At colleges across the country, international offices are reducing staff hours, eliminating positions, and furloughing workers to make up for coronavirus-related budget shortfalls, a recent NAFSA survey found. And they’re bracing for more cuts.
Tom Millington knows what this is like first hand. During the Great Recession, he was laid off not once but twice. He went on to start Abroadia, which provides intercultural experiences in Latin America, but continues to build a support group for international educators coping with unemployment. Since the pandemic began, he has been organizing webinars; the next, on managing the emotional impact of a job loss
, is this Thursday at 2 p.m. ET. We talked about coping with unemployment during a downturn and what he wished he had known. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
You don’t like to use the word “laid-off.” Could you explain why?
I think it puts the burden of the problem on the person being laid off. I’ve always preferred the term “in transition” because it’s more dynamic. There’s a book called Not Working, by D.W. Gibson. He went across the country to interview Americans who were laid off during the Great Recession, and he begins a chapter by listing all the different words people have used for laid off: downsized, excised, surplused, reorganized. All of these words, and none of them are very positive. If we can use “in transition,” it’s a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Is there practical advice that you took away from your own experience that you think translates to the current environment?
Each person has to make a decision and say, look, I’m going to do a job search in international education for five months, six months, but f I don’t get a job by then, then I’m going to have to start looking for jobs in other fields. I waited way too long. I wanted to stay in the field, but I think that loyalty is hurtful as it is helpful. It’s not practical when the economic conditions are the way they were in 2008 and the way they are now. The other thing I would say: Talk to people, talk to a psychologist or psychiatrist. I wish I had done that when I was unemployed. I just felt really disconnected, abandoned, alone, frustrated. I’m seeing more and more people on LinkedIn who are connecting with others who have been laid off in the field, and I think that’s a good thing.
What was it like for you?
The first time I was laid off, it was a shock. It took me several weeks before I could finally process it. Six or seven months into my unemployment, I had severe shoulder pain because of the stress. Nothing helped.
It manifested physically.
It manifested itself. Obviously, stress plays a part in our work days. But when you lose such an important part of your life, your job, it can have an effect on your mind and on your body. It took a long time before I could have closure. What helped were a few organizations or universities that had hired someone else but took the time to send me an email or to call. It was a very small gesture, but it was cathartic. Even if it was a rejection, it was recognition: I’m no longer just a number or an abstract concept to them, I’m a person.
How did you get to the point where you said, I need to do my own thing?
It was something I’d been thinking about for some time, but I always wanted to stick one foot in the water rather than jump in with both feet. I finally said, I want to be able to take more control of my career. It’s been slow and it’s been challenging, but I don’t regret it.
Do you think there are any silver linings, either to losing one’s job or to the current crisis we are in?
Someone mentioned to me today, look, Tom, I’ve been out of work for three months now. But it’s sunny, it’s a beautiful day. And I’m realizing just how tied up I was in my work, I couldn’t separate myself from it. For me, this is a break to reflect a little bit. And I think ultimately, that is healthy. I’m not saying everyone should have a layoff. People are hurting. But to have the opportunity to reset, to step back and look, I think in the big picture, that’s a good thing.