Working Abroad While Adjusting to Global Changes
Higher Education Expat - Sheltering Abroad Battling Two Virus Threats & a Cyclone
The landscape of higher education has been disrupted worldwide. I am not making a radical statement if you are reading this article as a higher education professional globally. You are living the reality in similar ways like myself. Professionally, I grew up in the US higher education system from small to large, from the private to public institutions and almost everything in between. I leaped in 2007 into international higher education by moving abroad to lead a residential life program of 9000 beds in the Middle East. I returned to the US for a moment at the end of 2009, then back to my passion for #highereducation abroad.
My second leap was in 2012, and I have continued the journey until now. However, like many of you, when the virus (COVID-19) was located in its initial epicenter and only mildly spreading in Asia, I had just started a new position in student affairs at an institution in #Bangladesh. Our leadership had a conversation about what we would do if our city, Dhaka, was impacted. We created plans, laid out the realities, then waited.
An Emerging Nation Experience
I work in an emerging nation. One that is not on the radar in higher education, much less the rest of the world unless you are following the Rohingya Crisis. Cox’s Bazar region of the nation has many Rohingya refugees. However, many of you have a part of this country’s primary source of GDP in your daily life, the clothing you wear or fabric items you have in your home. An emerging country seeking to develop its infrastructure for increased capacity or an education system to decrease brain drain, and grow, Bangladesh was soon faced with its 1st officially confirmed COVID-19 case. As a highly dense city, #Dhaka lacks the capacity for too many pandemics like some of its more developed Asian countries. However, what it may lack in advancement, it more than compensates in resourcefulness and willingness to find creative alternatives.
So I am also managing the potential of a second virus infection, with no known cure, but very treatable. The second is dengue. A virus transmitted by a mosquito which is here year-round and in increasing numbers during a wet/rainy period. They also breed throughout the year as the city has stagnant water in many places and a few lakes. However, the city is ready for this virus. There are nightly fumigations, supplies of sprays, and various types of repellents for your home and body. There is also the trusted mosquito net that you hoist over your bed for added protection at night.
So I have adjusted my mindset to staying at home while swatting mosquitoes. Then the news came on 18 May; a “super cyclone” was forming in the Bay of Bengal. A #cyclone, also known as hurricane or typhoon in other regions of the world, is common here during the monsoon (rainy) season. However, it had been 20 years since a cyclone of this magnitude formed in the bay. It was heading for the coastline where Bangladesh and India share a border. Okay, I live inland in Dhaka; however, it was projected that the wind and rain would reach the city and slightly beyond. Cyclone Amphan, as it was named, had a sustainable wind range from 155-165 kph (102 mph) when it made landfall. By the time it reached Dhaka, it was torrential rain and howling winds. I could hear metal items banging outside and rain pounding on the windows. I was in my safe zone of the house where my final drift off to sleep was about 4 am. Frankly, the cyclone increased my anxiety and stress level as I was unsure what to expect being inland.
With a government directive to close educational institutions in the third week of March, I started working from home. The timing was impeccable. I had recently moved into my permanent residence from a hotel less than two weeks prior. I was still working on many of the kinks of living in a new space. I quickly adjusted and ensured my internet was working well as it would be my new lifeline to my colleagues, students, and the rest of the world. In this respect, I did not differ from many of my counterparts around the world. But, unlike institutions in the US, Europe, and Australia, Bangladeshi institutions do not have the online capacity for its educational system at any level. My institution opted to move to alternative learning spaces. Our goal was to continue the learning process for our students using as many digital resource tools as possible.
What did this mean for me? I looked at ways with my teams to keep the students engaged. We had to participate for the first time in passive programming, such as transferring our informational messages into digital programming. We have turned to emails, SMS, and Facebook Live sessions and webinars for programming. We facilitate student-to-student conversations as well as guest speakers addressing matters relevant to the pandemic such as grief, stress, family dynamics, health, and wellness. We are working with our student organizations (clubs/societies) to create original virtual events or adapt their in-person programs to virtual ones. We have already had a mini-marathon that raised funds for a local charity. Other student groups are planning an online museum/exhibition, a business case study competition, and leveling up via a digital marketing workshop. I am excited to see the work our students and staff are doing given the lack of exposure or experience.
