Student’s Guide to Voting From Abroad

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For most Gap Year travelers and study abroad participants this November’s Presidential election will be the first they’ve been eligible to vote in. Becoming a voting member of one’s country of citizenship is a rite of passage and an important step into participation in the adult community.

In spite of the growing disillusionment with the political process, voting remains the most significant way “we the people” have to make our voices heard and have a hand in the direction our country takes, both domestically and within the international community. It’s vital that every adult do their civil duty, become educated about the issues that matter most, the positions of the candidates, and vote their conscience on November 8th.

But what happens if you’re out of the country, either participating in a study abroad program, or on your Gap Year?

You can still vote, and you should make the effort to.

Voting ahead of time, from outside the country, involves voting by absentee ballot. What that means is that you apply, in advance, to have your ballot delivered to you abroad and you send it in by the deadline. The tricky part, of course, is that the deadlines for both applying for your absentee ballot and submitting your vote vary by state.

Check your state’s absentee ballot request and absentee ballot return deadlines here.

The Steps to Voting From Abroad

Voting from outside the USA is not difficult, but it does take some pre-planning. You can’t remember on the morning of the election and just stop by your local polling center before work, like you could at home. People who travel and who are living outside the USA have to go the extra mile to exercise their right to vote. It is worth the effort.
Here’s the process for voting from abroad:

  • Register to vote
  • Request your absentee ballot
  • Vote
  • Return your absentee ballot

Register to Vote

The first step is to know whether or not you are registered to vote. You can check your voter registration status online, easily.

If you ARE registered to vote, great! The next thing to do is request your absentee ballot.

If you ARE NOT registered to vote then you need to get registered.

31 states and the District of Colombia allow you to register online. The others require you to register in person (this may be a problem if you are already outside the USA and won’t return before the election.

Keep in mind that there will be a voter registration deadline and they vary by state.

If you need to register to vote, you can do so online, or in person, or by mail. This site will help you know which options your state allows.

Sometimes, you can register to vote AND request your absentee ballot at the same time, with the same form (that’s what I did, for New Hampshire) so you might have a look at the next step and see if you can roll two steps into one in your state.

Check out this 12 step explanation of how to register to vote that covers all of the variables.

How to Request Your Absentee Ballot

When requesting your absentee ballot you’ll find that there are lots of options and support services online. Here are three that are reputable and can help you get your ballot in time to vote:

Federal Voter’s Assistance Program

This is a tried and true federal organization that specializes in helping Service members and Americans living overseas to vote. They have step by step directions, printable forms and all the details you need.

Youth Vote

This is a non-partisan site dedicated to helping people vote. They’ve got a very handy Student’s Studying Abroad page with the links you need to get started and information specific to students abroad and voting.

They also provide a printable Study Abroad and Vote Toolkit that is perfect for program providers, teachers, or political organizers to hand out to students to help get them started on the process.

Overseas Vote 

Also non-partisan, Overseas Vote works specifically with Americans living abroad and Service members to facilitate voter registration and absentee voting. This site has all of the necessary forms and links to state by state information, as well as a candidate finder, in case you aren’t sure who is running in your state or district for a particular election.

Vote from Abroad

This is the site I used to print the forms for my own absentee ballot request. For the state of New Hampshire, I was also able to register to vote on the same form. Very handy! Use the drop down menu to determine which sort of voter you are (are you temporarily abroad, or out of the USA longer term?) and follow the step by step prompts until you’re instructed to print your forms. You’ll have a few things left to fill out by hand on the form, but much of it is auto filled based on the information you’ve entered. They even print out the envelope label for you so that there is no chance of an error in mailing!

Vote!

The next step is to wait for your absentee ballot to arrive. Depending on how you’ve requested to receive it, it might come by postal mail or email. You’ll then need to fill it out, voting for your candidates of choice in your local and federal elections, and mail it in by the deadline.

If your vote does not arrive by the deadline for your state, it may not be counted! Be sure to double check the absentee voting deadlines for your state and mark them on your calendar!

Return Your Absentee Ballot

Maybe it seems obvious, but this is the most important step. Even if you’re registered, even if you get your ballot, even if you fill it out… if you don’t mail it back to the right place at the right time, you haven’t voted!

Don’t forget to MAIL your absentee ballot!

Who Do I Vote For?

Voting is a civic duty and it’s serious business. Part of living in a democratic country is taking part of the responsibility for who is running the show. That’s what we do when we vote. As you begin to take your place as an adult in the community, becoming a thoughtful and informed voter is part of that responsibility. It’s not enough to listen to soundbite political commercials! You must do your homework. Understand the candidates positions on the issues that matter to you, and vote your conscience for the good of the country.

How do you get beyond the noise and learn more about the candidates policies?

Perhaps the most obvious way is to visit the websites of each of the candidates and read for yourself. Follow the debates, and educate yourself on the issues. This is a big job!

