Becky Grappo is an educational consultant. She works with families throughout the United States and around the world on planning their children’s education. Her husband was a career foreign service officer for 27 years in the US Diplomatic Service. During that time and with three young children at home, she went back to school and got her graduate degree in education. She taught in several international schools before going back to the US and working in a US public school. Then she worked at the State department helping to guide foreign service families as they were planning the education for their children. Throughout her husband’s career, they faced several unaccompanied tours.
In This Episode:
- What Becky does for work now
- A new baby (not what you think!) during an unaccompanied tour
- What couples need to have in place before being geographically separated
- You are not the only family living apart in your organisation. Is there any way of getting together? Can you ask your partner’s organisation for support as a group?
Resources Mentioned in this Episode:
- Monday Morning Emails – Book by Terry Anne Wilson & Jo Parfitt
- Standardized Regulations (DSSR) – Department of State
Welcome to Holding the Fort Abroad, the podcast for expats with travelling partners. My name is Rhoda Bangerter, I am a certified coach and the author of the book Holding the Fort Abroad. In this podcast, I interview men and women who live abroad and have travelling partners so that we can all benefit from their wisdom and experience, I also invite relationship experts to apply their expertise to this topic. Today my guest is Becky Grappo. She contributed to Monday Morning Emails and that’s the first time I came across her. I am going to ask her to tell us more about herself in a minute She has lived geographically separated from her husband and I have asked her to share with us what it was like for her. Becky Welcome!Becky Grappo (:
Oh, my pleasure. Thank you for asking.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and what you do now? Um, I think the audience will also be interested to hear about what you're doing now.Becky Grappo (:
Well, professionally, people know me as an educational consultant, so I work with families throughout the United States and around the world on planning their children's education. And I especially I think I have a soft spot for expats because there are so many bumps in the road that few people understand if they haven't been through the life themselves. Mm-hmm.
And when we went overseas in the early nineties, I started teaching and I worked in several international schools before going back to the US and also working in a US public school. And from there I went to work at the State department helping to guide foreign service families as they were planning the education for their children. Now, on an even more personal note, we have three of our own children who grew up in the foreign service. And throughout my husband's career, we faced several unaccompanied tours. So that means that my husband went overseas and the family stayed behind. So the first time was when he went to Saudi Arabia for two years. And then after that we went to Oman where he was the US Ambassador. And then after that he was asked to go to Iraq. And that was another one year unaccompanied tour.Becky Grappo (:
And by then I was at a different stage in my own life. I, uh, the three children were either out of college or still in college as in university in the US. I was without children and ended up in yet another foreign country where I stayed while he did the one year abroad. And I used that year to really spend all of my time really almost, uh, 24/7 building and developing my own business as an educational consultant. By then, I had been in practice for four years. And so I was able to devote myself just to work that became my new baby. But that's a whole other dimension of being alone while your husband is away. So anyway, he has retired and we now live in Denver, Colorado. He left the foreign service 10 years ago. This is the longest we have ever been anywhere.Becky Grappo (:
I just found out that there's such a thing: a driver's license expiring. I didn't even know that my driver's license had expired, cuz I didn't know that was the thing. Cause I'd never been anywhere 10 years. So anyway, that was an interesting experience on my birthday this year. So here we are. And that kind of, that's a little bit of my professional side, my personal side, how it all came together. And I think probably what makes me effective in my profession now is the fact that I have lived this experience too. So I not only have the professional credentials to do it, but I also have the personal experience of having gone through expat life, raising children, unaccompanied tours, hardship, danger, amazing highs, and some pretty bumpy lows,
Wow. Well that's why when we connected a while ago, I was like, Oh man, you told me a little bit of this. I was like, Oh my word. We have to hear more. Um, so people can be, So you work with families, right? So families reach out to you? Correct. And you will help them before move, During a move, after a move, How do you normally Oh,Becky Grappo (:
Sometimes, you know, sometimes all of the above. Mm-hmm.
