If you’re new here, a quick recap: What I Wore to Work is a series featuring YOU! One part workwear style, one part career profile. I absolutely love hearing your unique stories and am endlessly inspired by the hard work, risk and bravery that goes into chasing your dreams.
Today we have the honor of meeting Ashley, who has the COOLEST job and career story. I think a lot of us have fantasized about taking the leap and moving to Europe at one point or another in our lives, and Ashley has done just that!
She’s an explorer, creative, activist and traveler extraordinaire with an incredible story about living outside of your comfort zone, figuring life out one step at a time and of course, building a fun and functional wardrobe on a budget.
ASHLEY HITS ON THESE TOPICS IN HER INTERVIEW:
- How she made the move to Europe.
- How she put herself out there and landed her dream job.
- Tips for those looking to move and work abroad.
- Her best tips for shopping secondhand stores.
- How she packs light for a range of events and climates.
- How her professional career path shifted after undergrad.
MEET ASHLEY WESTPHELING
City: Lugano, Switzerland
Job title + company: Sculpture teacher for an international boarding school
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF, ASHLEY!
I’m an American just finishing up my Master’s degree in Dublin, Ireland, focusing on forced migration and humanitarian action. I travel a lot and this is the 4th country I’ve lived in. I bounced around a lot after my undergrad, but now I’m feeling pretty settled in Dublin (it helps a lot that my boyfriend is Irish). As much as I love Dublin, I’ve had a blast spending the past 3 summers soaking up the sunshine in Switzerland and Italy.
What do you do for a living? What does a typical day look like?
I teach sculpture at a boarding school for international students in Switzerland. It’s a summer academic program and the students come from all over the world to study for 1-2 months. I teach classes in the mornings, then 3 times a week I supervise sports activities, which for me is usually hiking and stand-up paddleboarding on a beautiful lake in Northern Italy.
Because it’s a residential program, the evenings are filled with cultural events and activities, or if I have time off, it’ll be a wine and cheese party with my coworkers. The weekends are spent chaperoning school trips to different cities in Switzerland and Italy, which is amazing, but can sometimes be exhausting looking after teenagers 24/7.
This is truly the best job I’ve ever had and I feel so lucky. I studied art in my undergrad and then moved on to teach English in Prague, where I then applied for this job. It’s crazy working 7 days a week for 2 months, but I wouldn’t change it for the world!
Here’s an example of something I’d wear in the classroom. It’s comfortable and I’m able to move while still being appropriate.
I’m just going to ask what will be on everyone else’s mind. HOW does one get a cool job like this abroad!? What made you decide to move to Europe, and do you have any advice for someone who wants to make that dream a reality as well?
It’s a running joke with my coworkers that most people find my school through a friend or referral, where as I found it through a series of fortunate google searches (Think: fun jobs in Europe summer, Swiss summer camps, etc.). In all seriousness though, I think it’s just about putting yourself out there and not being afraid to take risks. I’ve had so many strange jobs that I never would have expected to find myself in. Some have been great and some not so much, but I’ve always been happy for the experience even if it’s about learning what I don’t like in a job.
I moved to Europe initially to teach English in Prague and I’ve kept going from there. I had barely traveled outside the United States once I got on the plane to Czech Republic and I was terrified. Like almost didn’t go, terrified. Fortunately taking that leap has given me a lot of confidence for future endeavors. I’d encourage anyone who’d like to move abroad to give it a shot for at least a year! It’s such a life-enriching experience that changes the way you see the world.
I wish it were easier for Americans to move abroad, but unfortunately, with visa restrictions in the EU it can be really tricky. Definitely do your research before deciding where you’d like to go. I know Spain has some great programs for native English speakers, and Prague has a lot of TEFL certification schools. Either that or an inter-company transfer is your best bet. I’d recommend going into an organization or group that’s already in place for expats. The expat group you form will be your lifeline at first — from finding the best bars, to knowing which grocery stores carry chips and salsa.
Linen t-shirts and Allbirds are God sends when chaperoning trips in the blazing heat of Rome!
How would you describe your personal style at work? How do you strike the balance between dressing like yourself while remaining professional?
Women in Europe tend to dress very fashionably so I definitely up my game for the summer, but as an art teacher I need to wear clothes that can get messy AND are appropriate to wear around teenagers. It’s also really hot and there’s no air conditioning so breeziness is definitely factored in — haha!
My school has a strict, but casual dress code for students, and teachers are encouraged to lead by example. This means no ripped jeans or large branded labels, and showing respect by dressing up for cultural events. I go for a lot of midi skirts and flat sandals or sneakers and loose pants with a fitted top. I aim to shop ethically and sustainably when possible so I’d say half my wardrobe is secondhand or ethically-sourced. It’s not always feasible as I’m working on a tight budget, but I try.
You mentioned you like to shop ethically and sustainably when possible, what tips can you share on scouring secondhand stores for the best pieces?
I know some people find secondhand shopping overwhelming or frustrating, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth for me. I think of it as a meditative activity. I always go alone and put in headphones to listen to good music while I sort through the racks. My biggest tip would be to shop by color or fabric instead of size. As most women are familiar with, sizing is totally whack anyways, especially when you take into consideration clothes that might have shrunk or altered over time. It’s much faster to just breeze through the clothes and pull out what grabs your eye by the color, or if you feel a nice fabric, like silk or cashmere. If you’re crafty, it’s pretty easy to fix small holes or take in straps or hems to get a perfect fit — YouTube is your friend for that one.
Lastly, I’d say it’s important to find the right store for you. I tend to avoid the vintage-specific shops because they can be picked over. The best secondhand shop is one frequented by old ladies because you won’t be shopping for the same clothes, but they’ll likely have donated some vintage gems that they would love to be put to good use!