If you’re wondering how to compare the candidates, side by side, with what matters to you, there are several online tools to do that.

2016 Candidate Comparison
This site is a wealth of useful information. On the right, as you scroll down you’ll see a comparison of the Democratic and Republican candidates positions on all of the major issues. You can click on a particular candidate and get a detailed description as well as their positions on the issues and links to further information. Even the third party and minority candidates are thoroughly covered. They’ve also got a list of the scheduled debates (right at the top, on the right) so that you can mark your calendar and watch!

Inside Gov
This site compares all of the presidential candidates side by side. A handy drop down on the left side allows you to select your position on issues and then match candidates who share your views.

No matter where your research takes you, it’s important to remember the bias of the person or organization writing. Try to find sources that are non-partisan, and read as widely as you can, from a variety of perspectives (even those you might disagree with!) to educate yourself thoroughly on all sides of an issue.

Further Inspiration

Still not convinced that you should vote? Read on:

Guide to Voting Overseas by Nomadic Matt

10 Reasons to Vote as a Student

10 Reasons Why Students Should Vote

Let your voice be heard! Vote!

Photo Credit: Theresa Thompson

How to Support Your Traveling Student From Home

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Well done! Despite feeling nerves like never before and wanting nothing more than to squeeze your kid tight and never let go, you’ve managed to support your child as they’ve gone through the (admittedly-more-arduous-than-you-anticipated) process of preparing for a Gap Year. But now they’ve taken off from JFK/SFO/ATL, and are en-route to the learning experience of a lifetime. So, now what?

Even though you’re thousands of miles away, you, as a parent, will still play a critical role in the success of your child’s Gap Year. As per usual, you’ll wear many hats – friend, confidant, parent, cheerleader, soundboard. But new territory to navigate will also present itself: without the convenience of face-to-face interactions and a shared physical presence, finding ways to connect can be more challenging than expected.

So how can you support your child while they’re thousands of miles away on a Gap Year, anyway?

Encourage Making Good Decisions

Here’s the reality: you don’t know exactly what your kid is experiencing every day. And that’s pretty scary. Hopefully you’ve instilled some street smarts in your kid over the years that will allow them to handle their new day-to-day road bumps. In the end, the best you can do (both for your child and your own sanity), is to consistently encourage them to make good decisions.

Good decisions come in handy in a variety of circumstances. Coach your kid into thinking clearly through their actions, considering others throughout that decision-making process (especially in light of their role as a visitor in a foreign country), and ultimately making choices that aren’t always “easy” but are always “right.”

As a parent, it’s your moral obligation to be the (slightly) naggy reminder of all things safety. Gentle prompts to be travel-savvy, such as storing money in multiple places on your person, are not overbearing – they’re necessary. Be the voice of reason in case your child is getting caught up in all the fun.

Frame Conversations Appropriately

While it’s great to learn about their trip to Victoria Falls and (gulp) when they hung over the edge of somewhere called “The Devil’s Pool,” try to redirect conversations to focus more on what they’re learning and what they’re gaining from their overall experience. Fun and adventure will inevitably be a part of their Gap Year (and it should!), but ideally, your child has more robust goals for their trip than a couple of cool photos.

When you have your check in with your kid, ask them more pointed questions about things they’re learning about themselves or personal reactions to experiences they hadn’t anticipated. Don’t ask them to give you the play-by-play. Instead, challenge your kid (and yourself!) to avoid giving a chronological “report” of their experiences abroad. Ask them about their favorite “teacher” – even if it’s an unconventional one like their homestay mother – and if their goals have changed or adjusted throughout their experiences. What new insights do they have? New passions? New ideas for a sense of purpose?

Yes, you want to hear about toppling all over each other as your kid and their friends recreated the Tower of Pisa in Italy, but don’t allow these surface-level discussions to be the core of your check ins.

No Guilt Trips: None!

We know you miss them. We know it’s hard. We know that your spouse just isn’t as much fun without your kid around. We know that you have more free time now than you know what to do with. But do not – under ANY circumstances – guilt trip your child because you are heartsick for their company.

There’s a difference between communicating your love for them meaningfully without sliding into the “I wish you were here’s” and the “Well, if you hadn’t left us forever…” eyerolls. Now is not the time for being overly dramatic. Now is the time for you to find new avenues for personal emotional support healthily.

Guilt tripping your child can backfire in a major way.
You might get satisfaction in the short term but it’s harmful to the relationship in the long term. Why create feelings of regret or resentment for your kid when they should be focusing on learning all the lessons this great big beautiful world has to offer?

Develop a New Identity for Yourself

Having a child “fly the nest” isn’t an easy process for any parent. After years of investing time and energy and laundry detergent and love into a little person, you suddenly realize they’re all grown up and capable of making important decisions independently. They walk away and you’re left feeling less-than-whole.

