Leave Home! International Sabbaticals as Unfreezing Experiences
by Larry Lev, Journal of Extension
Sabbatical year: A year during which land remained fallow, observed every seven years by the ancient Jews. A leave of absence, often with pay, usually granted every seventh year, as to a college professor, for travel, research, or rest. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.
Driving through the streets of Montpellier, France, the voice of my first grade daughter broke though my thoughts "I poop, you poop, we poop, they poop." "Elana, what's going on back there?" "Dadduh, I'm conjugating the verb 'to poop.'" Three weeks into our family sabbatical to France and already the changes were profound. They didn't let up in the 49 weeks that followed, as we learned how the French conduct economic research, make friends, stand in line, and do 1,001 other things.
Extension educators, well known for their action-orientation, may resist the concept of rest or fallow. But taking guidance from the principle that "a change is as good as a rest," a sabbatical year can more properly be viewed as the professional equivalent to crop rotation. Both provide unique opportunities for generating more vigorous growth in the next cycle. And in many instances the post-sabbatical "crop" represents quite a striking departure from what was there before.
Academics in general, and Extension educators in particular, take only a small percentage of their eligible sabbaticals. This is because taking a sabbatical, especially an international one, means overcoming numerous obstacles. Some of the key ones include:
Approval from your home institution (including how your work will be covered),
Funding and/or an invitation from a host institution,
Spousal job considerations,
Schooling for your kids, and
Housing (both what to do with your own and what you can find).
If you set your mind to it, YOU CAN OVERCOME THESE BARRIERS! Some excellent resources are available to help. The web site "Sensational Sabbatical Suggestions" by Alastair Morrison (a Purdue University professor in Tourism Education) provides an excellent starting place. Among several books on the topic, Six Months Off, by Dlugozina, Scott, and Sharp (1996) is easily available and worth reading. A JOE article by Rogers (1993) discusses international job exchanges.
This paper steps back from those details to focus on the more basic question of why you should consider disrupting your well-ordered life. What can you or your institution gain?
A simple three-step change model proposed 50 years ago by the psychologist Kurt Lewin (1951) provides the basis for my argument. Lewin noted that individuals resist change even when presented with favorable new opportunities. He concluded that because they are "frozen in place," some sort of disruption or "unfreezing" (step one) is necessary before changes (step 2) can occur. The third step in the process is a "refreezing" in a new and different state.
International sabbaticals offer an ideal opportunity to unfreeze and change. Your home institution reaps the benefits of a revitalized individual who returns with new ideas and new ways of doing things.
In 1996 I was able to leave behind my position as a State Extension Marketing Specialist and take up two part-time positions in Montpellier, France. I had decided that for my sabbatical I would fully immerse myself in French projects rather than use the 1-year period as a time to read and work on my own.
Two-thirds of my time was spent with CIRAD, the French International Development Research Agency, and one-third was spent with INRA, the French research equivalent of the USDA. By the end of the year, it was clear that my last minute, negotiated-on-the-fly position at INRA was the key element in the professional success of the sabbatical. My INRA project focused on the market for locally produced agricultural products in Southern France and has transformed my work activities back in Oregon in the 4 years since my return.
Would I now be working on farmers' markets and other direct marketing issues without the sabbatical? Very unlikely. I needed a good shove to close out old projects and move on to something new.
The sabbatical year greatly expanded my sense of the possible, both for myself and for my discipline of Agricultural Economics. I came back full of enthusiasm for agricultural marketing methods that I had a chance to examine in France. A College of Agricultural Sciences seeking to better meet the needs of smaller-scale growers was here to greet me. It has been an excellent match. I have been having plenty of fun designing new research methods that work in the challenging environment of U.S. farmers' markets (Lev & Stephenson, 1999).
My career pattern provides a perfect template for what Lewin discussed. Since 1997 my work has focused ("refrozen") in a dramatically different area. Just a few more years and I will undoubtedly need another major shock to get the creative juices flowing again.
During our sabbatical year in France, the rest of my family faced similar challenges and also achieved great results. The kids flourished when they were thrown into the very different environment of the local French school. As recounted above, the French actually teach grammar to first graders. My international sabbatical could probably be justified solely on the long-term benefits provided to my kids.
My wife demonstrated that in the Internet age, telecommuting is an increasingly viable option. She was able to handle at least some of her job responsibilities from France. She also proved to be incredibly adept at adapting to the high-touch French society and spurred us to make many strong and lasting friendships. Her primary regret was that 12 months "wasn't quite long enough."
Making It Work
Here are seven pointers for having a successful international sabbatical.
If foreign languages don't agree with you, choose an English speaking country. Those of you who are brave enough to venture into the non-English speaking world should recognize that language skills will dramatically influence your experience, so you should try to allocate time for language study.
Plan way ahead because it will take much more time than you think to make the necessary arrangements. In my case, the French administrator who offered to host me took a position in Africa and didn't leave his replacement with any information about our "agreement." I had to start over again.
Do your homework on how things work in your new country. Although I had previously lived in France for a year as a college student and had visited there several times as an adult, the books I read still proved invaluable for a wide range of interactions, from getting the kids enrolled in school to getting directions in the street.
Make use of any contacts you can. Before we arrived we had rented a furnished house (very difficult to find in France), bought a used car, and enrolled our kids in the local elementary school. We walked off the plane, bought some food, and were off and running on a new life.
Think carefully about how you want to interact with your host institution(s). Because they will be as uncertain as you are about the proper relationship and expectations, it may be up to you to design something that will work for everyone.
Be flexible, and have fun. You will be surprised on a daily basis by your sabbatical life, so you might as well learn to enjoy the unexpected.
Be prepared for the final surprise. The culture shock on your return may well be greater than anything you experienced during your sabbatical! This will demonstrate how much you have changed.
Extension educators are bright and motivated people who can become trapped by inertia. Given the freedom to explore in a new and different environment, most will make wonderful transformations. From our experience, living in a different culture gets you out of your comfort zone and into a whole new mode of experimentation.
Dlugozina, H., Scott, J., & Sharp, D. (1996). Six months off. New York: Henry Holt.
Lev, L. & Stephenson, G. (1999). Dot posters: A practical alternative to written questionnaires and oral interviews. Journal of Extension [On-Line]. 37(5) Available: http://www.joe.org/joe/1999october/tt1.html
Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science. New York: Harper & Row.
Morrison, A. (2001). Sensational sabbatical suggestions. Available: http://omni.cc.purdue.edu/~alltson/Sabbat.html
Rogers, B. (1993). Gaining international experience through job exchanges. Journal of Extension [On-Line]. 31(1). Available: http://www.joe.org/joe/1993spring/intl2.html