Going digital for our teams was new, and they had some hesitations as expected. However, we have online meetings. People’s connections and interactions make things happen here. Now the face-to-face interactions were suddenly gone, and everyone (staff and students) was unsure about which way to go or how to manage. As teams, we talked about the importance of keeping our students engaged with relevant topics. At first, I shared ideas and nudged the staff teams to try them. Now, the teams and students have their ideas flowing independently. I am pleased with what we are doing as we seek to do more and reach more students.
Overall, working remotely has been relatively positive and developmental for myself and my teams. I felt a bit more prepared for the experience since I have recently spent almost eight months being a location independent, a digital entrepreneur working from either my room or a restaurant in a hotel.
Being solo abroad has never been challenging for me. My expat life has entailed living and traveling solo for most of my experiences. So I don’t know why being solo suddenly feels burdensome. Perhaps it is because I only arrived here less than three (3) months ago. I do not know the landscape of my city and have not connected with many people yet. I have only interacted with colleagues and not meshed in the local culture or scene. I am thankful to family and friends for connecting and checking on me. I have heard from longtime friends and more recent ones. It has made a difference being in this new location with minimal connections. Once it is safe and feasible, I will explore and make new connections here.
When the #Covid19 officially reached Bangladesh, I made the tough decision to stay in my overseas location. I had the option to sign-up for a chartered repatriation flight. I weighed all the odds, costs, options, obstacles, and positives. I opted to stay. Staying still has its risks and challenges. Given the population density of the city I reside in and the healthcare system, the risk is there. But this risk is everywhere, so I stayed and put tight controls on my space. All groceries are delivered, no person enters my home, and I have a decontamination area for all deliveries.
Food supplies have been relevant food; I get fresh fruits and vegetables, proteins have been hit & miss depending on my ordering day. I am learning and trying different vendors. Thanks to my staff for providing me with insights. I have been cooking, which I enjoy and have not done for eight (8) months while being a digital nomad. I am learning to be creative with local produce. I am most grateful for the fresh fruits, including fresh coconut water. I know my privilege has allowed me to stay safe, well, and comfortable.
Because I have such tight control in my home regarding the COVID-19, my greater fear might be mosquitoes as they are always around because of the lakes, rivers, and rain. During the day, I open my windows and balcony doors. All have screens in place, but once dusk arrives, I must quickly close up the house. Even during the closing up process, several will slip into the house. If I miss this narrow window, then not all spaces will have mosquitos. So, I will become their meal at night.
I am learning to take precautions on all fronts...lots of work.
I thought I was resilient after living in four vastly different countries and traveling to over 45 others. However, I am learning my more significant lesson in resilience now. Whether it is creative cooking or transforming a student engagement program online, I have had to dig deep to learn alternative methods quickly or modify what I know. It is unprecedented, but to manage, you also have to dig through the file cabinet in your brain for past experiences as a resource. In the past month of being home, I recalled memories from my childhood of cooking or managing isolation. The level of #resilience that I or others will gain from this time in our life will make some previous everyday challenges look minute.
Life abroad is not always a bed of roses to use this adage; sometimes, it's all about managing the best you can each day. That being said, I would not trade my experience to live a life of comfort in a US suburb like where I grew up outside of Chicago. My passion for seeing the world and being exposed to its wealth in terms of people, culture, traditions, and more is who I am. My life’s purpose of sharing knowledge and learning equally as part of higher education in other countries is who I am. The two have merged well, and although my initial start on this destination known as Bangladesh has been filled with unique situations both local and global, I will take this life-changing experience of expat life any day.
Side Note plug...
If you are interested in learning more about my journey in #highereducationabroad, visit my blog. Additionally, I am open to being a guest on your panel, podcast, in your classroom, or a featured speaker.
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-- Karla A. Fraser, Working Abroad While Adjusting to Global Changes, Roseapple Global, LLC
Roseapple Global provides expat coaching and guidance for individuals or groups. We serve all aspiring or continuing expats and specialize in assisting higher education professionals. We also offer to consult for student-facing units of higher education institutions internationally. Our services focus on developing or improving the administrative and operational areas of your departments. We help you unlock your potential, maximize your ability, and equip you with resources and tools for your journey or your student-facing unit. Contact Us