Rather than wallow in self-pity and an identity crisis, look at the experience as an opportunity. It’s an invitation for you to explore new understandings of yourself. There’s a lot you can do with your newfound brain space; devote it to hobbies or activities that DON’T include memorizing your child’s extracurricular schedule.

Your child will only feel wholly supported when their parents are feeling stable and grounded.

Smile. Laugh. Be Interested.

By the 11th phone call of their epic trip, you might start feeling a little zoned out when your kid is giving you updates. Sure – your kid may drone on, and sure – you might not need every detail about that mango sticky rice, but it’s important that you are fully present for your long-distance conversations with your kid. It can be tempting to have one eye on your favorite reality TV show as you chat. But your kid needs you to listen, respond, engage in conversation, and treat them like their stories are as cool as they think they are.

Give Them Space

Whether you regularly Snapchat your kid goofy photos or are still LEARNING HOW NOT TO TEXT IN ALL CAPS, it’s safe to assume you have regular in-person and digital communication with your kid. While the ongoing daily conversations serve a purpose, they’re not realistic for your child’s stint abroad. They need to be fully present and actively participating in their experience (not to mention WIFI can be spotty in other places).

Instead of demanding daily check ins or four-hour-long gab seshes every weekend, invite your kid to propose a check in schedule that works for them. It may change over the course of their Gap Year, depending on their needs and their availability. Phone chats might happen once every three days for a period and then be separated by two to three week stints.

Remember: the underlying goal of a Gap Year is for your kid to develop some serious self-awareness, and this can be hindered by constantly disengaging through phone calls home.

Finding your groove as a long-distance-parent takes time. You might feel things you’ve never felt before. You might hit the ground running. You might flounder a bit. Just as your kid is learning in this new stage of life, so are you – practice patience and self-love. You’ll get there!

The Unbelievable Career Advantages of Taking a Gap Year

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There are plenty of reasons why you should consider taking a Gap Year. Finishing high school, and moving on to college is a pretty big step. You should take some time to mark this transition, and really internalize the importance of this moment. A Gap Year shouldn’t be just a period in which you can take some time to relax, though that’s pretty important as well. You should use this opportunity to figure out what you’re going to do further on, and prepare for your future career.

Taking a Gap Year is a smart decision, no matter what you decide to do with it. But if you’re going to take some time off, you should try to maximize the potential benefits of this period.

Gap Years Improve Your Job Prospects

Gap Years can be immensely useful for your future job prospects. There are some who consider taking Gap Years even after they’ve finished college, and are already employed. Even though they’re motivation for taking a mid-career break is somewhat different than yours, taking some time off before you’ve settled into a career might save you the time and hassle of having to do it later.

Many employers say they value work experience over education. This should not be taken as a plea in favor of abandoning college all together. Having a college degree is a given, for most candidates, so naturally employers are going to look for relevant experience, that can set them apart. Finding work during your Gap Year might seem like a difficult task, but there are ways you can maximize your chances of landing a job that can help you gain that all important work experience.

Use Your Gap Year to Experiment

Your Gap Year is the perfect time to experiment, and explore different career paths. That way, you’re going to have a head start when it comes to investing in the training for your chosen career. You can use the experience you’ve gained during this period to find a major that suits you, and perhaps even find part-time job during college, so you can continue to work on your CV while you study.

Develop New Skills

And for most jobs that require a college degree, apart from work experience, and a relevant skill set that relates directly to your field, most employers value soft skills as well. Soft skills can only be acquired through daily practice. That’s not to say you can only develop them during your Gap Year. You’re probably going to keep on learning, and practicing all throughout life. But during this time you’re going to find more diverse opportunities to put your skills to the test, in situations you might not encounter otherwise. These are immensely valuable experiences you should not dismiss. These are the kind of things that are going to make your resume stand out later on.

Gap Years are also great opportunities to learn foreign languages. In an increasingly globalized work market, knowing more than one language is going to make you an immensely valuable employee, regardless of your field. And the sooner you start learning, the easier it’s going to be. Plus, it is much more easy to learn a foreign language when you’re living within that culture, than it is to learn from books, and CDs.

Leverage Your Blog in Your Job Search

You can start documenting your Gap Year experience through a personal blog, or personal web page. This can be the basis of a future portfolio, if you’re considering starting a career as a freelancer. It’s going to help you meet, and bond with people who share passions similar to yours. The people you connect with via these experiences, either directly, or via your blog are going to form the network of people you can rely on when you start hunting for a job. Often times, knowing the right people is more valuable than anything else. Because people would rather hire someone they know, and trust, rather than a person who looks good on paper, but might not be such a great person in real life.

