Mindful of the competitive job market awaiting her upon graduation, Business major Lexi Armstrong ’11 was looking for a way to differentiate herself from other young professionals. After visiting UNE’s Global Education office, she decided to spend a semester abroad gaining mastery of a second language.
Armstrong spent the spring semester of her junior year studying in the French Alps, taking courses at Université Stendhal-Grenoble, and riding a bus home each night to Montbonnot, where she lived with a host family that spoke no English. Along the way she acquired the fluency in French she desired. But the experience of spending a semester abroad positioned her for future success in other important ways too.
Being immersed in a foreign culture was daunting initially, but in the end proved to be transformative. She emerged from her time away with new confidence, and with a thirst for adventure that has shaped her life to follow.
“I thought I was a pro, so I signed up for a program that didn’t use any English,” explains Armstrong, who had taken French in high school. “Then I got there and felt like I was going to cry.”
Now the director of finance and administration at an eco-friendly start-up company in Portland called Interphase Energy, Armstrong thinks back to the long hours she devoted to mastering French and can’t help but smile. A breakthrough came a month into the experience when a friend from Boston visited and joined Armstrong and her host family for dinner: “She looked at me midway through the night, and said ‘Dang, you really can speak French.’ When someone else comes in and says you’re not that bad, it makes you feel good.”
While living in France, Armstrong took weekend train trips to French cities like Dijon, Nice and Paris, and then visited Barcelona, London, Brussels, Belgium and Monaco.
“I got bitten by the travel bug and now it’s an addiction,” she says. “There’s nothing like waking up in the morning when you’re going to a new place. It’s the most exciting feeling.”
After returning to UNE and applying her growing business knowledge to a yearlong internship at Maine Businesses for Sustainability, Armstrong graduated and accepted a position with Global Environmental Solutions (GES) in South Portland. She started out answering the phones but quickly worked her way up to managing cash and presenting financials. Then, after two and a half years on the job, she got a call from a board member at her former internship site. He had started a new company and wanted to hire her.
The decision to leave GES wasn’t easy. “I took a huge risk,” Armstrong says. “I left this comfy job. It was a big step for me, but my previous experiences at UNE gave me the confidence to take the risk and look at it as a new opportunity and not be scared.”
In December of 2013 Armstrong joined Interphase, which imports Kedel wood pellet boilers from Denmark. The company holds sole North American distribution rights to the product, which is distinct from a wood pellet stove in that it is fully automated and designed to heat an entire house. According to Armstrong, when a homeowner chooses a Kedel unit instead of an oil-burning furnace, it keeps money in Maine and is better for the environment.
Right now, Armstrong’s responsibilities include a bit of everything: she manages cash, presents financials, handles human resources duties, and assists the operations staff.
“As someone who’s working in finance, this is a dream job because I’m actually working for and believing in the mission of the company,” she says. “It’s an exciting time for us. It’s the beginning of a new industry. The sky’s the limit.”
For Armstrong, one of the best parts of the adventure is that it includes international travel. In the spring of 2014, she accompanied thirty-five members of the Interphase dealer network on a tour of Denmark, where they visited the Kedel manufacturing and testing facilities. “It was really exciting,” Armstrong says. “I’d never been to Denmark.”
For this young alumna who is clearly going places, there will no doubt be more new experiences to follow. And Lexi Armstrong will be ready for them.