I am the International TEFL Academy President and Co-Founder.
This is my founder’s story as short as I can put it.
My “story” is definitely the “story” in quotes. It’s the story of a regular guy who didn’t know to travel, no experiences outside the midwest, life takes a turn in the road, has the journey to figure out what life can be for him, goes on an epic journey, and returns to make a difference in the world.
The short story is I never left the country until after college, my midwest upbringing was not an experience of flying off to Europe for a family vacation, but more about driving to Wisconsin (from Illinois). Far off lands were only on TV and for the “Lifestyles of The Rich and Famous”. (It was a TV show for those reading this under 30).
I was too intimidated to walk into the Study Abroad office at college. I didn’t really have the funds to travel abroad anyway - I worked while in school and the swim team took up a lot of my time. Before graduating I looked at the Peace Corp, but since I was too shy to talk to my professors at school, I didn’t have any letters of recommendation so I didn’t apply. It was by chance I had a friend who came back from a summer “backpacking trip” (whatever that was) and told me of experiences in Europe, riding the trains, staying in cheap “hostels” (whatever they were), tenting in people’s yards and hitchhiking. He showed me his tattered travel book called “Let’s Go Europe” and it actually had instructions on booking flights, getting off trains, finding hostels, how to go from A to Z, when to go to museums, what off the beaten path things to see and do, etc. What was this magic book that shows you how to see the world? "Wow," I thought to myself - "I can do that?!" At the very least, I could read the book and try. And this is where I decided to go backpacking for a month through Europe and embark on the adventure of a lifetime!
10 Years Later
Fast forward ten years, after being a professional swim coach, working as a travel package advisor, and working as admissions in a professional culinary school (chef college), I noticed a theme - I really loved helping people achieve their goals and change their lives.
At the age of 27, life took a turn for the worse and I almost died. I thought I had the flu, but as it turns out, I had been losing blood for two days from a bleeding ulcer. I ended up in intensive care after losing ⅔ of all my blood. My mom even called a priest to perform my last rites. I obviously didn’t die, but the classic near-death experience was the wake-up call I needed to change my life, work on myself, my relationships, my expressiveness, and to not let fear be a factor. Fear of making mistakes, what life may look like to others, fear of really going for it.
In the end, we all die. When you have the proverbial second chance, you can see that on the other side of fear is a possibility, and whatever life you can think of, you can probably make happen.
After this, I put my dreams on a sheet of paper and started fulfilling them. I completed an Ironman triathlon that was on my bucket list for 15 years. I rode my bicycle across the country for 3,300 miles to raise money for charity and created a fundraising gala. I looked to figure out what really lights me up.
It was then I started working at an international nonprofit organization in the field of HIV. Working with physicians and health care workers, I became the conference manager for the International Association of Physicians in Health Care. My uncle founded this in the mid-1980s and I grew up hearing about the accomplishments he was achieving in both the medical field and human rights.
This is where I learned about people with real passion and service to humanity. I put on a world conference with the United Nations, World Health Organization, and World Bank, and brought in the top thought leaders around the world for a central conference to find solutions to HIV and resource allocation. I was inspired to work with so many people who dedicated their lives to change the world and serve others. A few years later I also co-founded a similar nonprofit to help health care workers connect around the world, give advice, and create project solutions, this was called Medical Advocates for Social Justice.
After several years of 16-hour workdays, I decided to leave that life behind, go and see the world, and see whom I would become from this experience.
World, Here I Come!
Two years and 20 countries later, I saw a vision for my life - and that was to help people just like me. From chatting with people around the world during my travels and having people follow my website asking for help and advice, I realized there were so many people just like that wanted to see the world and live abroad but didn't know where to begin.
A New Chapter
In 2004, I found my way into the Study Abroad, Internship Abroad, and Teach Abroad field. I built a TEFL certification branch-off company from scratch and wanted to fill a gap in the world of a 4-week class that was too expensive for most people and also the gap of needing to pay “placement” companies to get a job. I wanted to create a school that made access to education affordable and could be done part-time while working.
This is where the online TEFL class was born. It was run by teachers with a MA or PhD - real professionals in the field. I wanted to have people learn how to travel and find jobs themselves so they weren't dependent on others. We spent four years building that TEFL school, but then I wanted to do it better than that company’s president was willing to do. Either I do things the right way or don't do them at all!
Fulfilling The Dream
In 2010, some colleagues and I sat around my dining room table while I gave them my 5-year plan to run a great company for both students and staff. A company that offered the highest quality of advice and instruction, straight talk and transparency, the best job assistance, and out-of-this-world alumni engagement.
