Neither Rachel Butera Alexsander '06 or Steve Lister '64 left the United States intending to move permanently abroad. Years later, however, Alexsander is living and working in Bali with her husband and three children while Lister has enjoyed a 43-year career split between Italy and the United States. Both now speak two additional languages besides English, and both agree that living abroad has changed their perspective and enriched their lives.
Alexsander first became interested in languages and studying abroad during her time at Providence Country Day. Her first love, she says, was Spanish. "When I was at PCD, I fell in love with Spanish and my first time abroad was with an exchange program in Ecuador. I ended up making really good friends with my host family and I went back to visit them that summer. So I always thought I would study Spanish and live in a Spanish-speaking country."
Under the guidance of PCD's foreign language teacher Kevin Beaulieu, Alexsander became interested in Middlebury College, a school renowned for its foreign language programs, particularly its Chinese department. A fortuitous meeting with a Middlebury Chinese professor convinced Alexsander that studying Chinese would be an exciting opportunity, so she decided to focus on the language in college.
"I tried Chinese and I really enjoyed it," says Alexsander. "It was really challenging, but I enjoy a challenge, and I fell in love with the Chinese culture."
Alexsander studied abroad in Hangzhou, China for a semester during her junior year at Middlebury, and after graduating, decided to teach English in China for a year so she could return to Asia. By this time, her parents had moved to Bali, so when she finished teaching in China, she decided to join them there.
"I came to Bali, I got an internship at a hotel, and then one year turned into two years," says Alexsander. "The local people have this very warm, genuine, happy, and welcoming culture, and it made me fall in love with being here. Then they gave me a full-time job at the hotel, so I ended up staying. I met my husband, who is from Bali, we got married, and here we are!"
Before the pandemic required the cancellation of large events, Alexsander emceed for weddings, speaking a combination of English, Chinese, and Bahasa Indonesia. It appealed, she says, to her love of drama and acting. During the pandemic, Alexsander has switched to teaching online and is looking forward to the time when Bali's tourism industry reopens, weddings can resume, and she can return to her work as an emcee.
While Alexsander was able to study in China as part of her college career, Lister's move abroad came later. Having graduated from Colgate University into the time of the Vietnam War, Lister joined the U.S. Navy and was subsequently stationed in Italy. During this time, he lived in a small village on the coast and was able to enroll at a university in Perugia that specialized in teaching Italian to foreign students.
According to Lister, people came from everywhere to study Italian at the university. "It was fascinating," he says. "I met people from all over the world." One of the people he met would introduce him to his future employer, an Italian factory owner wanting to expand his export sales of steel link chain. He offered Lister the chance to join the export department of his company and Lister decided to stay in Italy to take the job.
The job, Lister says, "was really interesting. A lot of times we weren't present in a particular country or area, and my boss would say 'Steve, see what you can do. Plan a trip down there, establish some contacts.'"
This Lister did, with great success. Fluent by now in Italian, he also picked up Spanish and helped the company grow, expand overseas, and eventually change ownership and name. Lister would eventually become Vice President of the Peerless Chain Company.
A big part of the company's success, Lister says, came from their ability to develop markets around the world. "That meant understanding different cultures, not only different languages, but how people are culturally different from one another. It was really crucial to understand this, because when you went to introduce yourself, your company, and your products in Japan, it was a completely different experience than going to South America," Lister says.
The ability to close business deals and make sales in different countries also benefited from this knowledge. "There are different requirements and practices for making deals in different countries," Lister says, "and knowing those differences led to more success for us."
During his 43-year career, Lister learned Italian and Spanish, traveled to more than fifty countries, and estimates that he flew more than three million miles.
From these experiences, Lister took away three primary lessons: patience, modesty, and self-confidence. "When you're traveling in a place for the first time and something goes wrong, you have to figure out how to react and how to solve it. I think I became more confident in that regard, as well as more patient and more understanding of other cultures." Learning languages is also "really key" to developing greater cultural understanding, says Lister.
These are lessons that resonate with Alexsander as well, who also credits her time abroad with encouraging greater patience and understanding of other cultures. A big part of developing this understanding has been learning and speaking the languages of the places she's lived and studied. In the past, this meant speaking Spanish. Now, it means speaking both Chinese and Bahasa Indonesia.
"Learning languages opens your mind to a different way of thinking," Alexsander says. "There are a lot of philosophies on language studies. Does a language shape your culture or does the culture shape your language? I do think when you learn a second language and you're really immersed in it, you do think differently, even just by the fact that there's different ways to say things. I think it challenges you to think in a different way and to appreciate aspects of another culture that sometimes could be frustrating."
Alexsander lived this experience recently after observing that she and the Balinese have different concepts of what it means to be "on time" and "reliable." While looking for translations of these words into Bahasa Indonesia, she realized that the language has no word for "reliable." Discovering the absence of this word, Alexsander says, helped inform her understanding of the situation.
"Bali has definitely chilled me out," she laughs, reflecting on this experience. "You can't function here if you're uptight. You have to be a little more flexible."
So what advice would Lister and Alexsander give to PCD students contemplating studying, working, or living abroad?
"For young people, I think travelling abroad is so important," says Lister. "Most young people going to college in the United States have an opportunity to study abroad and I think that's really key to opening up your vision of the world and how people are different."
"It is so important to do," Alexsander agrees, "especially now that the world is so connected. If we want to all get along and be kind and learn to appreciate each other, it's crucial to learn about different cultures. There's a lot to see and a lot of wonderful people to meet anywhere you go, so I would encourage students to get out as much as they can and explore the world."
"If you have the opportunity to live abroad," says Lister, "just be brave and take the plunge!"