I grew up in a small town in North Carolina devoid of stoplights, cable TV and Super Walmart. This was also before the age of the Internet. I spent a lot of time reading and by the age of seven, my mother gave me my own set of encyclopedias and a dictionary. I used them both as tools to study faraway places and historic landmarks. I also perused their pages to learn more about the people who lived in these places and what their lives were like.
Very few people in my family or immediate circle owned a passport or had even traveled outside of the United States.
It wasn’t until I joined the Army that I had to the opportunity to finally travel overseas. My assignments took my all over the world to include Afghanistan. After seven years on active-duty, I made the decision to get out of the military while stationed in Mannheim, Germany.
I was blessed to transition into a federal government position right after my separation from the military. At first I had absolutely no intention of remaining in Europe, but I decided to stay. It was the best decision I could have ever made, especially as a newly-minted government civilian.
My overseas assignment taught me how to understand and appreciate the intricacies of different cultures by being dropped right in the middle of it. My time in the military offered me an initial taste, but it wasn’t until I took off my uniform that I felt ready to fully immerse myself and ditch my formalities.
Living and working overseas helped me to authentically engage with people who did not look, speak or act like me. It took me completely out of my comfort zone. I grew up in a predominantly African-American community, attended largely African-American schools and most of my friends and family were also African-American.
When I first arrived in Europe, I was really intimidated by the language barrier. I had taken a little Spanish in high school but that was about it. I didn’t know any German or any other language. I walked through the streets looking for anything American or remotely familiar. I quickly learned there’s only so much McDonalds you can eat and getting lost every single time you leave your house gets old quick.
I made a choice to fully embrace the European culture by asking questions (no matter how crazy they sounded), traveling across Europe, watching German language television programs, trying different foods, purposely shopping in local markets, taking mass transit and just being open.
I was important to me to broaden my perspectives beyond just my experiences of being African-American or being from North Carolina or even being an American. I listened and observed the European way of life instead of just solely relying on my own personal ideals, beliefs or assumptions.
The benefits also carried over into my professional life. I felt more confident working alongside my German co-workers, assisting in projects and attending meetings. I no longer felt out of place.
I spent a total of eight years in Europe before returning back to the United States last fall. Of course, there were times I missed my family and longed to return to the States, but I knew this was something I had to do to grow both personally and professionally.
It’s extremely valuable as government employees to have both a local and global perspective in everything that we do. Our mission goes beyond just the walls of our installations or agencies. We’re all interconnected no matter what side of the ocean we serve on.
My time overseas exposed me to ideas, people and environments that were different from what I was “used to” and I’m beyond grateful for that opportunity.
For those that have served overseas or are considering an assignment, I would love to hear your thoughts. If you have questions, feel free to hit up the comments section too.
Dijon N. Rolle is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.