Although England and Australia are wealthy nations, Israel in 1983 was not the first world place it is today with a higher per capita income than many European nations. If our family could enjoy living in a developing nation such as Israel, how might we fare in an even poorer, third world location? That question intrigued us as my wife and I had talked for years about working in East Africa, not just for its world-famous game parks but also for the natural beauty and unparalleled archeological history. After our first three overseas adventures, all of which were professionally, culturally, and financially successful, I was feeling cocky about the living conditions our family could handle.
Because of that (perhaps unfounded) confidence we decided our next adventure should take us to Kenya, but how to pull that off? What was the chance of lunching with a Kenyan computer science professor at my next meeting? Near zero. What was the probability of reading an article about computer science teaching shortages in East Africa? Rather small. So, instead of waiting for the improbable to happen I decided on a new approach, an approach that turned out to be startlingly obvious, absurdly simple, and amazingly successful—the cold call. Yes, that irritating technique used by salesman, politicians, and scammers worldwide would now be put to use for a very different purpose.
In early 1987 I journeyed to my school library to track down the e-mail address of the computer science chair at the University of Nairobi, the best IT program in East Africa. (The Web makes it much easier to track down this type of obscure information–you could Google that answer in a few seconds.) I composed a letter stating my desire to come to Kenya for three months, work at the university, and become a part of Kenyan culture and society. I attached a résumé with my educational background, teaching experience, professional references, and scholarly interests. I also included syllabi of courses I could teach and workshops I could offer.
Unbeknownst to me my out-of-the-blue letter arrived at a most propitious moment as the university was planning major upgrades to its technical offerings in medicine, engineering, finance, and computer science. They were excited to have me visit, and after a few e-mail exchanges we worked out an arrangement whereby I would consult on curriculum redesign and teach one course that winter quarter–Kenya is in the southern hemisphere, so my three-month summer hiatus conveniently fell in the middle of their academic year. In exchange the university would provide one round-trip air ticket, modest on-campus accommodations, and a small living allowance. These funds, along with my regular Macalester paycheck (I was on a twelve-month pay schedule) and rental income from our home, would allow us to roughly break even—not bad for a three-month “working safari” for a family of four.
This fortuitous turn of events taught me an important travel lesson. In the case of our working vacations to England and Israel I had waited to learn about an opportunity and only then contacted the parties involved. However, with this African success fresh in my mind, I realized I could reverse that process–first decide on an attractive destination for a short-term stay and then contact institutions in that location to see if they would be interested in hosting a visit. While cold calls and blind e-mails will, of course, not always be successful this is a technique worthy of your time and effort and which, surprisingly, can offer a reasonably good chance of success–a claim I promise to prove in my next posting.