Brightly colored posters, paintings and photos from around the world cover the white walls of educational administration graduate student Julie Westerman’s South Austin apartment. Her shelves are filled with trinkets, small toys, photo albums, a Sprite bottle stuffed with trash and letters from the many friends she has made during her travels. On her table is a plastic bag filled with some coffee her Nicaraguan house mother gave her to take back to the States.
“I feel so bad I don’t have coffee and snacks for you,” Westerman repeatedly apologized.
Her desire to have food ready for guests whenever they come over is one that she picked up during her two-year stay in Nicaragua from 2010-2012, where the hosts always go out of their way to prepare strong coffee and treats for guests.
“People take it as a big sign of respect when you go to visit them at their house,” Westerman said. “It’s almost the opposite here, where we invite each other over, but there it’s really common to just show up at someone’s house.”
This one trip to Nicaragua doesn’t even scratch the surface of Westerman’s work abroad. At 31 years old, she has traveled and worked in six different countries around the world.
The desire to travel began when Westerman visited her sister in London when she was 17 and then again as an undergraduate, when she interned at a homeless shelter.
This trip inspired Westerman to visit other countries. She became certified to teach English in Mexico in 2004, but she didn’t stop there.
“I tried to come home and stay home, and I realized very quickly that I wasn’t ready for that yet,” Westerman said. “I left to go to Costa Rica with my very best childhood friend, and we volunteered on a farm, and we took one-on-one Spanish classes, and we lived with a host family. It was different than anything else that I had done until that point.”
The Costa Rica trip in 2006 was volunteer work that left Westerman with little money to continue traveling. To save up for her next adventure abroad, Westerman did odd jobs around the Austin area. Westerman also met her husband, Matt Reid, during that time at home.
Together, Westerman and Reid have worked in Denali National Park in Alaska, Bangkok and Quilali, Nicaragua, where they were stationed for two years with the Peace Corps. The couple was there primarily to teach English but also to engage in health education projects, train farmers and build a classroom.
“I’m a really curious person, and I just can’t imagine not wanting to see as much of the world as possible,” Westerman said.
Westerman’s older sister, Avril Westerman, described Julie as humble and said she admires her sister’s determination to go abroad despite all the challenges that come with it.
“I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that she is extremely organized and has had to do so much work and planning to accomplish the things she has done and go all of those places,” Avril Westerman said.
Julie Westerman said that she and her husband have done everything somewhat backwards, but she doesn’t regret it.
“Instead of saving our whole lives to go somewhere when we are retired, we got to [travel] while we are young,” Westerman said. “I wouldn’t change the way we did that.”
Westerman is currently working with the nonprofit group Cama Fina to provide a sustainable economic solution to funding a women’s clinic in Nicaragua and is working in UT’s international department while pursuing her graduate degree in higher education administration. One of her many jobs will be to accompany a group of students on their trip to Nicaragua over the summer.
“Her role is to help them with the trip’s cultural aspects,” said Lindsey Engelman, a program coordinator in the international office. “So, making sure communication is clear, making sure that they understand how to be culturally appropriate, and working with them on any emotions that come up.”
At least for a little while, Westerman hopes to stay in Austin and make the transition from traveling to helping other students explore the world like she has.
“When a student is getting really excited about a trip they’re going on, or when they get back and have all these stories they want to share, that’s what makes it all worth it to me,” Westerman said. “I just want to help people have their own adventures.”