Sandra Osterloh: Oyster River’s Local Nomad

“I have learned in my life to never say never….It’s not always about getting paid. It’s just about what you do with that in your life…”

As Sandra Osterloh stands behind her counseling office desk, the high school registrar’s heart yearns for travel. The self-proclaimed wanderer has buzzed around the counseling department for the past six years, scheduling students, managing data and demographics, and  keeping things running smoothly. This July however, Osterloh and her husband will be traveling to Yangon, Myanmar to fulfill a two year contract at the International School of Myanmar. Osterloh will be serving in an administrative position while her husband will be teaching science. While moving halfway across the world might seem like a daunting and somewhat terrifying task, Osterloh is no stranger to travel, culture or different languages.

Osterloh’s nomadic personality began at a young age. At three years old, the Oregon native’s family moved to Tunis, Tunisia where she attended a French kindergarten and later the American Cooperative School of Tunis. It was here that Osterloh learned French, Arabic, and English. By the time she moved back to America at age eight, the elementary schooler had a lot to learn about how to live in the U.S.

“A big part of who she is comes from her background: growing up on ranches in Oregon and living in Tunis, Tunisia for five years both played a part,” says Osterloh’s husband, Doug. After living in Tunis, Osterloh lived in Oregon through high school, and then attended college in Oregon where she met her husband. Five years after marriage, the couple gave birth to a son and daughter while living in Eastern Oregon as Doug attended law school.

IMG_0314.JPG
Sandra Osterloh & her husband, Doug. 

The yearning to wander returned soon after. Osterloh recalls, “when [Doug] was getting ready to graduate from law school, we decided we wanted to have an adventure. He ended up getting a job in Hawaii in Honolulu and we lived in Hawaii for five years.” While living in Hawaii, the Osterloh family slowly grew as they fostered children, and eventually adopted two daughters: one they had previously fostered and one through a private adoption. “We were once the couple that was never going to have children. Things change,” Osterloh laughed off.

Travel has never been about tourism for the Osterlohs, and they’re not the people that just sit by the pool. “We try always to experience the local flavor of any place that we visit. We try to experience as much as we can and connect with the most amount of people… When we went to the Dominican, there was a rock wall on each side of the resort and it’s an all inclusive resort. And the first thing they told us was to not go on the other side of the wall. So that was the first thing we did,” says Osterloh.

Living became too pricey to raise a family in Honolulu, as it was expected that the children attend private school when they got older, so the family returned to the continental U.S. to live in Washington for eight years, then back to Oregon. In 2006, they finally to moved to New England. For one year, Doug took a government job in Boston until he decided it was time for a career change in the field of education.

For the past 13 years the Osterlohs have resided in Kingston, NH. Doug settled into a science teacher position at Bradford Christian Academy and Osterloh fell in love with her job at Oyster River as the high school registrar. Both are advanced EMTs and share pride and joy in helping others. “We both are madly in love with our jobs… ” she shared.

And then, Osterloh’s life changed. “Last summer, my brother unexpectedly died at the age of 66 and that changed my life big time. It really had an impact on me about just how fragile life is.” From working on the ambulance, Osterloh and her husband have witnessed life and death, so they are no stranger to trauma, but regardless of this, losing her brother was difficult.  “We see some really sad things. It’s easier to be clinical about what we see on the ambulance than it is to have your eldest brother die.”

IMG_1046.JPG
Osterloh and her granddaughter. 

This event sparked serious conversation between Sandra and Doug. The kids were grown up, all living in their own corners of the world. The couple had always shared a plan in which Doug would teach internationally and Sandra would follow him as a ‘trailing spouse.’ “I looked at my husband and said, ‘what are we doing? Why aren’t we doing this now? Why would we wait three more years? We’re at a place in our life where we can make this decision.’” After thoroughly discussing the possibility, they decided to cast the net wide and if it worked out, they would go.

After preparing the mountain of paperwork for each of the agencies, interviews started coming in from Ecuador, Senegal, Bangladesh, and India. “The International School of Myanmar interview was spectacular… The principal that interviewed my husband hired him within two days and made him an offer.” Osterloh was especially excited because the school documents that they do hire ‘trailing partners,’ the spouses of hired teachers, whenever possible. “I will work with the principal and the counseling office, and I will be handling all of the school testing, and then also maintaining their Facebook and website. I will probably be working and assisting the registrar with records,” she explains.