Yeah. So what's the process? Um, I wanna delve into this a little bit more so that listeners can understand how they can maybe what they can ask for in terms of help or in terms of guidance. How does the process work in terms of what you offer packages? Do you offer like sessions? Uh, is it more coaching?Becky Grappo (:
Most of the time? Yeah. Most of the time I'm working with the family and, you know, the contract between us is about either boarding, school placement, or about college advising. College meaning university, I use that term interchangeably in the us. Um, or they get to a place and things are not working out. So I'm thinking about one student that I have that moved during the pandemic and really has struggled with depression and anxiety and stopped going to school. And so talking with the family about what are the options that you have in this situation and working with them long term. I mean, I could have a solution in an hour, but that doesn't mean the family is ready to accept the solution. Um, it's gonna take a couple months for this to play out before they're really ready mm-hmm.
So it, it just, it's so broad. It's hard to describe in a really quick soundbite. Yeah. Because we have just worked with so many different kinds of families and different kinds of situations really from around the world through wars and evacuations and pandemics and hardships and international moves and relocations and unaccompanied tours and just the whole gamut. I mean, that's, there's nothing I'll tell a family when they start to tell me, you know, I'll start every call when we're just doing an inquiry. I'll say, Tell me your story. Mm. And so I think sometimes families are so used to giving just a very short version, but I'm always asking, No, I really wanna know. Tell me more. Tell me more about your story, because I get it. And don't worry, there's nothing you can say that's gonna shock me. Nothing.Rhoda Bangerter (:
So, but then you know what you're building on. Right. Then you know what the, uh, what the story is, what the background is, and then what's gonna be the most helpful going forward. Right.Becky Grappo (:
Exactly. Exactly. So it, I've been doing this now 20 years. So the first four years I did it as an employee of the State Department where I was salaried and I worked with foreign service families calling me. And the only problem I had there was just managing the workflow because it was, you know, I loved that job, but in private practice. And I would say that our practice is rather unique among those of, in the world of educational consulting, because we do work with such a wide variety of students and different puzzles. These are puzzles. And a lot of times parents need to know that they can speak to somebody who really understands empathizes, but also has professional advice based on years of experience and expertise to be able to guide them to think clearly.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Yeah,Becky Grappo (:
Let's take this problem apart and think clearly about how we're going to approach it.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Yeah. it's amazed sometimes, isn't it, when you've changed countries and it's like these different blocks and then you kind of get stuck where you don't know how to then go forward to the next block and how it's gonna fit with the rest and how it's gonna fit with the future. And so I think that's why I, I wanted to spend a little time on this because it's so important and what you offer right, is for, for families even in terms of those who, I suppose you don't even need to be stuck, but sometimes when you're thinking ahead and you think, just think and not quite sure how this is gonna pan out. Um, so talkBecky Grappo (:
To us before you get stuck.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Ask the right questions so that you don't blunder and make a huge mistake. Yeah. And then say, Oh, I just never thought of that question. Yeah.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Yeah.Becky Grappo (:
It's kinda like, you know, we just did some renovations on our home and I hired a professional team to help me, even though I winced at spending more money on that mm-hmm.
It saved you headaches, Right. Saved you headache.Becky Grappo (:
It saved us time. Many in headaches in the end. Yeah. Because they knew what we didn't know. Cuz they've been down this road a million times before. Yeah. Yeah. So I kinda use that analogy when it comes to working. I mean, actually my, my credential is um, I have a master's in education, but I'm a certified educational planner. And so that means that, you know, it's, we have a self-governing body in order to raise the professional standard amongst ourselves because we want to have the highest professional standards possible. And so as a certified educational planner, I'm trying to help parents think of the end goal and then we'll work backwards.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And so is it mostly for kids following a US curriculum or the kids going to the US Or it could be anyBecky Grappo (:
Curriculum? No, anything anywhere. I mean, if it's beyond my comfort level. Yeah. I'll refer to somebody that I think might serve them better. Mm-hmm.
