After graduating with a law degree in the UK, Sarah Gibbons didn’t follow the usual path. She worked and saved for 18 months to travel around the world, an experience that has inspired her to move to Zambia with her partner, Spencer. In this interview, she talks about how travel has influenced her career, adjusting to life in a new environment, and what the future may hold.
You took an extended travel break in your early 20s after university. Where did you go on the trip?
I started in South Africa, then went on to India, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. I was away for about 18 months in the end, including a short stint of work while I was in Sydney to replenish my travel fund.
Why did you choose to travel instead of going straight into a job?
I’d fallen out of love with law, which I’d studied at university, needed a break and had no idea what I wanted to do other than explore a bit of the world.
I didn’t feel a need to rush into finding my ‘dream job’, if there is even such a thing. I’d done short holidays and always loved to travel, so it seemed like a good time and excuse to go on an adventure.
How did you finance the trip?
A huge help was being able to move back and live with my parents after graduating, which massively cut down on my living costs and gave me a great opportunity to save. I joined a recruitment agency that found me a job in customer service, where I was eventually made permanent.
As well as that nine-to-five job I worked at a supermarket one evening a week and on Sundays. Sometimes it was pretty rubbish. I dreaded Wednesdays when I’d work 8am-4pm then 6pm-midnight, but I knew it was only going to be for a short time, and I made great friends in both jobs.
I had originally planned to start my trip after a year, but I didn’t want to give up my social life and didn’t cut back on spending entirely – so it took 18 months in the end to save the amount I’d aimed at.
What did you get from the experience in terms of personal development?
A huge sense of independence and self confidence, and an enduring love for travel. I have never described myself as shy and actually really love meeting new people, but the navigating of new places was still an adventure and sometimes a bit exhausting.
A lot of people asked me if I was scared to travel on my own as a woman, which I wasn’t, and though I wasn’t naive about the risks, that question made me want to prove even more that it was possible.
What did you learn on your travels that you found to be beneficial in your career afterwards?
I learnt that I wanted to make my career include working and living abroad in some capacity, and I realised that I did want it to include law, even if when I got back I didn’t know immediately what that would look like.
I learnt that you can build networks and friends and a home anywhere if you want to, but also that there would always be that bit of home that I could go back to.
The types of jobs that I have ended up applying for since then often ask about country experience in their person specifications, as well as adapting to new environments, working in diverse teams and dealing with culture shock. My travels gave me examples I could draw on. I’ve felt confident that I could prove I could be adaptable, learn quickly and be independent.
Have you travelled a lot since, and how have you balanced that with your career?
Yes! And I constantly feel very lucky to be able to do so. The trips have become shorter, mostly fitting in with annual leave like most people.
When I got back from travelling I started a MA in international development at Sussex, where I met my boyfriend Spencer. He’s Canadian and hadn’t been to the UK or mainland Europe before, so we did a few weekends away during our studies. I also got to see more of the UK than I would have done had he not been keen to see more of the country.
After finishing our studies we stuck around in the UK (Brighton) for two years, and went on some wonderful holidays together, as well as with family and friends. After a couple of years, though, we both had itchy feet to make a more permanent move.
You are now living and working in Zambia. What inspired you to make this move?
Brighton wasn’t offering us the types of jobs either of us wanted in the longer term. The cost of living was getting higher and more of a struggle with charity sector salaries, it was getting harder for Spencer to stay in the UK after he left the job he hated, and we were both keen to live outside of the UK. So a lot of inspiration!
We picked five countries each that we would like to live in, narrowed it down again to a final five, and started looking for jobs. Of course it would have been way too fairytale if I said we then both got offered jobs in Zambia and here we are, but it didn’t happen like that at all!
Zambia actually wasn’t on either of our lists, but after a LOT of job applications Spencer was offered a great job here. It seemed too good of an opportunity not to take.
We made a trip together to check it out and so I could look around and put feelers out for work. I felt confident enough that I’d be able to find something, so went back to the UK and handed in my notice!
What work are you doing in Zambia?
I work as a researcher for a policy and research institute, in their legal team. It’s turned out to be a really great way of mixing my undergraduate in law and my MA in international development.
I work as a consultant on a number of research projects, mostly around issues to do with access to justice, like investigating the efficiency of the court system, but also broader human rights work like the legal right to nutrition in Zambia.
How have you found adjusting to life in a different environment to your home country?
Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, where we live, felt like home very quickly, and figuring out how everything works and where to go all felt very much like part of the adventure.
We were lucky to know a couple of people that either lived here or put us in touch with people who did (another benefit of travelling and studying with people from all over the world!), but we also worked hard to get out here to meet new people and build up a social network.
I miss my friends and family back in the UK of course, and sometimes feel like I’m missing out on big life events, but it makes the reunions all the more lovely, and the internet makes keeping in touch pretty easy!
People call Lusaka a ‘soft landing’, and I’d say that it’s different but it’s not difficult. Some things are a bit of an adjustment, but in a way that challenges us to reflect on the things we’d taken for granted and the way we had been living before, which I think is important.
How do you see your career developing in the future?
We’ll be here in Lusaka for a couple more years and I’m looking forward to being involved in some really exciting and innovative projects here. After that the plan is to move again to a new country.
For both of us it has to be a move that is right for our careers and not just for the novelty of a new place, but we also haven’t figured out where we want to be long term, and even if settling in one place will ever be something we do.
Hopping around still feels very appealing! Law and access to justice crosses most borders, and so I feel that my work here will give me skills transferable to new contexts.
Do you intend to travel more?
Yes! We spent Christmas and new year in Ethiopia and Djibouti, which was incredible, and now that we’re here in Zambia we are in a great position to travel to other countries on the continent that are much closer and easier to get to, as well as within Zambia itself.
Again, we’re fitting it in with annual leave and maximising on national holidays and long weekends. It’s all incredibly exciting and a wonderful privilege.
2019 seems to be the year of weddings. I’m trying to make it to the four weddings of some close friends, which will take us to Pakistan, France, Ireland and the UK. These are a great excuse to catch up with friends and family, and convince them to come out for a visit!
What advice would you give to someone who is considering a travel break or moving abroad?
Do it! Wherever you call home now will always be there. If you don’t like it you haven’t failed at anything and you can always go back, but you will always wonder ‘what if’ if you don’t. There will be a million reasons why it might feel like the wrong time, but there isn’t a perfect time for anything.
I think it was Lewis Carroll who said that in the end we only regret the chances we didn’t take, the relationships we were afraid to have, and the decisions we waited too long to make. So don’t wait too long.
Fancy a trip to Zambia yourself? Check out these amazing waterfalls in Zambia to whet your travel appetite.
You can read more of our interview features with inspiring people who have taken travel career breaks:
- How a travel career break inspired a teacher to start her own business
- The NYC firefighter embracing van life after a travel career break
- How travel inspired a preschool teacher to retrain as a culinary nutrition expert
Do you have a story to tell about a transformational travel career break? We’d love to hear from you. You can get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org.
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