In the past weeks and months I have worked hard on sorting out the data collected earlier this year for my PhD research through 20 in-depth interviews with staff members at three European Union agencies (i.e. Cedefop in Greece, Eurofound in Ireland, European Training Foundation in Italy). Parallel to this I have been in the process of creating a theoretical and conceptual framework for my doctoral dissertation. In broad terms, the aim of the research is to gain a better understanding of how working at an international level influences professional competences and personal perception of life.
What gets filtered through from the interview data is that the respondents described working and living abroad as a life-changing experience. Many of them were using expressions such as “I would be a totally different person had I not moved abroad” or “I’ve learnt so much about myself and about life during these years outside of my own country” or “It has not always been easy, but I do not regret that I took the step to go abroad”. Somehow all this gets crystallized in a heightened sense of self, in an increased level of self-awareness as becoming exposed to a different reality often redefines us human beings in one way or another.
What we learn with difficulty, holds on longer
If we consider self-awareness as a meta-level competence, then it becomes the key to learning and developing other important competences. Following this line of thinking, we could propose that the clearer our sense of self is, the better decisions we are able to take in the professional and private spheres of our lives. Knowing that we are constantly creating, re-creating and co-creating our reality (or our multiple realities), it is therefore essential to take time to reflect on who we are and what our personal and professional preferences are. Doing this enables us to construct a broader and deeper view of ourselves.
As regards a professional career abroad, it is of course not only about self-awareness, but about a wide range of skills and competences that are required for good performance at work. Yet what becomes critical here is that moving to another country and being uprooted from one’s own well-established network of social contacts back home, normally means a loss of safe and validating private and professional relationships. This fact was emphasized by many respondents upon entering an international working and living environment for the first time. They placed a high value on having solid learning-to-learn and career management skills as a way to tackle and overcome numerous challenges simultaneously. In summary, the difficulty coefficient usually increases, when the foundation of life changes and our adaptability to new circumstances becomes a critical success factor.
Validating and differentiating oneself
The way we see and identify ourselves with other people and phenomena defines who we are as humans. Much of our self-identification is rooted in our past and present experiences, but not only as also our future aspirations contribute to the person who we are and who we aim or wish to be later on. Also speculating about who we could have been, had we chosen differently in the past, is an additional dimension in our self-evaluation.
It lies in human behaviour to constantly look for finding validation for oneself and that way situate and justify oneself in relation to all the others. For instance as some of the interviewees reported, going back home for holidays was seen as a most self-validating experience after struggling with an unfamiliar culture abroad. Simply having the opportunity again to be among “one’s own folks” was psychologically something empowering and mentally soothing. It seems, though, that through chaos and confusion within oneself and with the outer world, more self-clarity can be obtained in the end in relation to getting more insight into one’s personal values, beliefs and attitudes.
Finally, living in another country and working in a multicultural setting also seem to make people discover how complex they are as human beings and how many different and distinct layers of being human they have. For many interviewees exploring one’s own self-complexity within a new context has been a fascinating and rewarding learning process. Several respondents also indicated that while they have been exposed to interaction with new people from diverse backgrounds, they have introduced and created behavioural patterns that they did not necessarily use in their own country. On the one hand, this has been a way to survive, on the other hand, through such self-differentiating experiences a more evolved sense of oneself has emerged.