Time. Yeah. So For sure, for sure. Yeah. And, and, and you know, you, you as a parent who doesn't have experience in this, potentially you, you're going in, you're learning from scratch. Whereas you could ask someone who's been working in it for ages and who knows all the nuances, who can go straight to what you need and, and, and you know, it's, Yeah. I, I totally
Yeah, well I would say that I can speak about my personal experience mm-hmm.
Not once she was there but making the decision. And then the next unaccompanied tour, we were back in Washington. I had one in college, one a senior in high school, No, junior in high school. And the other one was a 10th, 11th grader in high school. And I was working full time in Washington, so I had a commute mm-hmm.
So that was a challenge. Yep.
And I was able to work with a lot of schools. I did a lot of public speaking. I wrote and published for local parenting magazines. I had students that I worked with and families that I worked with. I had a great group of international friends. And I, for the first time in my whole adult life, got to call the shots the way I wanted to. So it was actually not bad. It wasn't a bad year. Um, but it was full of challenges for sure. Mm-hmm.
I was like, and you're like, Oh, I don't have anyone to ask for help.Becky Grappo (:
I don't have, Yeah. I'm on my own
So did you know you were gonna end up doing, Oh, do the passion project or did it come out of the fact that you were like, Okay, I have this time, what am I gonna do with it? Or did you already know thisBecky Grappo (:
You had to do? Yeah, no, I had already started. So when I left the state Department, when we went back overseas mm-hmm.
Rhoda Bangerter (:
Yeah. And that, that can be a hurdle sometimes.Becky Grappo (:
So just, yeah, itRhoda Bangerter (:
Was as an accompanying spouse sometimes, uh, but then it's about figuring out what's gonna work, what are the limits, what's gonna be accepted, kind of work it out. And I suppose this is a great sort of encouragement to say, just, just keep trying, figure it out. Go see them if you need to and uh, and figure out what's gonna work to make it work so that you can do it.Becky Grappo (:
And my husband was really supportive too. Yeah. So there were some nights, so for example, I did an online cert certificate program through ucla and that meant that sometimes I had classes, assignments things that I had to do, live meetings I had to participate in. And I couldn't go to a reception or an event and mm-hmm.
She said, It must be nice to be the wife of the American ambassador. And I kind of leaned in on our desk and I was like, Look, you work in Washington. I worked in Washington, you have an identity, I had an identity. How would you like to go to a dinner and have your name erased and your new identity was the wife of so and so and so and so, and your name is not there and people only saw you as the wife of, would you like that? And she kind of backed off a little bit, but I do think that it, I was just listening to the biography the audiobook of Michelle Obama and she was talking about going to the White House and having her identity wiped out and trying to recreate her own identity is the wife of, and you know, afraid of making a misstep, wanting to represent Well. And although what I was doing is on a, you know, micro scale compared to the first lady in the United States on a micro scale, I also felt that of it was important to be able to keep my identity, my sense of self and not only be known as the, you know, the wife of and and hostess with the mostess. Yes. Although I enjoyed that part too.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Becky Grappo (:
So, and I will say that for many of us who are in government service, the second income is important as well, especially in the United States when, you know, the price of a, the cost of a US university education is quite, it's high formidable. Yeah. It was no joke. I, you know, it wasn't just a hobby to keep myself occupied, it was a matter of contributing to the family because we at that point had a young adult launching into kids in college and we had tuition bills and we, you know, it was fortunately yes, a passion project that I really loved and I really loved my work. And it was also a matter of I need to continue to contribute to my family because the kids need certain things and they need support and we're not there and there are certain things that we will have to pay for because we're not physically present.Becky Grappo (:
And so it became a really important thing to also have the additional income to be able to support three kids. So yeah. And that's the argument that I would make with foreign ministries or corporations that, you know, yes, if you're paying a senior level executive, you know, a fabulous salary where you don't need a second income, that's great. And, and the spouse can also continue to maintain their identity and find something that they really love to do. But for many people, this is the reality of the economics of many developed countries where the pr the cost of living is extremely expensive. I would say this is true throughout Europe, Canada, Australia, the us And I don't wanna leave any countries out
That is a very good point. Very good point. Yes. Now, I know that you've worked on various guidelines and things for families that are in split location, geographically separated. Is there anything that you can share with us in terms of what you feel is helpful and from what you experience and from families you've worked with, what you've seen? Anything that's really, really helpful or important for families to know?Becky Grappo (:
Uh, well that's a, that's a broad question, so I'll try to take apart,Rhoda Bangerter (:
Take it wherever you wanna take it.Becky Grappo (:
So minimize, potentially minimize disruption as much as possible.Becky Grappo (:
Exactly. Exactly. Um, another thing that I think parents or organizations can put into place is an office where families can turn to get answers to their questions regarding regulations and allowances and finances. Who do you turn to when you have a question and are they gonna throw a roadblock saying, Well, I'm sorry you're not the employee so you're, we can't talk to you. So you really need to have that in place. I would also tell families that they need to have in place legal agreements. Mm-hmm.
