Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus Podcast. Finding your tribe, family, community, whatever you like to call it, is so important when you move to a new place. Expats Angelina and Bonny know this first hand, having moved to the UK from Poland and France. They started their business, International School of Life, to connect expat women globally, helping them to boost their confidence, unlock their talent and grow their network so they can thrive.
ISL Co-founder Angelina Piechowska joins me in this episode to chat about her own challenging experience moving abroad, her work as a psychologist and solution-focused brief therapist, and why she’s so passionate about helping fellow expat women realize their full potential.
Angelina, I always like to start my interviews by finding out a bit about the person I’m speaking to, so can you tell me a little bit about your own expat story.
Angelina: My expat story, so my expat story started in 2016 when we decided to move from Poland to the UK. And the main reason for that was to improve our English skills because when I was born in Poland, it was still the last year of communism and I used to have the language that I used to have in my school it was Russian and my husband learned German so we weren’t familiar with English one.
And because we have two kids, we would like to have bilingual kids as well to give them some skills for the future so it was the main reason that we came here. So yeah, that’s our story.
Carlie: And I was listening, actually, to one of the podcasts on your website, which we’re going to talk about in a second, and I noticed you mentioned that you had zero English when you moved to the UK, like nothing.
Angelina: Yeah, and it was very difficult. Sometimes it’s good like, you don’t realize how difficult it will be when you made some decision because I know that I became a person that I wanted to become because of my living abroad, but I paid some price for it.
And because I’m based in Birmingham and it’s a very multicultural city, like more than 50% of people here are coming from all over the place, so even if you miss some vocabulary or even if you make some mistakes, the grammar ones, the people are more tolerant.
And because of so many accents, it’s easier to start to speak and for me, the best option, from the beginning, was to immerse myself with people who are foreigners or who are British. Don’t isolate yourself because I’ve noticed when I’m working with the clients in my private practice, it’s some kind of challenge that they have and they didn’t overcome so they decided to isolate themselves because their English isn’t good enough or they aren’t good enough.
So, if somebody is listening to us right now and is in the same position as me, without any English skills, please go and try and listen and, you know, it was that the big strategy that we applied before we moved here. So, it was very intensive lessons for us.
We watched films in English, we listened to podcasts, we even, you know, we put on our walls in our flat, we put some papers so each word that we learned we put on this wall—
Carlie: Yes. I do that too in French. Yeah the post-it, I do post-it notes. It drives my partner crazy because he’s like, do we really need to label everything in the kitchen, and I’m like, yes it’s for me.
Angelina: Yeah, exactly. And it’s always worth it. I think it’s some kind of story about the comfort zone as well because suddenly from some kind of their level of career that you develop in your own country, you have to start from the zero and sometimes for me, it was difficult to find myself in this position in my age.
Angelina: But I don’t regret it and I think that by going out from the bubble that we used to live in we can experience some beautiful moments in our lives and we can realize how capable we are to achieve things that we would like to achieve.
Carlie: I was listening to someone speak the other day on zoom because we’re all at home still a lot at the moment, and he was talking about how important it is to grow, you need to get comfortable in the uncomfortable. And you put yourself in an extremely uncomfortable situation, moving to the UK with basically no English. But I know you are a therapist, were you a therapist in Poland before you moved to the UK?
Angelina: Yeah. So yeah, I graduated in Poland so I am a psychologist and a solution-focused brief therapist. And to be fair in the beginning, I use it to start to work and I start to work with the Polish community here or the community from Central Eastern Europe because I speak, you know, a few different languages on the basic level as well.
But it, like allowed me to be who I was so I didn’t have to disconnect myself from my professional experience because I delivered a few programs or therapy or online sessions and gradually, step by step I started to work with foreigners and right now with people from all over the globe. So yeah.
Carlie: And you have established the International School of Life with your business partner, Bonnie, who’s actually profiled on our website expatfocus.com. So, first of all, I’d like to know what is the International School of Life?
Angelina: So, it’s the International School of Life. We established this school in March 2021 and our vision is to become a worldwide, reputable and recognized community helping women of all international backgrounds to thrive, unlock their talent and reach their full potential.
So, it’s like to create some safe space where you can be who you are, and you can still develop yourself from the private and professional point of view. And it is linked probably with your next question, because when I used to work with foreigners here, I realized that very often they are faced with shame, which is spoken about by Brené Brown. [They think], I’m not good enough, and who do you think you are that you want to achieve something more. And you want to build your career if you came from somewhere else.
And during the two programs that I conducted before, it’s: Design Your Life in the UK, and the second one was; Start today, Debut Tomorrow. When we invited the participants who want to upskill themselves and they want to change their career pathway, so some of them want to become a nurse, like one lady wanted to become a nurse, some person wanted to become a personal trainer and it was a series of psychological workshops to collect, maybe there or learn to be more confident.
