I’ve Come Undone


For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” -Cynthia Occelli

Recently I made a rather unconventional career choice.

For the first time since pretty much ever, this past year both my husband Michael and I decided to do international job searches; university jobs for me, UN and NGO jobs for him… This was exciting to us as we’d never had the geographical freedom to just throw our CVs at every corner of the globe and see if anyone would call us back.

We knew that after three years of living and working in Yangon, Myanmar that Michael’s contract with the world’s largest food aid organization was nearly up and my main university here in Myanmar was obliterated so therefore it was time to GO. We caught ourselves daydreaming about a full life redesign for our family revolving around a completely new country somewhere on this great planet of ours.


A cartoon from my “Out There- Doodles From Abroad” series.


We made an agreement that first, we’d see if we could somehow both find opportunities in the same city and country. (Cue the gender equality, dual-career couple horror movie music soundtrack…) This meant that we were mostly looking at places that had at least a somewhat decent university for me as well as a suitable UN organization for him.  It sounds easy enough but this requirement eliminates a surprising number of options. Add our kids into the mix and we had to also be choosy about the safety and feasibility of major cities around the world.

Next, since Michael had followed me to Rome from New York after I started working at my former university in Rome in 2006, then I followed him to Myanmar in 2016 and we agreed that now in 2019 it was again my turn to take the lead. Fair is fair and we all know how life is… fair.

It was exciting to put my academic mojo (or lack thereof) to the test after over a decade of stability. I’d heard from more (ahem) seasoned colleagues over the years that it becomes harder to get those coveted tenure and tenure-track academic jobs the more experience you’ve had. The logic apparently is that since universities are broken anyway and rely way too much on part-time adjunct professors with no benefits to save money, most available full time jobs are for fresh-out-of-grad-school Assistant Professors who can take on all the dirty work the senior faculty doesn’t want to do and be paid roughly half their salaries. Hey! Isn’t that how I got my big break back in 2002 at William Paterson University? Why yes. Though to my own credit, I never put my feet up after getting tenure and promotion to Associate Professor.  (Maybe I should have though when I think about how hard I was working directing a program, teaching, and managing my baby and toddler at home in a society that feels that moms should not work to begin with…)

Long story short, normal professors usually just tend to stay where they are.

I am not normal.


With my Myanmar police officer students in Naypyitaw.


Putting Out the Bait and Then the Wait


After we sent out our CVs, first there was the deafening silence of absolutely nothing. The void, if you will. Did we do something wrong? Were we no longer the great catches we always thought and were told we were?

Yes and no apparently.

Michael eventually got call backs and offers from UN organizations in Vienna and Washington DC. I was being recruited by universities in Italy, Malta, and Abu Dhabi.

At one point, we thought we had beaten the system by both finding opportunities back in Rome, however imperfect or politically charged. Our sons could return to the city where they were born. We’d both be gainfully employed and perhaps could even manage to stay ten years or more so our sons could finish school there without interruption. It was all sort of going according to plan.

Except Michael’s employer really wanted to send us to Malawi.

It was on his reassignment list of countries after all, but buried in about five other Roman jobs we thought he’d be a shoe-in for. I actually got happy butterflies putting Malawi on the list. There was some sort of recognition in my gut (not indigestion!), though I quickly stuffed those feelings away in anticipation for the more practical reality our family wanted to create by moving back to our beloved but flawed Italy.

It didn’t matter what we wanted or planned though.

Ma-la-wi. That was what the email notification sending us our marching orders said.

After learning our proposed fate, we had a choice. Try again to fight the system and see if we could force a Rome move, or… play with the cards we were being dealt?

I suppose I could have gone to Rome anyway with the boys and Michael could have taken a one year leave of absence that would have delayed him from having to move for a year or more without us to a non-family duty station like Afghanistan, South Sudan, or Yemen. But being separated as a family indefinitely wasn’t on our “vision boards.”


Malawi It Is (Happily!)


Back in first grade I remember our teacher asked us to all draw what we wanted to be when we grew up. Usually I always said I wanted to be an artist and a teacher. For some reason though, that day I remember drawing myself somewhere in Africa doing work with children. It was a picture that often would pop into my mind briefly when I was busy making other kinds of career plans decade after decade.

Thankfully I’ve had some chances to do short-term volunteer work in Tanzania and contract work in Ethiopia and Liberia. However, our upcoming Malawi move will be my first chance to stay on the continent longer-term.

I am quite conscious of the negative “white savior” stereotype and of expats who live in developing countries only to boss everyone around aiming to get everyone to do things their own way.

My first and only goal upon arrival in Lilongwe, Malawi is to merely settle in and get my kids set up at their new school and to create a safe and positive home environment.

I’ve learned from my last three years living and working in Myanmar that it’s best to wait and see what job offers and opportunities come to me rather than trying to control and organize my experience before even arriving.

Since 2016, I’ve been fortunate to help create infrastructure at the now defunct American University of Myanmar, teach 40+ secondary students digital media at Thalun International School, train Myanmar police officers to use online media in a more ethical way via the EU-funded MYPOL, train the young creatives at Mango Media to help them become more effective at work, and help Myanmar Metropolitan College MBA students and business owners start participating in the still-newish Burmese online economy. As for my artist side, in the past year I did my first artist’s residency in Berlin, received my first grant to work on an animated film about arranged marriage, and recently I was commissioned to create 40 illustrations for UNICEF.


Some student work from my Thalun International School students


Adventures Ahead


When I told my Mom in the US that Malawi was a possible destination, she immediately Googled the country to learn more about it.

She proceeded to send me a panicked email about how dangerous she learned it was and that somehow just by the mere act of searching web pages for Malawi information, she’d contracted a horrible computer virus.

She was warning me not only to never live in Malawi, but to not even look it up online, because even that was dangerous!

Thankfully, since then we’ve heard from friends and acquaintances who’ve both visited and lived in Malawi. All had very positive experiences and were even a bit jealous that we’d decided to leave Yangon and go there. We’re told it’s lush and sleepy, but with lots of nature and warm, friendly people. It’s one of the safer African countries and there we’d have an opportunity to help and work with some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Even my Mom has finally come around. She wanted to visit us wherever we moved (thinking most likely that we would be in Italy again.) She recently asked me, “What shots would I need to get to go to Malawi?”

So, I guess that’s a kind of progress.

Anyway, I would write more, but I have a move to plan again. (My head is spinning. I do hope this blog post makes a little sense.)

I’ll just end with this: According to a recent podcast I listened to on death from Stuff You Should Know  (morbid, no?) apparently the number one regret the dying have is that they wish they would have lived a life more true to themselves instead of living the life they thought others expected them to.

I’ve always had a burning desire to help out in developing countries by bringing my skills to far-flung corners of the Earth. So I probably won’t get to that next rung of the academic career ladder as a full professor any time soon or continue somewhere as chair of a department in North America or Europe. When I was a smart 23 year-old graduate student working for the chair of Computer Graphics and Interactive Media department at Pratt Institute, I knew then that the added stress and drama were not worth the extra money they paid you. Too bad my older self from a few years ago didn’t remember or listen.

I’m listening now though.

I look forward to blogging more about our new home in Lilongwe, Malawi in the weeks and months ahead.

Until then… Stay tuned! And stay positive.

I’ll leave you with my son Lukas explaining to our family and friends where we are moving to via video.



Thanks for reading. If you have any Malawi (or neighboring countries) tips, thoughts, or recommendations for us, please leave them in the comments below.