So I think it's really important to have an office within the organization that deals with these financial and legal matters, to be able to guide families so that they know what to do. And I'll tell you one situation that made me live it, and that was that we, but prior to my husband leaving for Saudi Arabia, again, I knew about this because I worked in the office that at that time it was called the family Liaison Office. Today it's called the Global Liaison Office. Anyway, we got the power of attorney form and we went down to the credit union in the basement of the State Department to get it notarized so that when he went overseas, I would have power of attorney to be able to take care of any family business that we needed.Becky Grappo (:
A few months later, I went to get a car for one of the kids. I found out that, you know, really the youngest teenager at home with me working in Washington and she being in the Virginia suburbs, she needed her own car to be able to get where she needed to go. Cuz I couldn't be one fam one person everywhere, all you know, at once she needed to have a car. So I went to the credit union to get a loan and I showed them the power of attorney and they said, Oh, that's not our power of attorney. We have a separate form. And what made me angry is I said, we were here telling you what we were doing and why we were doing it. And nobody said, Make sure you sign our form too. I went to the president of the credit union and complained.Becky Grappo (:
I was like, You need to have guidance for banking because almost all State Department employees have an account and there is no guidance for how to do banking when one family member is away. So I went to another bank that didn't give me that hassle and I got my loan and I went back to the credit union and I said, Just so you know, you missed out on a loan because you made it, you threw up barriers and you didn't have your own messaging coordinated within your, within your credit union to tell us that we would need another form signed. Stupid things like this. These are just stupid details that can make your life go nuts.
Yes. Completely. And so you had a, a general power of attorney, something from your husband saying, Okay, I'm give power of attorney for any decisions to this so and so,Becky Grappo (:
You know, I think so. I don't remember exactly what formRhoda Bangerter (:
WeBecky Grappo (:
Had at the time, but yeah, it was, you know, power of attorney, you can put an expiration date on it if you want. You could leave it open ended, but you know, to be able to make financial transactions, buy or sell the house, buy or sell cars, get a loan, whatever it is, you know, you need to make sure that this spouse who is not going into the danger zone is able to continue to conduct family business.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Yes, yes, yes. Completely. Um,
It just depends. I just, I think it, everybody's situation is going to be different. It depends on whether you have one person employed or two people employed or where they're living. Um,Rhoda Bangerter (:
But in terms ofBecky Grappo (:
Place where it's a lower cost of living, it just depends. Every sit family situation is going to be really different.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Yeah. But in terms of allowances or anything, what can an organization do? Like maybe give more more, uh, trips back home to see family?Becky Grappo (:
One thing I will say, I, I think the State Department did do well, is that they have first of all separate maintenance allowance so that if a family member chooses to to wait out that period in another place. So maybe go home, wherever their home is and if it's a, an approved place to go, a safe place to go mm-hmm.
I mean, that's a whole other conversation that gets in the weeds about how the State department Yeah, yeah. That's that alone. But it's something we're thinking about for various services. I think like, will you continue to have schooling allowances paid for? Will your child be able to stay in school? You need to be informed before you make these decisions. Like mm-hmm.