I wanted to make a super company that did what no other company was even close to doing. To make this vision happen, we gathered the most dedicated and passionate people who have all lived and traveled abroad and we created the International TEFL Academy. To this day, we strive to fulfill these goals on a daily basis.
I’m from Oak Park Illinois, a suburb 20 minutes from downtown Chicago. Known for a diverse demographic or race and income that is part of the charter of the town. Home of some really interesting people ranging from Ernest Hemingway, Dan Castellaneta (the voice of Homer Simpson), Betty White, McDonald's founder Ray Croc, Bob Newhart, a Miss America, and Saturday Night Live casts. It would make a great party and have them all together over drinks.
I majored in Psychology and minored Philosophy and threw in many extra years of liberal arts classes trying to figure out what looked interesting along the way trying to figure out life.
My first experience of traveling abroad was after I graduated from college and worked an extra semester to save money - I went backpacking for a month throughout Europe. I had never left the country before but was looking forward to traveling with some friends, who of course, all bailed on me. I bought a “Let’s Go Europe” book, got a month-long Eurorail pass, student ID, some travelers checks (that’s what you did in 1992, ATM machines were only found 3 times in a month in Europe), got a backpack, and took off to Europe with only a plan to get to Spain and see the Barcelona Olympics.
The first three days I was so wired, I slept maybe six hours total. I landed in England, took a ferry to France, took a train to Barcelona and that was two full days of travel for a cheaper flight and being able to land in England first to at least speak English in a foreign country to start. I didn’t know how to do anything, how to take a train at the big metro station, change money, or even use a payphone (if you still know what that is). I left in such excitement that I even forgot to pack a pair of pants (I had been wearing shorts all summer working in San Diego). That first night on the coast in France it was so windy and chilly that I had to wear my sweatshirt as pants to stay warm. That’s okay though - another backpacker I met forgot his jacket and he wore his pants around his arms to stay warm.
There are so many stories from my first few days - walking through Paris for the day waiting for a connection to Barcelona, I saw they served beer at a McDonalds - I thought that was hilarious! I went to the Olympics in Barcelona. I scored cheap tickets to events and being at the Olympics in a foreign country was a dream come true.
I decided to use my Eurorail ticket which its unlimited travel for a month and take rides overnight in the sleeper car (which I learned on the first train ride you need to pay extra to sleep in a bunk otherwise you are sleeping on the floor in the hallway) and picked countries I could get to overnight. I was learning about how to travel cheap, staying in hostels for $15 a night, and getting into museums on a cheap ticket from a student ID.
By staying at hostels and being on the train, I was meeting people from around the world and they all wanted people to talk to, hang out with, and go exploring with. I decided to travel a few days with some people I met and then split off with others to go to another destination. Eight countries in a month and what I learned was I could really go anywhere and do anything with a travel book and meeting other travelers along the way. My eyes were opened up to the possibilities of the world at my fingertips and gave me the confidence that I could try anything. It’s a cliche but traveling abroad changed my life!
Nearly 60 countries! The goal is to have more countries than years lived and at least one refrigerator magnet from each:
Aruba, Australia, Austria, Belize, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Cambodia, Canada, Cayman Islands, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic & when it was Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, England, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Hong Kong, Hungry, India. Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, Jordan, Kenya, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, Montenegro, Morocco, Nepal, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Panama, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Saint Martin, Serbia, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Tanzania, Thailand, Tibet, Turkey, Vatican City, Vietnam, Zambia, Zanzibar, and Zimbabwe.
Nepal. One of the most beautiful countries in the world with the Himalians and most incredible people,
Turkey, the real ‘East meets West” of history, cultures.
India, to paraphrase, “it’s a difficult country to travel to and even more difficult to leave”. The most fascinating country and one of the world’s longest continuous civilizations, every day is a wild new adventure.
This is a long story but at age 34, I left a non-profit I co-founded in Chicago and decided at 2 am that I was going to sell it all and go travel around the world for a year. That trip turned into 2 years and 20 countries. I also opened up a business while living in Australia at the end of that trip, I was selling hand woven rugs I bought in Asia and the Middle East. This is my travel website from 2001-2003. Yes it’s ancient technology and I built it before there were do it yourself websites, this was still the age of dial-up and before the word “blog” was around. It’s my story.
While traveling in India for three months during my two year trip around the world, I used a website that had people host travelers for free. The modern version is Couch Surfing, this one was called GlobalFreeloaders.com. Love the name!
