My place in the world, at this moment – article by Kelly Mitchell

I used to think that I had everything figured out. What I wanted from life, who I wanted to be. I had always daydreamed about working abroad and traveling the world. But, unbeknownst to me, I was romanticizing a vision of a glamorous life abroad without really having a clue.

I am proud to say that today, while I still might not have a clue, I’ve dedicated the time to figuring it out. I first visited Ecuador in the summer of 2015 for an internship during my master’s. Little did I know, my first week in Ecuador would rattle everything I expected in my life, and put me on a new path. In just a short time, Ecuador changed me for the better. It reminded me of who I am at my core – a wanderer, a dreamer, a gal that rejects the status quo.

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My professional trip quickly spiraled into a beautiful love story, thus cueing my move back to Ecuador in December 2015 to build a life with my Ecuadorian partner. I finished my degree, received my master’s in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University’s School of International Service, and bought a one-way ticket to Ecuador in order to fill a newly found dream of love, life, and adventure.

I had my partner and our new home in the beautiful city of Cuenca. It really was a dream come true. What I didn’t have was a single job prospect or any real clue what I was going to be doing. For the first time in my life, I, the planner, was embracing the unknown. At this moment, Ecuador is my place in the world, and I am grateful for all that it has taught me.

Making the Jump & Making it Stick

I’d be lying if I said it was a smooth transition. A new wave of uncertainty and doubt rushed through me, and if it wasn’t for the deep love I had for my partner, I probably would have been running back to Maryland with my tail between my legs. I always saw myself as a strong woman. But once the reality kicked in that I really didn’t have a plan, I freaked. I realized I wasn’t as strong as I thought I was. Looking back now, I’m grateful for that, because this weakness gave me a chance to explore myself.

The things I used to romanticize became real, authentic experiences. My partner and I built a strong home full of love. We faced the challenges that new couples go through, and always respected one another as we learned our cultural differences along the way.

Little by little, everything fell into place. I met an amazing group of young women running a small nonprofit, the Hearts of Gold Foundation, and when a 7.6 magnitude earthquake hit the coast of Ecuador in 2016, I became part of the team. I co-designed and now manage Hearts of Gold’s capacity building program + network for nonprofit leaders.

We have the only program of its kind in Ecuador, and I am honored to be part of a grassroots effort that will leave a lasting impact on nonprofit sustainability in the country. 75% of nonprofits close in Ecuador within 3 years – that is the statistic we are trying to break. I love how my job has given be the opportunity to be a real part of this community, a community where women are leading at-risk communities.

This work is hard, but it is real. Working a job with a salary suited for the local economy is a choice that I made. Complementing this work with a modeling career and virtual freelance opportunities has given me the economic security that a position in my field in Ecuador never could. The best part of making the jump abroad is being able to make it stick. I have the Professional Visa, where I was grandfathered into permanent residency in Ecuador. Knowing that my time abroad is not a temporary adventure has changed my experience compared to a typical expat. I have a job which integrates me into the local community, where the progress of the programs is entirely dependent on my input. I have an Ecuadorian family, a home, a sisterhood. I have a full life here, and for now, have no plans of changing that.

I’m also not the typical demographic. There are well over 5,000 North Americans retired in Cuenca alone, and many other young folk temporarily living abroad to teach English. I don’t fall into either category. My life here is unique. Its special and different and spontaneous. Characteristics that I am absolutely not used to coming from a very self-planned life in Maryland, but rolling with the punches is something I am learning to do better everyday.

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Lessons learned. Wow, there’s been many. If I could share a few pieces of advice, here’s what I would say:

Contribute to Betterment
I think a lot of times when expats go abroad they go for their own personal or professional development. I’d encourage all to contribute to betterment everywhere they go. Do not isolate yourself in an expat world, and do not forget about the community that has openly welcomed you into their country.

Slow Down & Take Care of Yourself
Coming from a gal that used to run as fast as she could, take this opportunity abroad to change bad habits and slow down. Learn new ways to take care of yourself and practice self-love. While I haven’t mastered this yet, I have learned to accept that I don’t have all the answers, and to stress less about the small stuff. I’ve also learned that traveling by motorcycle can be the most healing thing ever.

You Will Change Whether you Want to or Not, and That’s OK
I hope you open your eyes to the injustices of the world, I hope different types of relationships and conversations become more valuable to you. I hope that when people say “You’ve changed,” you reply and say “I’d hope so.” This is not to say who will change who you are, but you will gain new perspectives. It should be noted that this will also change how you relate to old friends and how you see your home, for better or for worse.

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t changed after living abroad. Change is a healthy part of life, but you will be pushed into it if you decide to live abroad. Whether it is through my increased level of confidence, my expression of vulnerability, or my ability to communicate better, there is no doubt that I’ve changed. I can’t hide that my priorities for life have changed, because they have. Ecuador chose me, and I choose Ecuador.