Yes. Yes. Completely. Um, it, it, I suppose it, it, it boils down to the, to asking yourself, like, my partner is considered overseasRhoda Bangerter (:
If I gonna go, if I go back to our home country, am I gonna be considered home or am we going be considered overseas? And presumably if you stay in another country, then you could be considered overseas as well. Cause it doesn't make sense if you go home and then your employer considers you like home and then, but your partner's overseas and living overseas, it doesn't quite make sense. Right. I thinkBecky Grappo (:
Unless there's a separate maintenanceRhoda Bangerter (:
Allowance it's considering, it's worth considering thinking, am I better off staying? Where can I stay where I am? And my partner goes to whatever country and then I can stay.Becky Grappo (:
And I think it's important also when we have foreign born partners, spouses I'm gonna use the word spouse. Yeah.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Because,Becky Grappo (:
You know, they're the ones who are on the orders and unless things have changed, and I don't know about it, but you know, the other person who's on the orders.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Yeah.Becky Grappo (:
And I would assume this is the same in the private sector, and that is a lot of the spouses were not American. So why would they go back to the United States when that's a foreign country as well? Yes. Maybe it would be much more comfortable for them to go home to Mexico or Korea or wherever their family support system is. Um, can we make that work? Yeah. Now what if the family were from a country that was also in crisis, does it make sense for the state department or sending organization to pay to relocate a family in another very conflict written Yeah. Um, post probably that doesn't make a lot of sense. That's not a good move. I mean, I saw a lot of things when I worked at State because not only was I in the office where, you know, we would come together for our staff meetings and the people and the other segments of my office were dealing with that on a regular basis. So I heard about these things in staff meetings, but I was on the phone helping families figure out the educational partRhoda Bangerter (:
Of it. Yeah. Yeah.Becky Grappo (:
Are the kids gonna go to school? How is that gonna work? Yeah. Um, there are allowances for reunification for, you know, trips home to be able to, And then that starts to get tricky when you have divorce and custody arrangements and where and how are you going to meet and how are those allowances going to work for that? So every organization is going to, well, I hope every organization has thought this through. What I will give credit to the State Department is that they did think it through, and it is in writing, its allowances, it's clear. Hopefully it's, I implemented fairly mm-hmm.
Yes. Yes. And I think it's interesting. I've been looking at HR magazines and all sorts and, and you know, they talk about duty of care for their employer and the family, and they're stuck on paying for international schools and taking care of the accompanying spouse. I'm like, what about all the follows that are living apart geographically? It's just seems crazy to me because in each organization there are, I think there are more employees than we, than we think that are actually either posted permanently abroad or are going for extended business periods. Uh, extended business travel maybe of a few months at a time or short postings of maybe six months, and then they come back. But these families are gonna go through things that a family that's together is not gonna go through.Becky Grappo (:
Right.Rhoda Bangerter (:
And they need a specific, So I'm doing a masters, I've just started and I'm thinking of potentially looking at what that package needs to be for the private sector, looking at what's already provided by some organizations and then seeing and then advocating to, to to, to multinationals, to organizations saying, Listen, you need to update your packages because you're leaving some families behind.Becky Grappo (:
A hundred percent. I will say that at the time that the State Department started to look at this more seriously, I would say was about 20 years ago. Um, because of the war in Iraq and the disruption that it cost. And I think that the stars aligned at the time, General Colin Powell was our Secretary of State and coming from the Army, he had a very strong sense of taking care of the troops. His management the secretary of Management was also an army general. I had the opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation with him at a swearing in ceremony that I attended for a friend of ours who was being sworn in as an ambassador. And he was kind of wandering around by himself. And he didn't know everybody in the room.Becky Grappo (:
A swearing in ceremony is almost kind of like a wedding, you know, you know, everybody, you see all your friends and, you know, he was on the outer edges. And I used that as an opportunity. And I went up and introduced myself and we started talking and we started talking about unaccompanied tours. And he said, “we know we have a window to make things better for families”. And that is what I will credit Colin Powell's leadership with, is that, that they absolutely understood, take care of your troops, take care of your people. And so that's when there was a mandate. And I don't know what's happening in the department now. I have no comment. I am not close enough to it to make any kind of comment one way or the other. I can only talk about what I know. And what I know is that during that period of time in the early two thousands, there was a green light.Becky Grappo (:nt to Saudi Arabia in I think:Becky Grappo (:
I'm just saying that we had a small part to play and that we were able to articulate what some of these pain points were. Mm-hmm.