Over the years and from each of the places, Osterloh has learned a lot about life and culture as a whole. “Under the color of people’s skin, and under the accents, and under the other language, you can still communicate, regardless of knowing the language. I’ve just learned that all cultures seek to be accepted. I think that’s what mankind wants…” Osterloh has tried to instill this ideology in her children by showing them as much of the world as possible though travel. It is clear that it is a big part of who she is. Doug noted that his favorite part of Osterloh is, “her confidence, and her willingness to try something new… like moving halfway around the world to live and work in a totally new culture.”

“The biggest thing I’ve learned in the last three months is that material possessions are overrated. Too much stuff, too much junk, and too much money spent on things,” says Osterloh. They will be storing everything they own in a 10 foot by 15 foot storage unit for the next two years. When the Osterlohs leave for their twenty-four hour flight, they do not have the option of shipping things over and will be traveling with only suitcases, prioritizing the essentials like medications, and bug spray for a whole year. They will restock when they visit the U.S. in one year between the two year contract.

She is excited and thrilled for the opportunity but is also aware there will be a transition period. “I know there will be a learning curve. Having lived in Hawaii, it’s a much slower pace of life, and that can be a challenge for a very driven person like myself. I like to start tasks and complete them. In Hawaii, there were times where that was hard for me to have the Shaka Brah kind of mentality.” For reference, Shaka Brah is a hand gesture widely known throughout Hawaii used to convey the Aloha spirit and easy going mentality.

Even though the school is taught in English, the couple will be learning the Burmese language as it is spoken between classes and at lunch. Osterloh believes that background in languages should provide her a helpful base for this task.

The couple hope to become involved in not just the school, but the community. “We’re looking forward to having just one focus, but we also would like to meet the local people that work in their fire department. I’m sure it’s very, very much different than what we’re used to, regarding resources.” The Osterlohs have developed a shared passion in helping others, which they carry out through their EMT work. They are hoping to explore the possibility of facilitating equipment no longer in use from the New Hampshire fire departments to be shipped to be reuse in their new home. “We would really like to learn about emergency services that are not available in Myanmar, and to see if we might be of assistance. There is equipment in the local departments that’s no longer in use and perhaps it can be utilized in another country.”

IMG_1104.JPG
Osterloh and her grandchildren in Japan. 

Of course, Osterloh will miss her home in New England. “I will miss our fire departments. I will miss my job. I will miss the counselors, and my boss. I love this job so much. The connection with the students and graduation. I will miss graduation and just seeing all the work of the four years.”

Besides her joy for travel and organization, Osterloh has a passion for baking. Osterloh is famous for her cinnamon rolls throughout the counseling department.  “I’d be lying if I didn’t say, ‘Oh my gosh! No more cinnamon rolls!’” says ORHS counselor, Kim Sekera, whose family has developed a relationship with the registrar extraordinaire over the years. Sekera shared that every year during letter of recommendation writing season, Osterloh will bake with Sekera’s children to give their mother the time she needs to write. Osterloh will not have an oven in Myanmar, but she already has a plan. “I’m not hoping –  I know, somewhere, I will connect with someone who has an oven that I can either pay them to let me use, or they would be happy to accept an exchange of baked goods for letting me use their oven.

The rehiring process to fill Osterloh’s position has just begun, but, “she has set the bar really high. We will have to scale our expectations back,” says Kim Cassamas, counselor and colleague of Osterloh at ORHS. Her coworkers describe her as very hardworking, data oriented, friendly, and caring. Director of Counseling, Heather Machanoff, notes, “she is really good at making students feel welcome. She is always willing to help students and not minimize anything that was going on with them.”

When Osterloh leaves home soil once again on July 18th, she will be fulfilling her purpose, living the most meaningful life she can, and satisfying her hunger for exploration. “Sadly, my brother doesn’t get any more [experiences]. And I don’t want to be the person that doesn’t get anymore. I want, regardless of how many more years I live, to have more meaning than just hoping I live.”

Written by Grace Castonguay
Photos courtesy of Sandra Osterloh