If you’ve already set your heart on a specific field, consider the skills you won’t be learning in college. During these months, instead of trying to learn ahead for your future courses, try learning something you might not have time to learn later. You never know when those skills might come in handy, and having a vast array of skills is going to stand out in the eyes of any employer. Plus, you might discover something you enjoy that you’ve never considered before.

There are nay-sayers who believe that Gap Years are just a waste of time. But the truth is the only time that’s really wasted is the one not spent learning something. Your Gap Year can be incredibly valuable for your future job prospects if you take full advantage of the opportunity.

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About the author: Marc Mendelman is a Junior HR consultant and a Contributing Editor at Today Assistant. He is passionate about identifying daily work hacks and creating ways of increasing personal and professional productivity. You can contact Marc at marc.mendelman@gmail.com

Planning Your Return Home at the End of Your Gap Year

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We know you’re too busy having fun and soaking up every adventure-filled moment of your Gap Year experience to even begin considering your days abroad are numbered, but wise students know that preparing to transition to life back home requires some advance prep. Sure, you’re excited to reunite with loved ones and stuff your face with breakfast tacos – not to mention taking a long shower with (gasp!) a loofa – but there’s much more to returning home than these simple pleasures.

There are, often, unfamiliar emotional and psychological responses to anticipate. Reverse culture shock and a grasping for the past are not unusual to feel. You might even begin to wonder if your Gap Year was nothing but a dream.

Here’s my best advice for winding down your time abroad in a way that sets you up for long-term success.

Take Some Photos

Then, take some more.

Whether you realize it or not, you’ve adapted greatly to your life abroad. Remember the wonderment on your days strolling the streets of your Gap Year destination, how everything was interesting, new, and different? Now you might scurry by without giving a second thought. This usually indicates that the strange has transformed to the ordinary, and you’re no longer seeing your new destination with visitor’s eyes.

But, try to hold tight to that wonderment. Record as much of your everyday life as you can, especially those ordinary people, places, and things you want to remember.

Say a Culturally Appropriate Goodbye to Your New Friends (& Family)

We have a hunch you’ve made some special bonds on your Gap Year. Be sure to acknowledge these special relationships by carving out time to say goodbye in a way that feels good – and in a way that is culturally appropriate. Hugs, notes, handshakes, a hand on the shoulder. A polite grasping of your right fist with a slight tilt of the head in a bow.

Collect contact info, too – Facebook CAN be more than a soundboard for the minute details of your life. The ability to keep in touch regularly with long distance friends is one of the great benefits on this giant social network.

Mentally Prepare Yourself

Think about how returning home is both similar and different from going abroad – you’ll be entering a new culture again, albeit a more familiar one. But since you’ll be coming home with new perspectives and a new sense of self, you might be surprised how your old haunts feel a little foreign.

Brace yourself for an adjustment period – feeling comfortable at home won’t happen overnight. Some things, even your friends and family, might seem strange (or unsettling).

Get Ready For Some Cultural-Catch Up

While I largely consider my time away from the US during the height of Angry Birds a blessing, it’s naive of returnee travelers to think that they didn’t miss out on SOMETHING important while abroad – many linguistic, social, political, economic, entertainment, and current event topics may be unfamiliar to you.

In reality, laughing with friends and family over the fads and (seemingly) “big deals” that happened while you were gone is a great way not only to reconnect, but also to reflect on the transience of all these trends.

Avoid Judgment & the Comparison Game

Before traveling abroad, you probably read countless articles and advice around the theme of having an “open mind.” The same rings true for when you return home. You might be quick to make snap judgments about people and behaviors back home given your newly “enlightened” sense of being. While we don’t mean to undermine the powerful realizations you’ve undergone while abroad, it’s important not to diminish the lives of your friends and family back home.

Instead, cultivate sensitivity. Patience, reflection, and a sense of love for everyone’s journey are a good remedy for judgement. Be genuinely interested in what your friends and family have been doing while you’ve been abroad.

Making comparisons between cultures and nations is a perfectly normal response to your experiences; however, Gap Year returnees must be careful not to be seen as too critical of home or too lavish in praise of things foreign.

Lean on Your Support Networks

Now is not the time to cry into a bowl of rice while watching Mulan and longing for the good ol’ days abroad in China. Instead, commit to processing your entire experience in the company of those who also value international experiences or who have been transformed by life abroad.

Your Gap Year friends are a good resource, but look further into your communities, too. Find groups on campus. Connect with travelers in your home town. The networks are there, you just need to find them, put on that brave smile (like when you boarded that plane abroad!), and be vulnerable as you navigate the up’s and down’s of life back home.

Give yourself permission to ease into the transition.

It’s not an easy process, but it’s an important one – perhaps the most important phase of your entire experience abroad. Now’s the time for you to make good on your commitments as a global citizen and put into practice the lessons you’ve learned while overseas. Hop to it!

Photo Credit: Binyamin Mellish

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