Mexico, Fiji and Brazil sound like dream vacation destinations for many of us. For Heather Zissler—a director of programming and training for the Peace Corps—living and traveling abroad is all a part of a day’s work. The California native got her start as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, then later returned to work at the organization’s D.C. headquarters. Along the way, she spent time in eight different countries, picked up a masters degree, and became a mom to her son, Alejandro. Now overseeing Peace Corp programs in Mexico, she shares what it’s like to work abroad, her favorite international beauty finds, and how she got her start (hint: it involves bees).
Tell us about the work you do for the Peace Corps.
I work with a talented and dedicated multicultural staff to oversee all aspects of programming and training for more than 70 Peace Corps volunteers in Mexico. I love getting to work with our volunteers on a daily basis. Their creativity and commitment to service inspires me every day.
How did you get your start?
I was a Peace Corps volunteer myself in Paraguay from 2000 to 2004. I started as a beekeeper for an agriculture project. It seemed crazy at the time because I knew nothing about beekeeping. I hadn’t even been stung by a bee when I accepted my invitation! I ended up loving working with bees. They are the ultimate feminist, socialist society and so organized. I did end up getting stung, probably over a thousand times over the course of my service. I enjoyed being a volunteer so much that I extended for a third year—and maybe, just maybe, the fact that I was also seeing my future husband may have influenced that decision a bit as well. I later went back to school for a masters in international environmental policy, which opened up new opportunities for me in the international development field.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
Being located in Querétaro, Mexico, is fabulous. It’s a beautiful city with a historic center in central Mexico. I don’t like the cold, so living in D.C. for four years was a little less than ideal for me. My previous job with Peace Corps as the programming and training specialist gave me the opportunity to travel to countries I’d never been before, like Tonga, Fiji and Belize. But my favorite part of my job is working with inspiring volunteers and a great multicultural staff.
You’ve lived in Paraguay, Brazil, Washington, D.C., and now Mexico. What it’s like adjusting to life in different countries?Every time I’ve moved, it takes time to adjust, make new friends and establish a new community. What helps me is establishing a routine and finding things I’m interested in outside of work, whether it be a dance class, yoga or hiking. I enjoy exploring new places and honestly get bored and restless if I have been in a place for too long. I love living in Latin America, especially now that I’m a parent, because of the inclusion of children in everything. For example, most restaurants in Mexico have a play area for kids so that parents can enjoy their meals while the kids enjoy playing. It’s genius!
Do you have a favorite beauty discovery from your travels?
I fell in love with a sheer, sparkly lip gloss with SPF from Boticário while I was living in Brazil. Another brand that I adore from Brazil is Natura. They have a great line of shampoos, creams and soaps made from Brazilian fruits that are all-natural.
Are there any favorites from home that you always take with you?
I love bareMinerals! I have everything from them, from powder foundation to eyeliner and mascara.
Can you share any advice for women who are interested in a career abroad?
I used to think that I wanted a job that allowed me to travel internationally, but actually what I wanted was to live abroad. Once I figured out the difference, I set my sights on moving overseas. I think living abroad is great, although of course it has its challenges, too. I think the first step is to find the job that you’re most interested in because even if you’re overseas, most of your time will be spent working, so make sure you’re passionate about what you do. From there, it helps to know a foreign language or two. When volunteers ask me about international development work, I typically encourage them to get a graduate degree, if they don’t already have one. It is very competitive these days in international development and if you don’t have 20 years of experience or a business or technical degree, I recommend considering graduate school.
Last question: If you could only keep one pair of shoes from your closet, which ones would you choose and why?
Only one? I think I’d have to go with my brown boots. I’d been looking for a pair of brown boots for awhile and then finally, with my best friend’s bachelorette party planned for Austin, Texas, I couldn’t wait any longer. I found the perfect pair on the clearance rack at DSW a week before the event. I wore them every day and night in Austin!