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Speak English? Like to travel? Here’s a job made for you

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Students practice speaking English during a class conducted by foreign teachers in Changzhou, China. (Mikaela Conley/CNS)

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Foreign teachers take advantage of traveling to exotic locations, like the Great Wall of China, when teaching abroad. (Mikaela Conley/CNS)

John Kim found himself to be a very popular and successful man when he traveled to South Korea in 2007—more popular than he ever imagined.

After graduating from Rutgers, Kim quickly found a job teaching English in South Korea. Between the country’s demand for teachers and Kim’s knowledge of the Korean language, he figured it would be a great way to delay the reality he faced because of a lack of money for nursing school. Now he teaches English 25 hours a week to elementary school children in Jinju, South Korea—where he is greatly respected in a field that he doesn’t have any technical qualifications for in the United States. With his salary, he has been able to pay off school loans, travel throughout the country and brush up on his Korean-language skills.

“Korea has definitely put a smile on my face,” says the 24-year-old New Jersey native. “I feel like a celebrity here because I know some Korean and a lot of English. Girls follow me around, and guys want to be me. Just kidding. It is great, though.”

As the unemployment rate rises past 8 percent in the United States and people are laid off by the thousands, recent college graduates are seeking alternative options abroad to find temporary income. In these circumstances, more and more young adults are realizing they have a skill they never previously considered putting on their résumés: They speak English.

About 150,000 foreign teachers are needed each year in China alone, and every year that number grows. With an expanding market for native English speakers abroad and a lack of jobs at home, it has never been more appealing to teach overseas. Offering experience, cheap travel and the prospect of immersion in a different culture, teaching abroad is an option that many see as being as good as any available right now.

After being in South Korea for six months, Kim recently renewed his contract for another year. As other foreign teachers have discovered, the school would prefer him to stay for as long as he is willing to. “The job is pretty easy,” he says, “and if I was to go back to the States now, I would probably apply to graduate school, which means more money that I don’t have.”

Matt Redman, product and marketing manager for teach-abroad programs at the Council on International Educational Exchange, has noticed a significant growth in his area and credits the ailing economy for the increase.

“I think the follow-through rates we experience this year will be higher than in the past because people who normally could’ve found other, higher paying options won’t find other options,” says Redman. “It’s definitely a way for anyone who is looking for international experience to gain that experience despite the tough international economy.”

And while there are some requirements for those who participate, most of the time, the constraints are less rigid than those of teaching jobs in the United States and other Western countries. To teach English in China through CIEE, applicants need only be native English speakers, have a bachelor’s degree in any major, and have U.S., British, Irish, Canadian, Australian or New Zealand citizenship. They must also be “independent, adventurous and adapt well to new situations.”

When they’re accepted, CIEE places applicants in teaching positions throughout the country. In return for teaching, foreign teachers receive a locally competitive salary—usually higher than their co-workers’. Most foreigners work 20 to 30 hours a week and plan their own lessons for oral English classes. Schools or programs often pay for teachers’ plane tickets, along with living accommodations, orientations and even language lessons. And of course, with a light workload, foreign teachers have the opportunity to travel to a new exotic locale almost every weekend.

Ricky LaBontee, a young American college grad, now lives and teaches in Talong, China. After graduating from Providence College in 2008 with degrees in business and English, LaBontee decided to seek new adventures while he’s young and energetic. Teaching English allows him to live in an exotic place and travel every weekend.

“I’ve always wanted to find an outlet to get me out of America to see the world,” says the 23-year-old New Hampshire native. “Going to China for a year to teach English was the perfect opportunity. Plus, finding a job at home didn’t exactly have much appeal. I’m young.”

And now with the financial crisis at home, LaBontee plans to move to Beijing next year and ride out the economic storm in the Far East.

“With the current trend in our economy,” LaBontee says, “and after hearing horror stories from my friends that also recently graduated college to find an unforgiving job market, staying here in China has only become more and more attractive the longer I stay.”

Beijing is currently teeming with work opportunities for foreigners, LaBontee says. Those who wish to teach or take advantage of their native fluency in English have the perfect opportunity in front of them.

Francesca Mannix finds herself considering that same perfect prospect. Though she was an art history major in college and is now a film production secretary in New York City, she has dreamed about foreign countries since graduating from Fordham in 2006. Now as jobs become scarce, teaching overseas has become a real possibility for Mannix.

“I might as well go when the economy is so bad here,” says the 24-year-old Mannix. “It’s an experience I’ve always wanted to try, and it’d be a good escape for a while.”

E-mail: mac2276@columbia.edu