Rebecca Martin, organizer of Chicago Women Rising, interviews Becca Covey, Associate Director of Student Life at UChicago Booth School of Business. Becca’s life has many layers; her past, her travel experiences, her education, and her love of the arts. See interview below.
Rebecca: Hi Becca, thanks for doing this interview, how do you think we should start? I was going to ask you about your passions, but I feel we should get some background first. Please share.
Becca: Well to start I’m British, but I’ve been living in Chicago for the last four years, and have been in the U.S. for the last five years. How I got to Chicago, the story probably begins when I graduated from University of Brighton in 2009. At that time I was a poor college student, like lots of people in college are! I’ve always loved to travel and I’ve always been attracted to experiencing new cultures and visiting different countries. Around that time in college, I had a lot of friends who had taken ‘gap years’ – in the UK it’s quite common between high school and university to take a gap year where you backpack and travel around the world with like minded people. I didn’t manage to do that before I went to college, but knew it was something I wanted to do afterwards. At school I was fortunate to receive a grant each year of £1000. It wasn’t very much, but instead of spending the money I saved up for three years, so by the end of college I had £3,000. And immediately after I graduated I started working a retail job at this little boutique clothing shop – it was so boring, but I had this goal of going traveling, specifically to backpack Southeast Asia, so I just endured!
I had a Swedish friend who I had met through my other part time retail job, who was sort of bored with life and wanted to travel too. So we started to meet up and look at maps of the countries we wanted to visit, and pull together a loose agenda and research flights. Then when my lease was up on my room in a student house – looking back this was one of the craziest things I’ve done, mainly because I would never do it now haha, I crashed on a friend’s sofa for about 4 months. The house I stayed in was a huge student style house, and there were about 8 other people living there, some couples, and mostly boys. So that summer was kind of crazy and looking back I can’t believe I did that, because I had no personal space and all my belongings were in the hallway, but I just had this goal of saving money so I could travel! I wasn’t paying rent to stay there, and I’m really grateful to those people for putting up with me because I was able to save all the money I was earning. So it was a bit wild, but it got me to where I needed to go!
So in October of ’09, I went with my friend to India for a month,
Rebecca: Wow . . . was that great?
Becca: Yes it was very cool! India’s like . . . I would say India and South Korea are the two places I’ve been to where they are so different from any other place I’ve experienced. Kind of like the “Upside Down World”! I found backpacking India terrifying and exhausting at times, but also so liberating and exciting. The culture is so ancient, rich, and interesting. For me it was a crazy experience because I was backpacking and sort of exposed to the elements of the country, so to speak. I think if you travel to India on vacation and stay at a nice hotel, it could be a totally different experience. By backpacking you’re doing things like taking the public buses and trains with the local people, eating from street markets, and being in the hustle and bustle by moving around a lot. Not that a tourist can ever really understand what it’s like to be a local, but I think backpacking does allow you to feel a little more connected to the country you’re visiting.
Then we went on to travel Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Indonesia.
Rebecca: How long did that take?
Becca: We were away about 4 months in total. I really, really love Southeast Asia! I’ve always been attracted to traveling that part of the world, and I was really interested in the culture and history of the countries in that region, so it wasn’t surprising that I enjoyed the trip! I definitely caught the travel bug and I just wanted it to continue forever. Traveling opens you up to this huge world, there’s so much more to life then just working and spending money on products. I was just thinking I never want this to end, and I want to see as much of the world as possible!
I did think about extending my trip, but in Cambodia I met a girl from Brighton and she had just finished a year of teaching English in South Korea. I had heard about people doing that, but I had never considered it seriously before then. But I thought, well this could be way to keep traveling and experiencing different cultures, but also a way to make money doing it!
When I graduated in ’09 the recession had just hit and having a media degree, I did feel it was going to be really hard to get a job in that industry. And with the idea of teaching English, I thought well, I could go and teach, be able to travel but still save some money, and then I would come back home to London and have some savings to use while I found a job and established myself back home.
After backpacking I retreated to Nova Scotia, Canada for a month where my mum and step-dad were living at the time, for a soft transition back to “reality”. And while I was there I completed my second language English teaching training online. At that time in my life I was definitely a bit of a nomad – I was traveling all around and staying with different friends and family members. But eventually I got accepted into the Korean EPIK program (for guest English teachers) and left for Seoul in August 2010.