Of course, with practical skills like how to write a CV or prepare a cover letter but this especially, Design Your Life in the UK, showed me that we don’t have to do a lot to support people and make it easier for them to fly.
Because, when you are surrounded by people who are very tolerant, very kind and very supportive, you don’t have to go by yourself, you aren’t alone in this experience and every time if you don’t have the energy or if you have this low, like a low mood and you need to have some, you know, need to receive some help, you will be always surrounded by these people.
And I’m not sure what it is about the magic that happens because, you know, sometimes when you think about these five ways to become, I don’t know, a millionaire or, seven solutions how to fix your problems in one night, and it’s a lot—
Carlie: We all love a quick fix.
Angelina: Everybody loves this.
Carlie: Can I have like three steps to fluent French? That would be great.
Angelina: You have to ask Bonnie probably because she is French, she’s fluent.
Carlie: I’ll be hitting her up.
So it sounds like what you’re offering through the International School of Life is really drawn from your business partner, Bonnie, and your own experiences. You’ve been through this of needing to find yourself and reinvent yourself after you’ve moved abroad.
Angelina: Yes, you’re right and very well said. And I think, because we went through this journey, we exactly know what kind of obstacles and challenges will be waiting for you if you will decide to come here. And because of our community, we have, like I mentioned before, we have participants from all over the globe.
So, we have people from the US, we have people from Asia and a lot of people from Europe as well. And I think that because of that kind of diversity we can learn from each other and sometimes it’s some kind of to enrich ourselves by immersing yourself with a different culture and I really love it.
And what is even more important above the tools and method, because it is about education. Because you will find out or you will learn about how to manage difficult emotions, how to plan, you know, how to organize, how to develop your career. Every month in the club, we’re dedicated to one topic.
Right now it’s planning and strategizing and we will be working in the process of change and with the emotional cycle of change, how you can predict the stages that you will find yourself in when you will be in some kind of transformation or in the process.
For example, why it is like at the beginning of the process or program or project you are fully excited, fully motivated, inspired and after a couple of weeks you thought, oh what have I done? Maybe it wasn’t a good decision. So, this month we will be planning, strategizing but also recognizing where we are in this circle to protect ourselves and to provide what we need.
So, each month is dedicated to a different topic. But I think that above the topics and methods and tools and that kind of thing, in this world especially, probably after the Covid-19 situation, it’s so necessary to have a safe space like to stop, to pose, to reflect and not be judged.
And I think that especially amongst the ladies, amongst the women, they really appreciate it. And they even told me that; whatever you will deliver Angelina, I will be there because it’s full of love, full of support. And I think that in that kind of environment you can become the best version of yourself.
We strongly believe that we have some role to play on this planet and we have some potential to use it and it’s not a coincidence that we were born in the places that we have been born, or we have some kind of experience from our childhood or some kind of personality.
We can very wisely use it to become the person we would like to become and also to use our full potential, full confidence and all the elements to help each other, to help ourselves and, you know, help our planet. I think that if you are on track and you really stick to your ikigai, it’s like another door will be open for you. The people who are suffering, very often they are doing the things that they don’t supposed to do, like—
Carlie: And there are really specific challenges that come up for expat women aren’t there? I feel like, you know, you and I have similar experiences in that regard. Different stages of our journeys but, you know, there are so many things that you face when you choose to move abroad.
Whether it’s for a career or for a relationship or a new experience or to give your children a new experience, there are sacrifices you have to make and there’s a growth journey there really isn’t there?
Angelina: Yes indeed. And I think that it’s like a few elements that we should take under consideration when we are, you know, moving abroad. Because it’s to have some, you know, clear pathway that I’m going to or some kind of the goal, the vision of ourselves so if you will have like, you know, problems or challenges you will make it because you will believe and you will know what is the end of the road.
And I very often use the metaphor that, sometimes when we are going somewhere far and each night, for example, we are going by car from, I don’t know, Birmingham to London and we don’t see the whole journey, the whole road but we switch the lights and we see a few meters ahead and it can allow us to manage and to travel from one city to another.
So, I really recommend having this vision, to have this goal on the end but also don’t be focused that we, sometimes we don’t know some answers or we are in no position because you have to take a few steps ahead to make it.
And for me, that the biggest role when I moved, you know, it was the fun fact that when I moved here, on the plane I read the article about Turkish ladies in Germany who, I’m not sure what is the name of this group, but they establish the group and they meet each other every month once, per month and it was 12 of them and they travel from one house to another.
So, every month somebody else was the host for this gathering, for this meeting. They cook together, they you know, drink tea and they support each other, they tell themselves the stories that they want to share with themselves and they travel and they also collect some money like 20, it was I think 20 euros, so they collect the money before and then if they have 200 if it was 10 of them, they give this money to the host of the meeting and the host should use this money for some self-care practice.
