The Adventures Abroad series highlights young professionals boldly taking up global roles and gaining international work experience.
I got to know our first feature, Brandi Hester, back during our undergraduate college days. Brandi became a member of my sorority and quickly grew to be a beloved little sister to me. Over the years, I’ve watched Brandi blossom into a dynamically fearless woman and accomplished professional, so I wasn’t surprised when I learned that she was packing her bags and relocating to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to pursue the next chapter of her career. Last week, I finally caught up with her on the phone. During our conversation, she shared her experiences moving to a country with drastically different cultural and religious norms, unexpected surprises along the way, and how she’s been able to pay off almost all of her debt. Interview below.
The Basics: Brandi Hester
- Hometown: Rochester, New York
- Current City: The outskirts of Abu Dhabi in a town called Al Ain. The Sheikh’s family lives in Al Ain. It’s a more family-oriented area, mostly working class. Many people don’t realize that Abu Dhabi is huge. It’s the largest of the 7 Emirates of the United Arab Emirates (yes, there are seven).
- Profession: ESL (English as a Second Language) Teacher to the US equivalent of ‘pre-school’ students
- Relocated: October 2014. The process took about 3 months and the position requires a 2-year commitment.
Early Career Influences & Inspiration
After a few minutes of catching up via the phone and getting the obligatory logistical stuff out of the way (interview process, final post output, asking if any topics were off-limits – I was particularly concerned about this as I didn’t want to put her in a compromising situation since UAE laws are significantly more conservative than US laws), I asked Brandi about her early influences & inspiration.
She shared with me that her interest in education began during college. She studied special and elementary education at the undergraduate level then relocated to Washington, DC to pursue her Masters in Education for Change with a focus on Policy and Curriculum. Although she had been offered an opportunity to teach abroad years earlier during undergrad, it wasn’t until this point in her life that she felt mentally, spiritually, and emotionally prepared to take the leap and move abroad.
“I wanted to learn how different cultures use curriculum to make learning effective. I had the flexibility to target many other countries, but wanted to step outside my comfort zone to understand other cultures and how they learn.” – Brandi
As we continued to discuss education and culture, the dialogue shifted to the subject of class and poverty. I could sense Brandi’s tone becoming much more somber and thoughtful as she calculated her words. She explained to me that as part of her capstone project during school, she had conducted research on the impact of homelessness on academic achievement and social development. In the UAE.; however, many of her students come from wealthy families, so education and learning isn’t always necessitated as a means of elevating social class. In fact, ‘poverty,’ in the way that we perceive it here in the United States, does not always exist in other countries in the same shape and form that we might expect..
We left it at that.
Brandi emphasized that regardless of the cultural differences, the children (her students) help to enhance her experience. Their playful faces, innocence, and hunger for knowledge are greater than any surface differences. They make gains every day that help her feel accomplished and fulfilled. She knows that she’s positively impacting their lives. And to her, that makes the experience worthwhile.
Embarking on a New Journey
Brandi discovered the opportunity to teach in the UAE through a program called Teach Away. Teach Away pairs certified ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers with job opportunities across the globe in countries like Qatar, Mexico, China, and, of course – the UAE. She notes that there is no shortage of similar programs for individuals interested in teaching abroad. She received her first offer from Teach Away in 2011 but turned it down. She informs me that she was the only person they’d ever hired on the spot.
“I’m happy I waited until I was older in a different place spiritually and mentally. I’m more comfortable with where I am as a woman.” – Brandi
I asked Brandi what factors (apart from stepping outside her comfort zone and experiencing a new culture) drove her decision to accept the offer to teach abroad the second time around. She kept it real with me:
Money. Dollars. dirham.
Brandi’s been able to almost completely eliminate her debt with the income she’s generating teaching abroad (and she’s only been there six months). The cost of living is so low that she’s able to save significantly more than she’s ever been able to save before. For instance, her weekly trip to the farmer’s market for groceries costs her about 53 dirham. That’s 14 US Dollars for fresh, organic, local groceries… What?! I spend that much on a single lunch during the work week (#ManhattanProblems).
“Being young and traveling gives you a different perspective. This particular area [UAE] might not give me all the experiences I want, but being able to travel creates additional outlets to experience more than I ever thought I could.” – Brandi
With the savings she’s accumulated, she’s had the flexibility to travel more. She’s visited Cairo, Rome, Portugal, Madrid, Seville & Barcelona with upcoming plans to visit Thailand, Sri Lanka, London, Paris & Amsterdam. She’ll also be volunteering in my childhood country, Tanzania, for a week.
The Unexpected Surprises
I remember asking Brandi how she was doing a few weeks after her big move from DC to the UAE. Although the conversation was over WhatsApp, I could tell that she was homesick, a little down, and maybe even doubting her decision to move abroad. The transition to life in UAE is not an easy one. There are so many factors to consider that one may not think about initially. Being so far away from the things you know and love can increase feelings of desolation and loneliness. But six months in, Brandi is bringing her jubilant energy, infectious laughter, and vibrant personality to our conversation – the same energy that many of us who know her personally have grown to love.
I asked her what things have surprised her the most about her experience living abroad. She mentions her amazing co-teacher – a woman that’s helped her feel a little more at home in a foreign place. She also goes back to the issues of culture, class and poverty. Seeing how other people are treated based on where they are from has been an eye-opening, learning experience for her.
Another big surprise? The holidays. She had no idea how extravagant holidays like National Day are in the UAE. National Day is the day the United Arab Emirates was founded and it is commemorated with street festivals and parades showcasing decked out vehicles painted in the national colors of red, green, white and black.
One of her favorite places to visit is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (I personally cannot wait to visit Abu Dhabi next month and take in the Grand Mosque in all its architectural grandeur). Since moving abroad, Brandi has rediscovered her passion for writing and enjoys the numerous other peaceful, tranquil writing nooks she’s discovered around the city.
As we wrap up the conversation, Brandi stops me to mention a very important point we’d left out of our discussion – how she’s made friends and connected with others.
“I’m on a kickball team here. They have a lot to do. A guy founded a league and it spans all over Abu Dhabi. People can play rugby, flag football, volleyball, whatever. We practice once a week.” – Brandi
There are also yacht parties. Party promoters. Concerts. There are events that connect expats and teachers. There is so much to do.
If you’re thinking about moving abroad..
Consider the distance from your family and how frequently you’ll be able to visit them. Brandi gets to go home twice a year, but raised the relevant point that when the flights are upwards of 30 hours (with a connection), a one week trip isn’t always worth it. Think about the unexpected surprises. Many of her counterparts began their teaching stints in the UAE, but left early because they couldn’t cope with some of the cultural differences.
“No book, movie, or TV show can prepare you for life in a different country. You have to learn through your own experiences and adapt.” – Brandi
I thanked her for her time and ended the conversation with a few quick-fire questions.
- Favorite Activity: The beach/camel riding. I thought camel riding here [in the UAE]was amazing, but camel riding in Egypt might be the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.
- Favorite Restaurant: Leisure. They serve traditional food.
- Favorite Foods: Fattoush, Tabouleh, and Mahshi (grape leaves stuffed with rice). I don’t eat meat, but if you come Abu Dhabi or Dubai you have to get a Chicken Shawarma.
- Thing You Can’t Live Without: The internet. It’s how I stay connected with everyone and I still feel like I don’t know what’s going on. And church. I miss going to church. I couldn’t live without it in the States, but didn’t realize it at the time. We work on Sundays.
Many thanks to Brandi Hester for the interview and accompanying images. You can connect with her on Instagram: @belle_reine_noire. Got someone in mind that’d be good for our Adventures Abroad series? Get in touch.