gap year programs.

There are some themes and aspects of Carpe Diem programs that are similar, no matter if you are on the South Pacific program or in India. Some of the subjects I have enjoyed learning about the most are the many weeks spent on permaculture farms studying sustainable agriculture, and whenever I get to participate in a yoga or meditation class/retreat. I appreciate the opportunity to practice those self care methods that I don’t always make time for in my everyday life.

The group dynamic on every trip is different, but I’ve never not seen a group come together and learn to function as a whole. It’s another way the Carpe Diem Community shines through, and I believe having students take on different roles and more ownership of the program is a big reason why people like these trips so much. Which leads me too….

My absolute favorite week of a Carpe Diem semester is the week of Student Directed Travel. This typically takes place late in the semester, and it is wonderful to watch a group of students come together and plan out a week long adventure using the travel skills they’ve been acquiring. Some of my Student Directed Travel highlights include exploring ruins and hot springs in the Sacred Valley of Peru, hiked and camped alongside an active volcano in Guatemala, and we even visited Hobbiton in New Zealand! As an OE who is constantly going over travel logistics and budgets, it’s kind of a treat to sit back and watch the student group run the show for a while!

10 years ago if you asked me what I would be doing with my life, I don’t think I would have painted a picture that looked anything like this. Carpe Diem sets out to inspire growth and transformation through culturally immersive gap year experiences, and I always thought that that was the goal intended for their students, it turns out that their Overseas Educators get the same benefits too, what a great job!