Written by Elizabeth Weitzel (U.S.-Michigan)
My experience abroad may be a little different from what you’re used to hearing. I didn’t study abroad through a university, and I didn’t spend time backpacking through Europe after graduation. To fulfill my own desire to travel, I decided to go abroad as an au pair. Now, you may be wondering exactly what an au pair is. Some people I talk to kind of know what I mean because of the classic 90s movie, “Au Pair” (that’s the only reason I knew what it was when I first came across the idea). And some people have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.
On a surface level, it’s a pretty simple explanation. An au pair is basically a nanny, but a nanny who is from a foreign country. The most important part of the job is that you teach the kids you’re looking after how to speak your native language. In my case, I moved to Pescara, Italy, and taught two boys, ages five and three, how to speak English.
As I said before, I didn’t study abroad in college, and I had never been out of the country other than to the Bahamas. Like most young people, I ached to travel and experience a culture other than my own. Being an au pair was the perfect combination of jet-setting and working. I knew I could see some of the places I had always wanted to see, all while being paid to do so.
After chatting with another au pair and doing some online research, I ended up making an account on aupairworld.com. I didn’t end up going with any of the families I met through the internet, but I will say that this is the most common way for potential au pairs to get set up with a host family. Personally, I got a summer internship I had been vying for and decided to go with that instead. Luckily, one of my college friends picked up on my au pairing idea, and found a family herself through the site.
Fast forward three months: I finished my internship and was more confused than ever about what I should do with my future. Coincidentally, my friend was wrapping up her time as an au pair. She reached out and told me that friends of her host family were looking for their first-ever au pair, and she wanted to see if I was still interested. It made me nervous, but I jumped at the chance to do what I had really wanted to do all along.
Before saying yes, I facetimed my potential host family numerous times to see what they were like. I think that doing this, getting to know your hosts beforehand, is crucial. That, and going with your gut. If you don’t click with the family, or the living arrangements don’t seem right, or the kids seem like too much, don’t feel bad saying no. Lucky for me, I fell in love with my host parents, their two boys, and the grandparents I lived with. The language barrier was difficult at times, there were some tough cultural differences to get used to, and I experienced the usual homesickness, but my experience was overwhelmingly positive.
Like anything, you’ll hear success stories from past au pairs and some horror stories too. The town I was in had a lot of other English-speaking au pairs, and we were all able to connect and spend time with each other. I learned that some of the girls were in tougher spots than others; they didn’t get along with their host parents, or they had trouble with the kids.
That being said, it’s important to go into the situation knowing that you are an employee. Some families, like mine, will take you in and treat you like their own. Others just won’t. Like with any job, you can have good bosses or bad. Some of this can be predicted beforehand, but sometimes it’s impossible to know before you’re actually there. However, as cliché as it sounds, you really can make the best out of any situation. Each girl I met is glad she decided to be an au pair, and each of us grew from the experience in our own ways.
So, if you’re like me and you have no idea what to do after college, or you want to take a gap year to travel and learn about yourself, I definitely recommend looking into being an au pair. It’s different than going through a school and being surrounded by other English-speaking Americans, and it’s different from traveling abroad with your family or best friends. You’re in another country to do a job and you’re responsible for more lives than your own. But, I promise you’ll make new friends and learn so much living and working with people from another culture. Even though I was only there for three months, living in Italy changed me for the better. So itch that travel bug, and be an au pair! Ciao e buona fortuna!