So I got to Korea and in my first week I met Ryan, and we started dating a week or two after meeting during the orientation program for new teachers! Ryan is from Oklahoma City . . . and it’s so funny to think about now and I’ve said this to a lot friends, that I almost didn’t go to Korea because I had been single for a really long time, and I really wanted to have someone special in my life. I was getting a bit sad about it all, and I almost didn’t go because of course I didn’t think I’d meet anyone in Korea. And then I met Ryan right away, so yeah . . . it showed me that things happen when I least expect it! And with meeting Ryan the whole direction of my life changed, and after Korea we ended up living in Denver, Melbourne, and Oklahoma City before finally settling in Chicago.
Rebecca: I do have a question based on everything you’ve said . . . I’m curious, during this time, what did you find working as a teacher that you were passionate about? Did you start discovering things about yourself?
Becca: I think if I’d had a choice, and if there had been the option say, of being a teacher, or some kind of admin assistant, or something else, I don’t think I would have picked teacher! I do love kids and I was teaching elementary school children, but I know my personality isn’t naturally suited to leading a class everyday and was very tiring for me. I’m an introvert, and teaching is a kind of performance, which I found quite draining. By the end of my post, I had at least learned that about myself, and while I really liked the environment and the kids were adorable, I knew teaching wasn’t the right role for me in the future.
Having said that I loved my experience, I had a great year working with those kids, and I learned a lot about my capabilities by challenging myself to do something that doesn’t come naturally. I used to hate doing presentations in front of a class, and as a kid I was super shy and always just wanted to blend into the crowd and not stand out. And without even realizing it, my experience in Korea really helped me to grow and become more confident. It challenged me to put myself out there and to be comfortable being very visible in the Korean culture. My assigned schools were in a really rural part of the country – Gangwon-do province. I was very visible to the locals, yet very isolated from other Westerners out there. I’ve said this a lot to friends, but it was an incredible experience, but not one I’d want to repeat, which is probably the best way to feel about a past experience! If I had known what I know now, I don’t think I would have done it! But at the time, I had no clue what to expect, which was probably for the best.
Rebecca: So in terms of home, like you were pretty scattered before you went to Korea, do you feel that you’ve found some kind of home . . . I know people are sometimes home, like Ryan is probably home, your cat . . . I mean you always like to travel, do you ever have the feeling of going to a “home”?
Becca: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think my concept of home has changed as things in my life have changed. Obviously now I would say home is where my husband and my cat are, but that is something that has only come about in the past 3 or 4 years since we moved to Chicago and built a life here. I am the home! Growing up I was a military brat so there was a lot of moving around the UK and different countries in Europe, but I definitely think of England as my true home, where I’m from, even though I’ve lived overseas for 7 years now. I say my home city is London because my family are from London and my brother currently lives there, and it’s my favorite city in the world.
Rebecca: Home is where the heart is . . .
Becca: Exactly. Whenever I go back to London, I get this feeling that I don’t with other cities, where I’m just like, I’m in love with this city, and I get quite emotional about it! It’s such an amazing place, and I don’t have that feeling with other cities. That feeling I have about London has remained constant, and has developed more as I’ve spent time away. It’s weird because I’ve lived in Chicago for four years, but I don’t think of myself as a Chicagoan. I really, really like the city, but I’m not “in love” with it. And being here almost 5 years, I don’t think that’s likely to change.
Rebecca: So when we were thinking about home, I feel sometimes to really understand home is to really understand yourself a little bit more. I know there are different parts of your life that I’d love to hear about, like what you’re doing in Chicago, you’re going to school at Northwestern, working at UChicago, you’re passionate about travel, you had a travel blog for awhile . . .
Becca: I’m working at UChicago now at the Business School, and I’m a student adviser. I manage various school-wide events and advise 27 groups – social groups, career focused groups, and affinity groups, and I’m their institutional contact. Being in an adviser role really suits me because I like to help people.
For undergrad I went to school for media and communications, and I assumed I’d go in to production of some kind. I had interned at a production house, so before I went traveling that was my goal – I’d save some money, travel, and then come back and get in the film production industry. But it didn’t really pan out that way! I think I’ve always had lots of different interests. I’ve been interested in media, film, and television, but then also fine art and photography. Anything to do with art galleries and museums, non-profit arts organizations like that – I’d love to work for a museum, art gallery, or art school in the future.
