Rebecca | September 13th, 2011 | careers, feature, inspiration, reinventors | 1 Comment »
I can’t remember when I first met Joy Lehmann—it was probably in Jon Aceto’s First-Year German course during our freshman year of high school. When I think of that class, I remember Mr. Aceto leading us through daily drills—“Ich heiße Rebecca, wie heißt du?” and “Wie geht es Ihnen? Es geht mir gut.” He taught us folk songs and Christmas carols, and we followed him like ducklings out into the hallways for sing-alongs as he strummed the guitar.
I remember Joy as being painfully shy (while I was an outspoken class clown), and from pictures I remember her long, curly hair. We had a different German teacher for the rest of our time in high school, but Joy and I remember those days fondly, and I can see now that they helped form her future as a linguist and teacher. In fact, I believe that Joy ran into Mr. Aceto years later, in a bar in New York City, and told him as much. I wish I could have been there, too, for that moment.
Something I recognized in high school but have grown to truly appreciate over time is Joy’s quiet brilliance and determination. She was one of our graduating class’ three valedictorians, and she had high standards for her education and future. She attended New York University for her undergraduate degree, in Linguistics (with a minor in German), and The New School for her Master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). For the past 10 years, she has studied, lived, and worked in New York, and most recently she served as a program coordinator for The New School’s international student body—a job that brought her both fulfillment and frustration, at times.
Even with a lot going for her, Joy knew when she was ready for the next step. She applied for and received a Fulbright Scholar award to teach in Germany, and a few weeks ago she moved to Chemnitz, a city in Saxony, where she will teach at a German university. This summer, after packing up her worldly possessions and leaving New York indefinitely, Joy spent some time in her native Wisconsin, and I had the chance to talk to her about her next adventure, including her reasons for wanting to shift away from a career she seemed so well suited for and interested in.
Why did you decide to apply for the Fulbright scholarship? What was the impetus for reinvention?
I guess there were a couple of things. The first was a realization that I did not want to be in the field I was in long-term. My first “real” job out of college was in international education—a field I was very interested in and actively pursued. By the time I had been in the field for a couple of years, I had come to terms with the fact that a major part of my job was, and always would be, enforcing government regulations—often ones I didn’t really agree with. This became highly discouraging, as I had little interaction with students, and the interactions I had were often negative, because I was seen as a person standing in the way of students’ ability to study in the U.S., rather than someone there to help. I began to realize that, while I still loved the cultural exchange aspects of what I did, I wanted to approach that in a different way. The second impetus was, rather stereotypically, a painful breakup, which made me examine myself a bit more closely. I began to think about leaving New York, where I had lived since college, and think about whether I could do “something more” with my life. The combination of those two factors drove me toward starting my Master’s degree in TESOL. That was the first step in my reinvention. Of course, that was back in 2008, so it gives an idea of how gradual the process has been.
Taking that first step was very exciting. I love learning and studying, and it felt good to be working toward something I felt passionate about. However, the change in my case was very slow. I continued to work full-time during the three years it took me to complete my degree, and I’ve never worked so hard, or been so exhausted, in my life. Most of the time the endpoint—that career change—was enough to keep me motivated and working hard, but sometimes it felt like sheer momentum kept me going. Last year I applied for a Fulbright Teaching Assistantship, which was all part of a vague master plan that had formed before I started my degree. It was perfect for me as a non-risk-taker: If I got it, I’d have a fantastic excuse to quit my job and a great opportunity to transition into my new career—plus, it would give me some experience teaching English as a Foreign Language, which would help me decide whether I’d like to try to teach abroad in the future or teach English as a second language in the U.S. By early this year, I knew that even if I didn’t get the Fulbright I was going to quit my job so I could move toward a career in TESOL.
I asked Joy, “Do you see a difference between your personal reinvention and professional reinvention?”
I think they are separate but intertwined. Just as personal and professional reasons affected my desire to change careers, I think my (largely) professional reinvention will have an impact on me personally—for obvious reasons, in that I’ll be in a new country, far away from all of my friends and family, so I’ll be around new people and in a new culture, both of which will require some personal reinvention. I’ve found that the profession of teaching also produces a change in my personality. While I was working on my Master’s degree, my classmates often mentioned their “teacher personalities” and how they were different from their own. Once I started my own practicum, I also noticed how I become more outgoing and more expressive in the classroom. I do sometimes wonder how strong that part of me will become as I continue in this field, and whether it will bleed more into my “real” life.
Does this reinvention bear any resemblance to other changes you’ve made in your lifetime?
I suppose there are similarities between this new period of my life and my decision to go to college at NYU, at least from a personal perspective. That was another time in my life when I decided to move to a place where I had no support system, which allowed me to build a new one during and after college. I think that I do this because I’m naturally a very shy and fairly timid person, so unless I put myself in situations where I have to get out there and make new connections, I won’t.
Describe your approach to change.
Even when I was a kid I was very attached to traditions and habits, so I’m not always very receptive to change—however, I actually think I’ve become more accepting of change as I’ve gotten older. I’ve stopped looking at missing a tradition (Christmas with my family, for example) as losing something, but rather just a variation of my experience. I’m not a very spontaneous person either, so I like to plan my changes in advance, as is pretty clear with the more than three-year process this current reinvention has been.
What lessons have you learned throughout the process of reinvention?
I definitely feel that reinvention is ongoing—or it can be. Certainly there are points in our lives that we settle on, professionally with a specific career, personally with relationships, etc., that provide new eras or new definitions, but this experience has really helped me better understand that I always have the option to make changes in my life.
Could you expand on the point about realizing that you always have the option to change your life? I really like that part, and I’m curious to know whether that has been a “freeing” realization for you.
Yes, it has been a freeing realization in many ways. Growing up, I always saw the future as a matter of finding my path—as if there were only one right path, one right career, one right place for me. At some point I realized it’s actually a matter of making my path, and that life is more of a choose-your-own-adventure, where you figure out what your strengths and interests are and then follow them—then, experience is accumulated rather than an endpoint reached. Suddenly making the “wrong” choice didn’t seem quite so scary, and I didn’t feel nearly as stuck. That said, I think I’m probably quite lucky to have so many options and opportunities to change in my life. I know not everyone does.
I don’t really think of myself as a reinventor. I definitely am at a transitional point in my life that has elements of reinvention, but to me it feels more like evolution, as it has been a very gradual and slowly emerging process for me.
What is your next idea for reinvention or evolution?
It seems that changing scenery has become a huge part of my version of reinvention, so that’s really the next big thing: the decision of where to go next. I’m going to give it a few months before I start to tackle that one.
For my sake, and that of some of our friends here in Wisconsin, I hope that decision will involve Milwaukee…but in many ways I suspect that Joy is destined for more than a homecoming. In the meantime, Joy, we wish you both excitement and Gemütlichkeit while you’re in Germany.