And so for organizations that are starting from scratch and don't even know the right questions to ask, we'll look at somebody who's been thinking about this for over 20 years with a lot of offices and everybody, you know, the wheels of bureaucracy go very, very, very slowly mm-hmm.
Yes. And thank you for this call in a way for us to think bigger than ourselves and bigger than our family. And it's a call to think about the organization that we're a part of and that our, or that our partners a part of and thinking, Okay, my family is not the only family living this in this organization. How can we potentially band together? How can we potentially advocate for more support, more allowances, a different structure, changing the culture within the organization that we're part of so that families who are living this can have a structure, a support and a number to call, uh, be more, uh, sort of even aware of each other, I suppose. Um, even starting there, creating something within you, the organization that the partner’s a part of. I've, you know, there are so many professions that have this. as I've been looking into this topic, I've realized that there's so, so many professions where families live apart or for, you know, more or less short, long periods.Becky Grappo (:
And that said, I think one of the most important things that we can do is find each other because it's you know, we didn't even talk about the social emotional toll of an unaccompanied tour and the feeling of loneliness because you know, the social dynamic changes with your friends, your available time. Because now there are more responsibilities on the part of the partner who's being left behind. Um, and who gets it and who supports that partner, who's also behind. I think, I'm sure that there are challenges for the person who's on the, on the unaccompanied tour, I will say they probably have the benefit of a group and a group dynamic that can be positive or negative. But the person that's left behind that everybody assumes is fine. Cuz you're, you know, you're in place is also going through a lot. And so I think for people to reach out and say, How are you?Becky Grappo (:
They tried one time they were gonna get together a support group and have, you know, spouses come into Washington and have a support group. And I told the mental health worker at the time, I was like, I'm sorry, but I don't think that's a good idea because it's too hard to get here and park and arrange daycare and we're not gonna come and sit in a circle and talk about our feelings. But you know what I would really love, I would love for there to be somebody spearheading a group of unaccompanied partners to have a rest, explore restaurants or go to the theater or do something recreationally so that we find each other. And from that organically we can find our friends and our support group. That would really help a lot. Yes. Because people don't get it.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Yes, yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. I think people assume that you are, that you are okay. They, I don't know, they kind of think, oh, they're together even though they're not together. I don't know what goes through people's minds.Becky Grappo (:
I think it just goes right over their head. I don't think anything goes through their minds. Yeah. I will tell you a quick story. While my husband was in Saudi Arabia, there was a terrorist attack on the consulate in Jedda. And my husband was very much involved in that even though he was not physically present. But I won't go into all the details, but it rattled us. And my daughter called me at four in the morning from college saying, Oh my God, oh my God, the consulate's under attack. How's dad? You know? And for the next however many hours that this attack played out, I mean, of course we were panicked about everybody mm-hmm.
Mm. Sometimes you have to have lived it to know what it's like. And so those are the, those are the people who were gonna be the ones who are gonna reach out because they understand.Becky Grappo (:
Yeah.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Okay. Thank you so much for sharing with us today. And uh, people can reach you on your website, right?Becky Grappo (:
Yeah. And I mean my email is email@example.com so. Okay. I'm always happy to hear from people.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Wonderful. Thank you so much, Becky.Becky Grappo (:
Okay. Thank you. It was a pleasure.
Rhoda Bangerter is a coach who has lived abroad with a travelling husband for over 16 years. She helps home based mums and dads live an intentional life and build family togetherness even when their partner is away a lot for work.
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