I got into higher ed because I used to be on tumblr and I got connected with a girl who lives in New York and works at NYU, and I thought to myself that seems really cool, I’d like to work at a University. I remember speaking with my Mother-in-law and telling her I think I’m going to apply to work at a University, in an administrative role. I was happy to start in an entry-level position, I just liked the idea of working at an educational institution. Upon reflection, this path makes a lot of sense. I love school! Growing up I loved school so much. I’ve always liked learning and enjoyed different subjects, especially history, art, and english.
And so it really started to make sense to me – hey I really feel passionate about education. I remember being in college and seeing people working at the library, and thinking I’d love to work in a place where you’re surrounded by knowledge and learning! Professors and students are showing their work through the papers they’re writing and the experiments in the labs they’re working on, and I think that’s what attracted me to academia. I’m more on the administrative side of things, I’m not faculty, but the whole atmosphere at the University I really enjoy.
Rebecca: From what you’ve just said your passions have changed. Like what you’re passionate about now is different than what you were passionate about in college. What drives you right now?
Becca: Yeah, I mean in college, I could be passionate about media, but I didn’t have any real life experience actually working in media! You can be passionate about something, but you don’t really know the day to day operations and how the industry works yet. I feel that I’ll always be passionate about the arts, photography, and film though, I love film . . .
Rebecca: That’s how we bonded.
Becca: Yeah! And also film theory, and I hope in the future film will be a bigger part of my life. I should mention that I went back to school part time to get my masters these last three years, so that’s kept me busy. When I started it I was working at Northwestern, and I got the great opportunity of tuition discount to study there. So I thought why not take advantage of this opportunity? I’m finally writing my thesis now.
Rebecca: What’s your thesis about?
Becca: Mid-Century Countercultures and the Appropriation of Asian Religion.
Becca: Specifically Hinduism and Buddhism. The period I’m looking at is the Beat Generation of the 1950s, and the evolution into the Hippies of the 1960s, and how both movements appropriated Asian religion for their specific cultural and political agendas.
Becca: Yeah, I love this topic. It’s actually an accumulation of a lot of my interests in one thesis. I’ve always been interested in the mid-century in general, and Eastern Religions. So through this thesis I’ve really had the time to explore many passions, including my favorite author Jack Kerouac.
Rebecca: That’s awesome. Now I wanted to segue, I’m curious for our meetup Chicago Women Rising, since you’ve had a lot of different experiences. What you would tell women who are just getting out of college, or are still trying to figure things out with their career, what kind of wisdom could you share with them?
Becca: I think what I’ve learned with both my personal life and my professional life is that I’m exactly where I need to be. And I definitely have found that when I have faith about my situation, things tend to work out better then I would have expected. And to follow the passion and excitement, and not the fear. Most of the time I have no problem with that, because the fear of staying home and not doing anything exciting with my life, is more intense, than say, the fear of moving to Asia by myself.
So, follow your passion, and things might not turn out how you plan. But as long as you’re trying to do things which excite you, I don’t think you can go wrong. And also take your time – you have all the time in the world to work for the rest of your life 40 + hours a week! There is no rush.
Rebecca: Yeah, take that time . . .
Becca: Yeah, take that time to pursue your interests and the things you get excited about, to find your passions. Also, your passions may not turn out to be what you thought they were, or they might change, or end. And that’s totally okay! But if you stay curious and interested in the things around you something else is bound to come along.
Rebecca: Last question, I find myself surprising myself sometimes, I’m like, that will never happen, or I could never do this, but then I actually do it, so I’m curious, have you surprised yourself lately, what is something you’ve recently overcome that you are proud of yourself about?
Becca: I think I’ve found that if I keep putting one foot in front of the other and stay in the present, I often end up looking back on things and being amazed at what I’ve achieved or the experiences I’ve had. Even being in grad school now, I’m like wow, if I had known all the work that it was going to be, would I have even started grad school in the first place? . . . Probably, but that’s because I’m a sucker for pain. I just try not to get too overwhelmed by the big picture, and continue to take small actions towards a bigger goal, and often I’m amazed at what happens.