I stayed with a family in Mumbai (Bombay) and what was to be 3 days turned to 10. I ended up teaching their 2 kids to swim at their country club, they hosted dinner parties for us as the world travelers and took us to parties with top members of the government. A month later, they emailed us and said their brother in law living in Australia came to Delhi to find a bride and we were invited to the wedding in two-weeks time! We flew across the country changing all our plans, were put up in their home, the groom sent me a groom’s party outfit and we went to a 5-day wedding! We danced in the procession as the groom rode in on a white horse. A marching band played as we danced through the streets for two hours to the venue. We were welcomed as celebrity guests on an epic world tour journey, I was introduced to a prince and invited to a palace, it was nutty. These are things that happen when off on an epic adventure in a foreign land.
One of the most important things I learned was when I was 25 on my first trip abroad. I had been intimidated by the thought of traveling abroad as I didn’t know how to do it. Flying off somewhere across the world (having only flown 3 places before) was completely foreign and nearly as difficult to go to Europe as it was to go into outer space.
I learned that it was as easy as getting on a plane, taking a 7-hour nap at night, and waking up. You can be in another country tomorrow, you can be back home the next day. It’s that simple. Everything else in your mind messing with - they are just voices of doubt and uncertainty.
Buy a travel book (Lonely Planet), watch some travel shows on Youtube, watch some people’s videos, and read their blog or article on them going off somewhere to teach, they are you today and you are them tomorrow. It’s as easy as packing a bag, getting on a flight, and waking up tomorrow.
Practical Travel Tips
Over prepare and under pack. Have backups to the cloud of all your photos you take (a precious item), contacts, credit cards, passport, medicine, etc. Be prepared to lose everything and then you won’t freak out when that ATM card doesn’t work. Get good sleep. Bring earplugs as it’s always going to be noisier in some places than what you are used to, travel mask, especially on a flight. Have some extra toilet paper on you in developing countries and Imodium AD. You will never be fully prepared, just do your homework in advance. I’ve done a lot of winging it while traveling, it always works out but I also don’t always see or do all the best things I find out later that I missed.
Fear - It’s just a story running in your head and isn’t real.
If going to a place makes you really nervous and you want to bail out, that’s the exact reason you need to go. Fear is the biggest obstacle in our lives and if you open a travel book, ask people who have really been there (not your aunt who never left Nebraska) you will find that you can go about anywhere when you have information and the right people to encourage you.
Fear is your opportunity for courage. Overcoming your fear will change your life.
Books: On The Road - Jack Kerouac. This is the quintessential book for seeing the world, hitting the road, living by the seat of your pants, and inspired the Beat Generation to take off. This book was the first to inspire me to go out and experience as much of life as possible.
Websites: I think the ITA website is the best.
Films: Out of Africa, Into The Wild, Motorcycles Diaries, The Way, Lost in Translation, The Bucket List, Seven Years in Tibet, Wild, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Roman Holiday, To Catch a Thief, Lawrence of Arabia, Crazy Rich Asians, Slumdog Millionaire, Rabbit-Proof Fence. Any space movie is the ultimate travel destination so throw in all Star Wars films (maybe not the Jar Jar binks one), A few of the Guardians of the Galaxy, and The Martian.
Music: A travel song that also inspired me to travel while I was in college is the B-52’s “Roam”. Great video back in the MTV days and I definitely wanted to “Roam Around The World”.
TV: PBS - Rick Steves’ Europe show about traveling Europe as a traveler and not a packaged tourist gave me a glimpse of what the “regular” person can do and it was different from the luxurious travel commercials I grew up on. I have also met Steve on several occasions and had sangrias with him. Other more backpacker shows are Globe Trekker. I spent 2 years as a nomad being a backpacker so that spoke to me. Conan Without Borders is hilarious and he tried to pick up the travel show with comedy when Anthony Bourdain left us. Street Food, yes that’s the title on Netflix.
Turkish food is fantastic. I could eat Vietnamese food all day. I was in India for 3 months and after that, I couldn’t eat it for a year as I had enough of it but love to have it now. I didn’t grow up on any spice except salt on my mashed potatoes so eating around the world has opened my pallet and I need to have a variety all the time.
Being a founder, the work I do to change the world by giving people the opportunity to pursue their dream is really an expression of how I want to live my life and make an impact on the world. My coworkers inspire me every day with their passion and they have the coolest stories. Having a tribe of world travelers to work with is awesome as they “get it”.
Meet The Rest of The ITA Crew