GoAbroad Interview

Kara Menini - Teach, TEFL, & Work Programs Manager

Kara Menini - Teach, TEFL, & Work Programs Manager

Kara graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a degree in English, and promptly got on a plane to teach English in Thailand with Greenheart Travel. She taught at an all-boys boarding school in the Nakhon Pathom Province, where she learned how to ride side-saddle on a motorbike and discovered khao mun gai. Kara hasn’t found a way to kick the constant desire to be abroad, so luckily her job with Greenheart Travel allows her to fulfill that desire.

You began your relationship with Greenheart Travel as a program participant in Thailand. What drew you to stay connected with the organization after your program ended?

The only reason I knew about Greenheart Travel was because I had lived around the corner from the office when I first moved to downtown Chicago. So, even though my initial connection to Greenheart Travel was serendipitous, I developed a pretty deep connection to the organization once I got to Thailand, met other Greenheart Travel teachers, and kept in touch with Sara (my program manager) throughout my time abroad.

I came back from Thailand and applied for an unpaid internship at the age of 25 at the Greenheart Travel office, because I wanted to stay involved in the community that had become such an important part of my life. Through either good luck or just good timing, a full-time position opened up right as I was about to finish my internship and I was offered the job. This summer will mark three years at Greenheart Travel!

ESL teacher with students in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand
Kara with two 8th grade students at her school in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand

What did you enjoy about teaching abroad most?

Looking back, I really enjoyed the challenges of teaching and everyday life, though at the time I probably would not have given that answer. I didn’t have any previous teaching experience and had only obtained a cheap, online TEFL certification course, so I left myself to navigate a completely new profession basically blind. I toured the school on a Monday, signed my contract, and was given my weekly schedule, which included six classes back-to-back on Tuesdays (aka my first day).

My first month of teaching included lots of naps, lots of late night lesson planning sessions, lots of butterflies before every class, lots of confusion, and lots of second-guessing myself. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t contemplate quitting a few times - I worked at an all-boys boarding school, so my classes could get pretty unruly at times and managing a bunch of teenage boys day in and day out is nothing short of exhausting. On top of that, I had to work hard to communicate with anyone I interacted with outside of school, whether it was to get directions to the store or to order dinner, and I was constantly trying to figure out how to not offend any and all Thai people by making the wrong gesture or saying a word incorrectly.

All this sounds negative, but without these challenges, my experience in Thailand would not have been as rewarding or meaningful. I’m thankful for all the bad days, the unmanageable students, and the awkward and frustrating interactions with the guy who made my dinner most nights, because I faced these challenges head on and life got easier because I worked at it, and that’s a good feeling.

These experiences aided in the growth of my interpersonal and problem-solving skills, my independance, and my perseverance to see something through to the end, and I’m really proud of that growth.
Tourists at the Kings birthday celebration in Hua Hin, Thailand
Kara and another Greenheart Travel teacher with their landlady at the King's birthday celebration in Hua Hin in 2013

Why would you recommend Thailand for other aspiring international teachers or expats?

I would recommend Thailand for the type of person who is looking for a challenge or something different, but would still like the experience to be manageable. A Southeast Asian, Buddhist country is about as different as you can get from Western cultures, but Thai people are known for their hospitality, there are Western comforts and foods available in tourist areas, and there’s a large expat population. Also, Thai food is delicious and the landscapes are beautiful. The culture is enough to push you out of your comfort zone, but it’s a country and culture that are easy to fall in love with, making the bad days totally worth it to stick out.

In your role at Greenheart Travel, how do you utilize your past travel experiences?

I talk about my travel experiences, especially my time in Thailand, multiple times a day almost every day. I’ve started to get self-conscious that my coworkers secretly hate my story because they’ve heard it so many times (kidding!). I think it’s a unique expertise I bring to my role at Greenheart Travel, but everyone who works here has either taught or lived abroad for a period of time, so there’s a large library of travel experience in our office. We’re always asking each other questions or bouncing ideas off each other - I feel like everyone has their own expertise based on their individual experiences and we know to utilize our collective knowledge to help our teachers and volunteers.

What does a typical day of work look like for you?