(Jess’ tip: Sites like eBay or Poshmark are also great for scoring second-hand items from brands you already love shopping!)
On days I know I’ll be getting messy I always wear my “paint clothes”
It sounds like your job takes you on a ton of adventures! How do you navigate going from a school cocktail hour to leading a hiking trip in the alps while maintaining your personal style? All while packing light!?
Versatility is key! It’s been said a million times before, but think of pieces that can be dressed up or down depending on the setting. Also minimizing shoes and bags makes the biggest difference. I normally bring my Kanken backpack and a smaller bag (lately it’s been my target crossbody). I also keep a fold up tote bag for random purchases in my backpack. For shoes all you need are sneakers and a pair of nicer sandals!
I get to chaperone a number of school dances throughout the year and this one took place on a massive boat that we hired for the night. The views are amazing, but the students are always thoroughly unimpressed by my dance moves 😉
Dress: Vintage, thrifted (similar)
I know my GG Readers will be curious to hear about your student work visa and what the application process was like to nail down a job while studying abroad. Can you share any tips with that?
Student visas are the perfect foot in the door if you’re looking to move abroad. Degrees are WAY cheaper in Europe, and they’re actively recruiting international students, so if you’ve ever wanted to go back to school that can be a great option. Generally, your student visa will limit your work hours during the school year, but it can be a great opportunity to find a fun summer job!
Now that I have my Master’s, I have a two-year work visa in Ireland which is worth its weight in gold after pursuing so many difficult visa processes in the past.
ASHLEY’S TOP FIVE PICKS:
(Note–many of Ashley’s items are second-hand/thrifted, but we’ve linked similar items that you can purchase new! For used items, I’d recommend looking at eBay and Poshmark!)
Comfort is key for me and you can’t beat Allbirds!
A staple that I use every single day. These are super popular nowadays for a reason. They’re durable while still being cute and people are always surprised by how much I can fit in it! I feel just as comfortable bringing it hiking as I do to class or to the office.
I love this style for its versatility. I wear these as swimsuit coverups, or tied at the waist in summer, and layered under sweaters and jackets in the winter.
Midi skirts coming back in style is pretty much the best thing to happen to teachers in terms of wardrobe! I thrifted this one, but because it’s a more vintage-inspired silhouette, it’s a great thing to look out for if you’re vintage/secondhand shopping. (Lot’s of cute styles at H&M as well!)
My go-to outfit is a cotton midi skirt, graphic tee and sneakers. I wore this to teach, but I could easily swap out the shirt or shoes to dress it up a bit more.
Can you tell us more about your transition from studying art in your undergrad to getting your Master’s in Forced Migration and Humanitarian Action? What are your plans for after graduation?
I’ve always loved making art and I knew from when I was a kid I wanted to go to art school. So while I loved my degree, I didn’t love trying to pay the bills as an artist. I eventually discovered that trying to commodify my art was making me dislike making art to begin with, so I decided to pursue working in the NGO sector. I’ve bounced around a ton since my undergraduate taking any job that seemed interesting to me. If I told you my entire professional background it would seem very random, but I’ve always been surprised at how transferable skills have led me from one job to the next!
Teaching art at an international school is such a perfect combination of my professional interests, I never would have dreamed that I could find a job like this, but it just goes to show you never know where life might take you.
After my initial move abroad, I knew I wanted to focus on international work which gave me the confidence to apply for my Master’s. Humanitarian Action is how organizations respond to international disasters or armed conflict, and I specialized in Forced Migration aka refugee studies. I learned so much through my Master’s and it’s a great feeling to know I’ve found my passion in life. I just recently finished my thesis (!!!) so right now I’m focusing on submitting my research to journals for publication and applying for jobs.
I’d love to stay in Dublin for the time being, but I know my line of work will eventually take me to more far-flung destinations, wherever the need is greatest. This simultaneously excites/terrifies me and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Another dance, another dress! This time I went with an LBD and tried to dress it up with heels and jewelry. Otherwise I’d probably wear it with a jean jacket and sneakers.
Dress: H&M (this one is super similar and SO FLATTERING on everyone!), Shoes: H&M (similar)
What does work/life/school balance look like for you?
It’s funny because for a while I’ve looked for jobs that specifically have NO work/life balance. For example, jobs where you live with your colleagues or spend all your time traveling. These can be incredible opportunities to completely change up your personal and professional life because they’re all rolled into one! So for several years after my undergraduate degree, I had no concept of work/life balance because it didn’t exist for me. In a way it was sort of the perfect transition from college to the “real world,” and I made some of my closest friends that way. As I get older I know I’ll prioritize more balance. But for now, I’m fine with having a more blended approach to my professional and personal lives.
I wore this outfit to a ‘cultural event’ the school was hosting so I wanted to look a bit nicer. I bring this dress traveling quite a bit as it’s comfy and doesn’t wrinkle!
What’s the one piece of advice that has shaped your life, either personally or professionally?
I’m a big Cheryl Strayed devotee (she wrote Wild, but all her books are amazing), and she has one quote that I come back to time and time again:
“You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts. You have to pay your electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that’s all.”
It’s great for remembering that your success is defined by only you. It can be easy to get caught up in the comparison game, but as long as you’re happy and learning along the way you’re doing just fine.
Any parting words you’d like to add/things you’d like people to know/words you’d like to say to readers?
Don’t be afraid to take a leap of faith into the unknown! You won’t regret it. Reach out to friends who have lived abroad and do plenty of research. Feel free to contact me and follow me on Instagram @Ashkatw!
HOW COOL IS ASHLEY’S JOURNEY AND STYLE? THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR SHARING YOUR STORY WITH US, ASHLEY! CHECK OUT MORE WHAT I WORE TO WORK PROFILES HERE!