Paving the Road Less Traveled – tips for landing an international job

Profile Resume Picture Professional Head Shot Jessica GamburgWritten by Jessica Gamburg, a 2006 graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences, who is a Business Development Manager of One Acre Fund, an NGO based in sub-Saharan Africa. In the following blogs, she shares with Penn students her adventures since graduation and her advice for a rewarding international career.

I. Paving the Road Less Traveled

After graduating from UPenn in 2006, I landed a great job in finance.  Even though I was living a comfortable post-undergraduate life in the windy city, I didn’t choose to root myself in Chicago very long.   In the past 5 years, I’ve moved from the U.S. to Senegal, to Chile, to France, to Turkey. Now, I live in Kenya. In between living in those countries, I traveled to a dozen others.

While living abroad, I completed two years of service with the Peace Corps and obtained an MBA at HEC Paris. Later, I interned at the US Consulate in Istanbul. I’ve learned to speak Wolof and a bit of Turkish, and I’ve honed my French to a far greater degree than I ever thought possible during high school French class. How I got from Chicago to my current city, Nairobi, has nothing to do with happenstance. I’d like to offer a few insights and recommendations to those interested in pursuing a similar “international” lifestyle.

I left my lucrative job in finance after working two years in order to join the Peace Corps. The catalyst for this change was a mixture of low job satisfaction and a desire to live “outside the box”. My plan was to obtain a JD-MBA and apply for managerial roles in the non-profit/international development sector. It was an ambitious 5-year plan that involved some significant risk, but I was idealistic and energetic. I wanted to live a “richer” life, even though I knew Peace Corps salary and a double-masters tuition would leave me, speaking literally, much poorer. Five years later, I can say I accomplished (nearly) everything I set out to do (I never did end up doing the JD), and haven’t spent a single moment regretting my decision to leave the “normal” way of life behind.

Today, as the Business Development Manager of One Acre Fund, an NGO based in sub-Saharan Africa, I’m charged with securing grants, cooperative agreements, and contracts with large, institutional funders. To create this opportunity, I’ve worked hard (an understatement) and travelled far (a bigger understatement), and with the right plans and strong commitment you can too.

Every move I’ve made has been purposeful and targeted, always keeping the next step in mind. It was Tolkien who said, “Not all those who wander are lost”; but let’s face it, some wanderers are very very lost. When I set out on this journey, I decided I would never be aimless along it – that promise has kept me centered on building a career instead of launching into some kind of extended vacation, which can become a trap easily fallen into, especially for those seeking an abbreviated workweek.

One of the biggest challenges I’ve seen in landing an international job is the fact that all the job listings seem to require previous international experience. For most of us, this fact represents a catch-22.

II. Undoing the Catch-22

1. Assess your commitment.

Think carefully about the trade-offs you will have to make, and assess whether you really are ready to make them. Lower salary, safety concerns, health concerns, general discomfort, isolation – I have experienced every single one of these in the last 5 years. But, what I’ve gained far outstrips these issues: higher job satisfaction, more autonomy on the job (“flatter” organizations), self-sufficiency, ability to adapt quickly, ability to integrate, richness of experience, the list goes on.

2. Get going.

It takes time to prove your commitment to working abroad. Employers are reluctant to send people (especially recent undergrads) overseas because it is costly and risky. Studying abroad is a nice indicator of your interest, but not of your commitment. Working for at least 1 year with any international program will exponentially increase your success rate in future international job applications. Even if you don’t start at the most prestigious institution, your resume will become much more attractive to all international organizations. It takes significant research to find what options are out there, but here’s a short list to get you started:



  • US Peace Corps
  • US State Department’s Student Internship Program
  • Taking an unpaid post at a non-profit you respect (raise your own funding via Kickstarter, for example)
  • An international masters degree*
  • Starting your own business/organization overseas
  • Innovations for Poverty Action
  • Japan Exchange and Teaching Program
  • Fulbright Scholarships (i.e. English Teaching Assistant program)
  • Search Associates
  • International Schools Services (i.e. Education Careers)

* I’m talking about a master’s degree that’s actually in a foreign country, not just a degree that has “international” in the title. Ironically the latter won’t necessarily qualify you for an overseas post without significant prior international experience.

3. Get specialized.

Another option is to work for either a “name brand” organization or in a “specific skill” job for 1-2 years right out of college. If you pay your dues at, say, McKinsey, you can generally go abroad (with them, or with another firm), because the experience will “validate” your resume. Alternatively, if you spend 2 years working (i.e. as a software developer), then you have a specific skill set that can translate to any global organization. The risk here is getting pigeonholed into a sector you aren’t passionate about.

4. Find your inspiration.

What helped push me to go abroad, and what has kept me here, is identifying what inspires me. Taking a close look at my values, and assessing whether the life I was living was in line with those values, gave me additional motivation to turn things upside-down. After I made the decision to leave my finance job, and just before I left for my new job with the Peace Corps, I was given some invaluable advice:  amass an inspiration “portfolio”. I chose a few of my favorite quotes, poems, essays, and pictures; they’ve kept me going through good times and bad.

5. Don’t pay to volunteer.

I don’t have much faith in programs that ask their volunteers to pay. Generally, these programs are short-term, soft on results, and geared more towards the notion of extended vacation. If you do chose to pursue one of these programs, do your research carefully. Try to find past volunteers (LinkedIn) and talk to them. Don’t forget – you can always reach out directly to non-profits rather than going through intermediaries.

Author: Guest Perspective

Our guest perspective account includes views from Penn alumni, current students and employers, writing exclusively for Penn & Beyond!