A typical day entails talking to lots and lots of people, from people who have just started looking into going abroad all the way to teachers who are applying for their visas and already packing their bags. I always joke that my job looks boring from an outside perspective because I’m on my computer or the phone most of the day, but the result of my work is people going abroad to have this amazing experience and scratch a few items off their bucket list.

How do you help support participants throughout their journey, from pre-departure preparations to reverse culture shock?

We pride ourselves on being able to help our teachers, volunteers, and students through the entire process from the first inquiry about going abroad all the way through arrival into their new countries. Our alumni can connect with other alumni after they returned home and participate in  professional development opportunities, like Greenheart Grants and the annual Greenheart Global Leadership Conference in D.C.

We’ve created guides, blogs, and webinars that are available to help our travelers through every part of the application process, interview preparation, and visa application, and we have comprehensive pre-departure cultural training as well as access to all of the experienced program managers to answer any and all questions by phone, email, or Skype.

Greenheart Travel staff members cheering for the Cubs
Kara and the Greenheart Travel team during the World Series, Go Cubs!

Teaching jobs abroad aren’t hard to find, but it’s an intimidating process especially if you’ve never lived outside your home country. It’s the reason I decided to apply to teach abroad with a company like Greenheart Travel, instead of looking for jobs independently and directly with schools. I wanted someone to tell me what to do and when, how to apply for my visa, what to pack, someone to pick me up at the airport pickup, and tell me what town to move to, etc.

It was also a selling point that there would be an orientation when I arrived, where I could meet other teachers right away, since I was traveling alone. Three years after I’ve returned home, I still see my friends from Thailand regularly even though we’re spread around the globe.

Some teachers are comfortable finding work independently, but for those who want that extra helping hand (like I did!), Greenheart Travel provides that service and support.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The first thing I do in the morning when I get to work isn’t to check my emails, but to go through my Facebook feed and the #greenhearttravel on Instagram to see all the cool stuff my teachers are doing all over the world.

When I was younger, I never pictured myself working in an office, but it’s what I’m doing because I love that what Greenheart Travel does, which is create global citizens who are open-minded, understanding of differences, and who are always looking to learn about new and different people and cultures. I had a life-changing experience abroad and now I get to help others do the same for themselves, and I think that’s pretty cool to do for a living.

Your high school French class trip to France was your first major trip abroad. What is the most memorable part of this trip that still inspires you to travel today?

I had actually been on two Mexico cruises with my family prior to my trip to France in high school. I hate to be a travel snob and say that those trips didn’t count because they totally did in a lot of ways. But, cruises keep you with other English speakers and only allow you a short time off the boat where you’re surrounded by English-speaking locals selling things only made for tourists and usually the same food you can find on the boat or at home.

France was my first authentic experience abroad, where I was allowed time to venture out by myself, get lost, miscommunicate with locals, sit at the outdoor cafes I had been seeing in my French books for years, and just be in awe that my reality was that I was in France. I wouldn’t say there was one particular moment during that trip that inspired me to travel more, it was the experience as a whole that made me realize “Yep, I like this. I want to keep doing this.”

Girl sitting on top of Catedral de Leon in Nicaragua
Kara at the top of Catedral de León in Nicaragua on a work trip to visit Greenheart Travel’s TEFL school

What is your best piece of advice for someone considering participating in a Greenheart Travel program?

Stay open minded, for real. It’s so much easier said than done, I know, but it’s so important for anyone going abroad, through us or by some other avenue. Both at work and in my personal life, I have seen so many people ruin their own experience by having unrealistic expectations of what they think their time abroad should be like, instead of just living in the moment and experiencing it as it actually is.

For most of the travelers that go abroad with Greenheart Travel, it’s their first time living in another country or even going to the country they’ll be living in. Thanks to the masses of travel bloggers who like to leave out the challenges and realities of living abroad, it’s easy to romanticize what you expect your life will be like. But, the truth is, if you have never lived in Thailand or South Korea or Colombia, you don’t have any context to form an opinion on what to expect.

From my personal experience, the more expectations you have, the more opportunities there are for you to feel disappointed. It’s not about having low expectations; it’s more about having next to no expectations. The only thing you can expect is that there will be challenges and you’ll probably successfully face most of them. Other than that, anything could happen!