Interview with Claudia Körbler
Strategic Communication and Policy Specialist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Thought Leader, TEDx Speaker, Professional Speaker
By Alison Cavatore
Originally published in Global Living Magazine – Issue 26, Winter 2017
Claudia Körbler is not your run-of-the-mill expat. She is an incredibly engaged, proactive, influential, change-making expat. Born in Austria, Claudia is fluent in German, Spanish and English, and currently resides in Washington, D.C. where she works at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. She’s also a thought leader, TEDx speaker and cultural mediator. Her personal motto is: “It only takes one vision for a common mission”, and Claudia works tirelessly to give back to society using her unique attributes and experiences as guides.
Tell us a bit about your life growing up – where you lived, if you ever thought you’d live such an international life later on, and what your interests as a child were.
I grew up in a small village in the southeastern part in Austria called Jennersdorf, in a “traditional” Austrian family, if you can call it like that. We are a large and very close-knit family on both my mom’s and dad’s side, and I have a brother. My hometown of Jennersdorf borders Hungary and Slovenia with close to 4,000 inhabitants. Living in a town that borders to two countries exposed me at a very early age to the “cross-cultural” feeling and understanding that the world we live in is a “big and united blanket of cultures”, as I like to call it. My dad works at a communal bank in my hometown, and my mother was a stay-at home mom taking care of my brother Philipp (now 26) and myself.
Funnily, I only got to see the movie The Sound of Music when I moved to America for the first time at the age of 19. If I could best describe my childhood, it literally was growing up in the rolling, lush and green hills of Burgenland, Austria surrounded by nature and a community that takes care of one another. It was a very carefree childhood and my parents always made an effort to raise my brother and me to be open-minded and curious individuals. To be very honest, I believe my mom, dad, grandparents and my entire extended family had never thought of me leaving my hometown at a young age to venture out on a journey to explore the world. As bittersweet as our goodbye 13 years ago was, as wonderful are these “homecomings” I am experiencing whenever I get to go home. Every time I step foot on Austrian soil, it is a bit like stepping into the twilight zone of my Austrian self.
As a child, I would have never thought that I would be living in Washington, D.C. and doing the work I am so passionate about. However, I always had the urge to get to know new cultures and languages, and I dreamt of becoming a diplomat and interpreter one day – and little did I know that this was exactly what I was going to become. But like every journey, it takes dedication, a vision and a first step to get started.
What was your first expat experience like? What do you remember being the most difficult part of your transition? What was the best part of moving abroad?
My first step and expat experience started at the age of 19 at the airport in Vienna. I knew I always wanted to learn English and speak English like an American, so I immersed myself in a cultural Au-Pair Program in San Francisco where I stayed with a host family and took care of their four children between the ages of 4 and 13. After work, I took classes in English as a Foreign Language, Psychology and Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, following my main goal to perfect my English skills.
The best part of moving abroad was the thrill of the unknown, as I like to call it. When you move to a new country (granted there are many challenges one encounters along the way), you have this wonderful opportunity to basically transform yourself into a new version of your global nomad self in any shape and form you would like to see it fit. It is like the world is your oyster and, if you open yourself up to the curiosity of life and cultures, you will receive the gift of becoming a culturally-immersed expat, where the way you treat your experience starts to raise your cultural and emotional intelligence merely by living in this new culture. Nonetheless, my first expat experience was also a challenging one, and I still vividly remember the feeling of being homesick during the first couple of months living in San Francisco. Whenever that little feeling of homesickness trickled in, I just reminded myself of my goal and why I truly wanted to be in the U.S., and this was to become the best culturally-diverse version of myself. Little did I know back then that I would come back to the U.S. again to kick-start my life and career in my mid-twenties.
So, the best part of moving abroad is this new cultural family you create for yourself. I came to San Francisco without knowing a soul and, two years into the experience, I built friendships with people from many different cultures. The people you meet along the way inspire you to try out new things. And it was my friend Silvia from Costa Rica who inspired me to study Spanish and become an interpreter. Getting to know her culture and hearing her speak her mother tongue made me realize that my next goal after San Francisco was to become a cross-cultural mediator and interpreter in English, Spanish and German.
You’ve lived in many different countries over the last 13 years; how do you find balance between being an expat and having roots in your home country of Austria?
I personally believe that finding a balance is important in anything you do in life and, for me, finding that centered balance between my Austrian self and American self has to do with me being very adamant about living Austrian traditions in the U.S. When it comes time for the Austrian National Day (October 26), my traditional folkloric dress (the Dirdnl) is ready to be taken out for a night of Austrian dancing and food, but in the same instance I celebrate the independence of the U.S. on July 4 with a similar sense of pride. There is not one recipe for balancing it all out. Everyone needs to find their own way of how to deal with it, but I found for myself that when you are able to balance the stretch or gap between both cultures that you find your own cultural happy spot.
I also have to say though that I feel blessed having a family that have accepted my expat choices and helped me along the way to embrace them. And when the going gets rough and I am starting to miss or even forget my deep-seeded Austrian roots, I receive a care package from my family just in time to remind me that the “hills will always be alive in the sound of the Austrian music.”
