Ex-Pat Living: Interns, Mentoring and Life’s Do-Overs
I arrived in Baku, Azerbaijan prepared to stay and teach young people how to get jobs with the western companies arriving in town to get the next oil boom started.
This is a tale of coming full circle.
When I showed up, Exxon was opening its office as were most of the other oil majors. The Caspian Oil & Gas Show was THE place to be. Everyone you’d ever want to contact in the emerging business market would be there, including the President. Heady times back then! As a woman owning a business, I was one of two. As an American woman, I was in singular company. (Not that other women couldn’t, I think they just didn’t know where Baku was!)
Opening day of the Oil Show followed some nick-of-time set up and electrical issues (Connecting The Dots). But there I was with my one remaining computer set up for demonstrations, working fine. Until word got out that I had new English language software that made learning straightforward and interesting- it was in the mid 90s and not many had PCs (laptops were still a ways off). This was cutting edge stuff!
As I was being mobbed by people asking questions, stumbling through my Russian language, trying to get answers formed and phrased so they could understand, along came Sabina Zeynolova (center in the photo), a do-anything young lady. She came to be my right hand for several years. She walked up and said, “Come on, guys, I’ll explain it to you.” And she did, all afternoon. She was a natural with people and understood the concepts the first time I explained it all to her with the first demonstration. She became invaluable to me, and I to her, as we learned the business world together.
Sabina worked each day beside me, ending each one, “Ok, Mom, I’ll see you tomorrow.” She would begin the next day quizzing me, saying, “Mom, Какое число сегодня? [kah-KOH-yeh chees-LOH see-VOH-dnya] to which I was supposed to answer, “The date today is…” It was a game with her and she would always ask when I had 10 things going on and she wouldn’t back down until she had her answer! To this day, I still remember my first office phone number there because of that same routine.
The young man in the photo, this is a young Zaur Jabbarov. He came to me early on at just 16 and, after learning enough, we created a job for him. He stayed with me for the first 3 years as well. The last time I saw him he was about to board a flight from Baku as a professional man bound for Geneva on WTO business. I could not have been more proud. I wish I knew how they both are today.
I tell you all this to describe what it is like to be the one on the teaching side of the desk and how it feels to be the student nowadays.
Washington DC as many of you know is a maze of super specialists. I work in communications, so of course my title is Senior Communications Specialist… what else? Staffers with Hill experience get scooped up by firms who need Hill contacts; military retirees are sought out for their service contacts; and so on. You capitalize on what and who you know as long as you can. But when the winds of change (or budgets and deficits) blow here, you have to learn how to bend or you’ll break.
To regain breadth and flexibility, I decided I needed to branch out. I’ve been learning new skills and have taken media classes this year to refresh and update that section of my repertoire- in government that’s the one area of communications that I haven’t used since I have been back here in the states. (Speaking with journalists here is pretty tightly controlled, for good reason perhaps?) So when the opportunity came about to learn from Caitlin Kelly, a NY journalist, I thought this is my “Oil Show” moment! Someone willing to share knowledge!
The same way those kids looked at me, knowing I had skills and wisdom I could teach them, I am now looking at Caitlin and others with whom I have chosen to study. Is 57 too old to learn new skills? I think not… Oops! I forgot, I am now 58. Is that too late?? I feel like the kids who came to me, excited to learn everything and use it to do great things.
When I look back at those kids, 15 or 16 at the most back then, I recall their enthusiasm and hope I can radiate the same these days. I wonder about what went through their minds as they came in to ask about classes the first time? What did they hope to gain or become?
I look at myself today, taking stock of what I know I’m good at, and see so much that I also want or need to become:
Does this seem backwards? Not to me, it doesn’t. I see that I have let a lot slip by during this repatriation. I allowed myself to be defined by the system in this town rather than using the confidence I had from success overseas to create something worthwhile. Maybe it was easier that way, or perhaps it was the culture shock. Either way, I am looking to become more like those young students and regain my equilibrium in this changing marketplace.
What got me started thinking about this connection was the discussion of learning. In one of her recent posts, Caitlin Kelly talked about the unpaid internship concept going away. I understand the arguments for it, but I can’t help but think, “What I would have given to have been one of those lucky ones (relatively speaking) to have had the chance of a lifetime.” I see these upcoming opportunities as my chance of a lifetime. (Maybe I could pay to be someone’s intern?)
Learning at any age is a great thing. Who knew that I liked web stuff? I returned home to find I was 10 years behind the curve on this. Government contracts kept me working too many hours a day since then to catch up. The only silver lining I can see to the whole shutdown/furlough mess this year, for me, has been having time to catch up on the techie stuff I found I enjoy. Aside from that… I got nothin’…not much of a silver lining.
So here I go, walking into the Oil Show of my life, thinking what’s in there that I need to learn and discover? How can I make the most of this Do-Over I’m being handed?
What would you like to learn? Or have you learned something good this year already? Am I too late?