Today’s real life experience comes from Anna Delaney, an SLP who left it all behind to work in Bhutan and now Germany. I’m sure she is many of my readers… an adventurer at heart. But what I love most about what Anna shares, is that it’s real. She touches upon many truths that people don’t like to share and paints a true picture of life as an SLP overseas.
1. Share your SLP journey. How did you get to where you are?
After reaching a point in my personal life where I knew it was “now or never,” I decided to let go of my safe and secure job in my hometown and start looking for an adventure. One in which I could continue working as an SLP while seeing the world and actually living life in a different country as opposed to just being a tourist. After months of researching other country’s speech therapy policies/licensure requirements, visa/residency requirements, pay, cost of living, etc. I had narrowed my focus to moving to Singapore. While I was interviewing for jobs there, I stumbled upon the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do some volunteer work in the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan. I put the job prospects on hold to go. Some months later, I had to let go of the plan for Singapore, and wound up taking a position working on an American military installation in Germany. Now I’ve married and moved away from my military job, though I still work privately in Germany, working for both expatriates and military families.
2. Speech pathology is different all over the world. What was the biggest surprise or difference that you experienced?
Gosh, so many. I left the U.S. as a naive, sheltered suburbanite; thinking I’d show up in some under-developed nation and make some big lasting impact on some kids there. I had a big awakening that you can’t just show up somewhere for a few months and think, “I’m gonna do some therapy and change some lives!” Looking back, I realize how foolish and arrogant that was. Real change is about policy, funding, education, and understanding cultural differences between visitor and host nation when trying to implement it. Trying to wrap my head around how all of these things influence one another and contribute to the broader scope of issues that plague an under-resourced population was overwhelming.
3. What are some real SLP issues in your country that we don’t know about?
The special education system in Germany is quite behind it’s “western” counterparts in many ways. Children with special needs still attend special schools. Speech therapists work in these special schools, and there is very little integration in the mainstream for children with educational needs beyond the norm. Also, the parents of “multi-culti” kids in bi/tri-lingual homes are still being told to drop the home language/s and just focus on German. That breaks my heart every time I hear it. It never fails to surprise me to see such a progressive nation be so behind in some ways. Then again, the paradoxes of someone else’s culture are so much easier to see than the paradoxes of your own. I’m sure there are maddening realities that others have observed about the American systems I grew up with that remain largely unnoticed to me.
4. We know you’ve had one…Share the funniest language barrier moment:
In Bhutan, I was hiking to a monastery (almost all of them are perched atop some beautiful mountain) and saying hello to passersby in Dzongkha, the national language. I noticed that whenever I said hello (Kuzoozangpo La), I would occasionally get a funny look from the men or a giggle from the elderly women. I brought this up with my Bhutanese tour guide, who politely informed me that I was pronouncing the vowels incorrectly, thus naming a certain part of, uh, shall we say, the male anatomy…rather than saying “hello.” Yikes! I was horrified at the thought of these sweet Bhutanese people taking their weekly sojourn for prayer and worship, only to be accosted by some silly westerner labeling male genitalia every time she walked by. Thank goodness I didn’t have to look at them again and face my embarrassment!
5. Do you have any favourite sites or recommendations for SLP’s who want to work abroad?
From a professional standpoint: ASHA has developed a pretty robust page dedicated to international employment. I think that’s a great place to get started. To be quiet honest, adventuresinspeechpathology.com was one of the first SLP blogs dedicated to travel that I found. I would also recommend becoming a member of SIG 17 (For ASHA members, it’s the Special Interest Group called “Global Issues in Communication Sciences and Related Disorders”). That certainly is a great way to network with other international SLP’s and see what’s going on in the international community.
From a personal standpoint: I think it is incredibly important to really ask yourself why? What is your purpose? How long do you intend to go? What “hardships” are you willing to tolerate and for how long? Do some serious soul-searching, but also do your homework. The book “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by Paul Allen was vital in helping me dissect my personal goals and my professional goals, and helped me be realistic in recognizing my limitations (Long term volunteering in an underprivileged country sounded so fulfilling, but at the end of the day, those student loans weren’t going to pay themselves!!).
Also, I think we sometimes romanticize the idea of helping the under-served in poverty stricken areas, or the idea of galavanting about Europe or Asia while working there; and we forget all the trials and challenges that come along with those experiences. Just remember, if you choose to take employment to serve the underserved, that you will at some point have to face families who traveled miles upon miles so that you could help their child and you look at their kids; with a multitude of physical, emotional, and communication needs and think, “I can’t help these people.” Or, you may have finally moved to an exciting foreign destination, and realize that you need to save most of your vacation time to go visit family back home. Or you’ll find that your inability to master the local language means that you just paid twice as much as necessary to move apartments because you messed up filling out the forms, you don’t know what the mechanic is telling you is wrong with your car, you can’t fight the overage charges on your phone bill because you can’t yell at the “customer service” representative (I use quotes around “customer service” because we all know there’s no such thing here in Deutschland!), the pool of people around you to make potential new friends has significantly dwindled, but it’s not like you have time to make friends anyway because you’re too busy running around town recycling stuff and sorting your garbage!! I’m kidding: sorting your garbage can easily be accomplished before going out on Saturday night!
But seriously, adapting to life in a new country is tough, and “culture shock” is real, even for the most adaptable individuals. Making an informed decision before hopping on a plane will save you lots of money and heartache. Most things that are worthwhile in life aren’t easy. They are often hard. Really hard. But so, so worth it if you’re able to open your mind to them.
Anna Delaney is a Speech-Language Pathologist from the US currently living in Germany. She received her Master’s degree in Communicative Disorders from the University of Louisville, Kentucky. After working in a public school system for 5 years, her wanderlust lead her to teach English in Prague, volunteer as an SLP in Bhutan, and work in an early intervention program on a US Air Force Base in Germany. She now works in private practice outside of Frankfurt, Germany with her new husband; splitting her free time between networking and searching for new clients, learning German, and planning her next vacation.
For a collection of SLP travel and overseas blog posts, check out my Pinterest page. If you are an international working SLP and want to share your story and answer the same 5 questions, please get in touch.