In addition to working at the United Nations, you also speak at universities and give interviews about how young women can pursue their passion of moving abroad. What are some of the key messages you present to these women about embedding themselves in a new culture?
This one vision can be defined by the curiosity to find out more about this new culture, how you can contribute to society as a whole and how your very unique difference or trade helps you to define your vision towards this common and united mission. Like the United Nations initiative of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are officially in place to transform our planet by 2030, any expat and global citizen can understand what their own sustainable goals are for their lives. When diving into another culture, what is it that you can contribute? What is it that you can take out of it? What skills do you learn while going through this experience and how does this further shape you as a person? I always advise, especially young women who are out for the win, to own their expat experience and to not be afraid. Life and new changes can be scary sometimes, but as soon as you step out of your own comfort zone, you will have an elevated experience and enjoy even more what this world has to offer. Another key message I present to anyone who has a global mindset and is ready to take the plunge to immerse themselves in a new culture, is to be open to welcoming challenges and opportunities. The world can only be your oyster if you yourself are open and curious enough to see what it has to offer.
You also work with Families in Global Transition. Tell us a bit about your role there.
I am the Membership Committee Chair at the Families in Global Transition (FIGT). FIGT is a welcoming forum for globally mobile individuals, families, and those working with them. We promote cross-sector connections for sharing research and developing best practices that support the growth, success and well-being of people crossing cultures around the world. It is my role to acquire new members, establish and enhance tangible membership benefits and to promote and share our upcoming yearly conference in The Hague, Netherlands with the topic “Building on the Basic: Creating your Tribe on the Move” from March 23 – March 25, 2017. Please visit FIGT at www.figt.org and e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or would like to become a member.
What advice do you have for someone interested in getting involved with international organizations such as the United Nations and World Bank?
If you are a business or private sector company and you want to get involved with the United Nations in building public-private partnerships, you may want to look into the United Nations Global Compact (www.unglobalcompact.org), which is a leadership platform for the development, implementation and disclosure of responsible corporate practices.
One of the tips I give when talking about “How to land a job at the UN?” is to simply start doing something. How you end up doing what you are meant to do, you want to do and what you should be doing will be determined through the process of learning. Sometimes we as humans feel as though we cannot solve all the problems in this world at once, and we end up choosing not do anything at all. This becomes very apparent in the current heart-breaking crisis in Syria. So, my first tip to anyone is to start doing something meaningful. My second tip is to contribute in your own way towards this common mission. If you can start somewhere and contribute in your own way, however small or big this may be, do not be afraid to get started. I get asked a lot by people on how they can get a job at the United Nations or the World Bank Group, and I tell them to worry less about how to get a job at those organization, but rather start doing small things that have meaning in their lives. Even if you do not end up at the UN or any international organization, you will still be making a very meaningful contribution to society as a whole. If you pick something you genuinely connect to, and you invest in it, it will grow into something meaningful. And then you also are ready to be the international development expert you are destined to be.
Where do you see yourself professionally and personally in the next 10 years?
In 2027, I see myself as a leader, professional and motivational speaker and coach in the global development, cultural awareness and mediation arena.
By then I will have written a book and I will continue to tell my story and hopefully inspire people along the way. I will engage and empower them to find their “one vision for a common mission.” If you would like to stay in touch with me and hear more about my speaking portfolio, you can contact me at email@example.com.
In the same breath, and on a more personal level, I do also see myself in 10 years from now (I will be 42 by then) raising a culturally-diverse family. I can pass on my knowledge to my children and help them create their own vision of the way they see the world.
What is your concept of “home”?
To me the concept of home is a feeling rather than a place. Home to me is a place where you are being understood, where your passion blossoms and where you are being loved. So home to me can mean as much as sitting down together for coffee at my parents’ garden overlooking the rolling hills and sharing thoughts about life than being in my professional environment here in Washington, D.C. No matter how many countries I’ve been to, this very special feeling of home I carry inside of myself will always be my favorite place in the world. Home is a feeling inside of you and has no geographical location.
Do you ever see yourself moving back to Austria?
I think you should never say “never” in life. For now, I have found my home-away-from-home in the United States. I do not see myself repatriating to Austria for the foreseeable future, but I do see myself retiring in Austria one day. But, I still have a bit of time for that…
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone who is considering moving abroad for the first time?
Making a big life change can be scary, but you know what is even scarier? REGRET.
I would advise anyone to embrace the experience every step along the way! The first few months in any new place, especially a foreign place, are going to be stressful. The fact is that most people live and die very close to the place they are born; global citizens and nomads are different when it comes to that. So be aware that you are experiencing something wonderful and unique — no matter how much it makes you want to cry, scream, or rip out your hair. It is all part of your journey!
Get active, even if it is your first time! A new city really starts to feel like home to me when I have a regular outlet for exercise locked into place. I personally love spinning and running, so find your own outlet and surround yourself with people and a community you can get active with! Sport unites cultures!
[Photography © Akshat Chaturvedi, Facebook: @immersin]
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