Carlie: Oh it’s really nice. Go get a facial.
Angelina: Yes. Facial, yoga session, I don’t know English lesson, whatever she wants but she didn’t, you know, didn’t have an occasion or sometimes it was difficult for her to use this money for, you know, for this purpose.
And I think it was half a year after I established an International women’s group in the UK and I invited my closest friends and they were people from, you know, one of my friends is from France, one is from China, and every month we met and every month, in some different places, and we support each other.
So, I think that it’s some kind of, it’s good if you place yourself in some kind of work to be in some safe web, just in case, if you need it and be mindful who you are, who are you surrounded by because I had plenty, a lot of clients, I had really a lot of clients who believe that they cannot achieve more because they were surrounded by people who—
Carlie: Telling them they couldn’t?
Angelina: Yeah exactly. And then, you know, like simple steps. Like, I remember one of my clients, she spoke three languages and she used to work in a factory and she was so beautiful, so intelligent and so… she was very unique for me. And she used to work in the factory and she packed some medicines into boxes.
And when I said to her that, and she wasn’t happy there, and when I said to her, maybe we should, you know, create a list of companies around the city where you live who will hire a person with that kind of languages, because they badly need that kind of person.
And we did it and it was maybe 15 companies, she sent I think 10 CVs and she was invited for an interview and she told me, Angelina, when I went for an interview and it was a beautiful modern building with a red carpet and I thought, I don’t match there like, I don’t fit in there.
And of course, the two faces of shame are not good enough, my English, but who are we to measure or to judge our English? We have to allow other people to—
Carlie: We’re always our worst critics.
Angelina: Yes. Yeah, it’s like a voice inside your head. So, I think that it’s easier if you have somebody on your side and who will be there for you. And it’s the biggest reason that we build this community in ISL, that we invite people from all over the globe to enrich this experience.
I learned a lot because when I facilitate the online space, I managed to finish, like, a lot of courses with Chaos Pilot or with Play On Purpose Academy, so it’s all the spaces when I can learn how to facilitate it correctly.
Carlie: And I notice on your website that you use solution-focused brief therapy in the services and the sessions that you offer for people who sign up for the International School of Life, can you tell me a little bit about what that is?
Angelina: So, you know, in Poland when you become a psychologist, you have to choose some therapeutic approach that you will be working with the clients. It can be psychodynamic or it can be cognitive behaviour therapy or solution focus brief therapy.
And I was always good in some kind of crisis intervention, let’s say, and I knew that after university I wanted to work with people in a deep crisis, so it was the reason that the last three years I spent in a drop-in centre for homeless people, I was the resettlement manager. Right now, I’m still working with vulnerable people so it was always some kind of area that I wanted to, you know, find myself there and support people.
Especially, I have this mission, I know that I have some kind of privilege, I was born in Europe and, you know, I had access to education and if I can help somebody who wasn’t lucky enough, you know, who didn’t have this chance to be born here and came from Africa or is a refugee because they had to escape from their own country, I am in the position always to help and support. And solution-focus brief therapy, for me, was the approach between coaching and therapy.
So, it was like a, you know, solution in the middle and I thought and, you know, I checked. My best friend, she was in Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology and she’s a famous neurophysiologist and I also compared all approaches based on the new knowledge, you know, what the kind of scientific words say about it.
And she told me that this approach, solution focus a brief approach is based on new science and it’s all about the building of new neural associations and how to use our neuroplasticity to build some solution, so like, this approach allowed me to help clients efficiently. It doesn’t, you know, it isn’t that we don’t spend any time in the past or we don’t speak about the traumatic experience—
Carlie: How was your childhood? Tell me about your father.
Angelina: Yeah. And then is the question what for or why? Because if I, for example, if I work with a lady who just finished her own therapy but it wasn’t efficient and she wanted, for example, to tell me the story that she, for example, repeated 20 times to somebody and it wasn’t very helpful, so maybe let’s try something which will be more efficient.
So, you know, for me when I start to work with the people, especially individually, and we have the session, the first question that I use is always; what should happen today during this session that you will think, it was worth it to come? And I always have the clear direction what the person needs, I don’t want to waste their time—
Carlie: Give me the magic answer, that would be mine, would be like, tell me what to do, give me the right answer, make the decision for me.
Angelina: Yes. So, Carlie, it will be a hard session because in this approach we believe that the people are the experts of their own life and very well. The only, you know, the only situation when I, when we change this assumption is in crisis, when you need an intervention because you aren’t able to make decisions by yourself.
But on the other side, in a different situation, we believe that you know but sometimes you don’t know that you know, and my role is more to be your partner and to ask the correct question, because you have these answers inside of you so you don’t—
Carlie: Just have to bring it out.
