Working abroad builds confidence

Working abroad as an au pair strengthens your self confidence, but living and working in someone else’s home can be a challenge.

“I had an open mind. I mostly anticipated improving my language skills,” says Laura Lakso, who spent a year as an au pair in the United States.

Arriving in the metropolis of New York City was an unforgettable experience, as Lakso had not visited the United States before. After a few days’ orientation, she continued on to neighbouring New Jersey, where she worked for the whole year.

“In New Jersey, I lived in typical American suburbia: small towns, no public transport. You had to drive everywhere.”

Lakso has warm memories of her time as an au pair. “Maybe memories grow sweeter with time, but I was just talking to one of my au pair friends, and we both thought that our time in the US was pretty easy and enjoyable,” smiles Lakso.

One of the best things about spending a year abroad was having the opportunity to get to know people from around the world. She made friends with other au pairs - from countries such as South Africa, Brazil, and Australia - and spent her free time travelling with them.

“We often went to New York City, which was an hour away by train. We also travelled to Washington, D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia.”

Challenging position

Essi Kanninen had a similar motivation for working as an au pair. “I wanted to go to Germany, because I had studied German for a long time at school, but I still felt that my German was not as good as my English,” explains Kanninen.

Kanninen lived and worked for five months in Cologne. She looked after the host family’s two-year old twins.

For Lakso, the experience was a positive one, as the host family respected the rules of the au pair contract. The bulk of her work consisted of driving the family’s school-aged children to and from school and hobbies. A housekeeper took care of domestic chores.

The au pair’s position can be challenging, however. She is not a part of the family, but lives at her place of work, and the host family sometimes expects the au pair to behave almost like she was a family member. This is the reason why Kanninen’s experience in Germany was very different from Lakso’s experience in the United States.

“When I arrived, the family was in crisis. The maternal grandmother had just died, and the parents were in the middle of a divorce,” says Kanninen.

She was put into a challenging situation, where the two adults in the family were quarreling and she was expected to work a lot of overtime. “I liked the work itself, but living at your place of work makes for a challenging situation. It can be difficult to keep working hours. You have to make it clear that you have your own personal time, too,” she explains.

Kanninen notes that the au pair’s role with the host family’s children is not always clear. “You are looking at the situation as an outsider. You do not have a say on parenting, even if you would like to do things differently.”

Kanninen originally planned to work for eight months in Germany, but after five months she decided that the situation in the family was too difficult. “It all depends on what kind of family you end up with - and it is difficult to assess the family in advance.”

For Lakso, the most challenging thing was getting used to living with another family. “I had lived on my own for several years, and suddenly I was living in this family’s home. Sometimes I wondered if it was OK if I just spent a moment alone in my room. But the family encouraged me to spend my free time with the other au pairs, which was helpful.”

Friends from around the world

“I vividly remember the drive from Cologne to Bayern. Six hundred kilometers only took six hours to drive. Germany is a big country, but the roads and cars are good, “ Kanninen says.

She misses the cafes, bakeries and Central European ambiance of Cologne. “And prices were so low that initially it felt like nothing costs anything at the supermarket!”

By living in Cologne for five months, she was able to gain a better understanding of German culture, and improved her German. “Even though it was difficult at times, it also strengthened the feeling that I can make it.”

In spring 2014, Kanninen applied to study law at the University of Helsinki, and plans on going to Central Europe, most probably Germany, as an exchange student.

Kanninen advises people thinking of applying to work as an au pair to find information on the host family beforehand. She notes that letters of reference should be required of the families, just as they are of the au pairs.

Lakso also emphasizes that she strengthened her confidence and independence during her au pair year. When she left home, she did not know anyone in the United States, but during the first days of orientation she got to know other young people from around the world. She became good friends with some of them, and they still keep in touch.

“As I got to know people from many different countries, I learned a lot about different cultures, not just American culture,” Lakso says.

Lakso’s advice to people thinking of going to work abroad as an au pair is simple: “Go!”

Text: Juha Rudanko

Photographs: Samuli Siirala

Europass helps showcase what you learned abroad

The Europass portfolio of documents is designed to help people showcase their skills and competences, regardless of where and how they were obtained. You can use Europass to show the language skills your learned abroad, as well as your multicultural and international skills, too. Read more: http://www.europass.fi/information_about_europass

An au pair year abroad can strenghten your independence and improve your language skills, as well as teach you a lot about different cultures. Europass can help showcase what you learned.

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