Angelina: Yeah exactly. And the people, you know, it’s a beautiful story about them, about the Buddha monument in East Eastern or West, I think, Eastern Asia, that it was covered, they tried to hide the monument because, it was the golden Buddha, so they were afraid that during the war it was in Thailand, that it will be stolen.
And many years after they thought that it’s some kind of, like, natural landscape, that it’s nothing underneath, but then they realized that it’s a golden Buddha inside and the biggest, you know, golden monument in Asia, in Thailand.
And then, I thought that, with our clients, it’s exactly the same, like they are full of gold, full of potential. I know that it’s very, maybe you know, don’t use the words potential, confidence because it’s like very… But indeed, it’s true. And for me, every time, when we manage to discover a little bit more gold inside of you, we are the winners. And it’s all about it, you know.
Carlie: That’s so lovely and it’s so true. I think, you know, you do go through a crisis of confidence as an expat. You do have to re-evaluate who you are and what you’re contributing and what your identity is when it’s taken away from you a bit, when you leave your passport country, your home country.
And sometimes, you do need someone to take you by the hand and show you that, as you said, you do have some, a lot of shiny stuff under there but it’s buried in so much self-doubt and so much misdirection.
Angelina: Yeah. And if you experience some difficulties, you know, don’t isolate yourself. In each country you have, I think, even we have some article on our blog with some, you know, numbers that you can call from different places because sometimes we have this assumption that we are alone and nobody will help us. But there is some kind of support, even for free.
So, even if you experience something that is not a trauma from zero to ten, it’s not the most traumatic situation in your life, but you know that something happened, it’s better to prevent it than to treat it after, so don’t hesitate. If something changes, if ,you know, especially when you stop to sleep or you change some habits and it doesn’t, like you know, ask about the help. Tara Black said once that, always look for the helpers. They exist and they will help you.
So, I’m really, I know that I’m a little bit preaching right now but I want to ensure, you know, people who are listening to us and they can feel alone, especially if they are living abroad far away from family, you don’t have to go through all of this by yourself. And even if somebody will need some support and cannot afford it, I know a lot of organisations that we can, you know, refer people and if somebody wants to become a part of our community, we are waiting for you. And also, we set them up one month for free so it’s, you know, without any risk.
Carlie: You can see if it’s the right community for you.
Angelina: Yeah exactly. Currently we call it, the goodness of fit. That sometimes it’s, you know, goodness of fit, it’s from development psychology, when you work with kids so when the child, you know, was born and has some they said difficult personality but the parents are very understanding and patient, it’s a goodness of fit, so they can meet each other in the middle.
And I think that when you work with other people and sometimes it is something like, you met somebody, like it’s, let’s say I don’t know, your dentist and you know that, yeah he will be my dentist, I will trust him and sometimes—
Carlie: Yeah. It’s like a meeting of minds. You feel that affinity with someone or with a community or with a person and you’re like, yes you’re my person.
Angelina: Yeah. Or, I don’t want to see you again and it’s so fair and I think that this month for free allows people to be in the live session because, we conduct bi-weekly live sessions one hour and 15 minutes, sometimes it’s a celebration, sometimes it’s an experience lab when we work with some cards and people can bring some dilemma, some issues, some problem and can choose the card that they need.
So, I need brainstorming so please generate ideas for me or I need celebration today so celebrate with me or walking in my shoes, what would you do in my position?
Sometimes we work with the cards, sometimes it will be about planning and strategizing and it will be the proper program that I will go through with our members, and it will be amazing to recognize on this circle that I mentioned before. So, you have a good chance to join for free to taste it. It’s like a Swedish buffet, you can take whatever serving you want.
Carlie: A Swedish buffet sounds great. Well Angelina, if women would like to find out more about the International School of Life, give it a try for one month and see if it’s the right community for them, where should they go?
Angelina: Yeah. So, please visit our website, it’s International School of Life. You can also find us on social media platforms, so we are on Instagram as the ISL, on LinkedIn and you can reach out and, you know, write an email.
And also, if you decided not to join, or it’s something like, it isn’t for you but you are struggling with something or you experience some difficulties and you need some, you know, help and support, don’t hesitate to reach out to us because I will use my knowledge and my experience to refer you to a good place or to help you as as much as I can.
Carlie: You’re clearly a very generous and giving person Angelina and it’s been a pleasure chatting. Thanks so much for coming on the podcast.
Angelina: Thank you, Carlie.
Carlie: That’s it for this episode. You can learn more at internationalschooloflife.com and head over to expatfocus.com for free moving guides and other resources to help you move abroad easily. If you like this podcast don’t forget to subscribe or follow us on your listening app of choice. You can also subscribe to the Expat Focus YouTube channel and I’ll catch you next time