We have been back from Trinidad for a few weeks now and looking back on the experience I feel that I have learned and grown from both the preparation for the trip and the in-country experience. A few key lessons I have learned throughout this course would be that communication is extremely important especially in a global context, being able to relax into a culture will improve the outcomes of going abroad, and flexibility and adaptability are necessary when working in another country.
Prior to the trip and reflecting after I was aware that communication was a key aspect of this project. One of the main goals we had was to build relationships, so being able to communicate and be understood was vital to the success of the project. While this was relevant to the project, it was also an important lesson I feel I learned through experiencing the necessity of being clear and concise. In a business sense brevity and conciseness are encouraged, but I did not realize how beneficial this can be to communication in general. When talking with the Trinis, it was important to be as clear and concise as possible so information would not get “lost in translation.”
This will transfer to my life and moving forward toward a career because when communicating, conciseness is key. This is especially true in the business world as a lot of communication is done via email. No one has time to sit and read through extensively long communications that have only one or two key points that could have stood alone. Since I will be entering this professional world in only two years, understanding the importance of communication and being understood will be beneficial in any career path I pursue.
Throughout the semester, we discussed the importance of understanding the difference between high context versus low context cultures. This idea ties into the transferable skill of communication particularly in my experiences in Trinidad; communicating intentionally to be understood. Looking forward toward a career this idea of high and low context cultures will again be important as many organizations have global reach. Being more thoughtful with communication will aid in my ability to understand and be understood in these different contexts. The overall lesson with communication I took away from this trip is that it is important to understand the audience and speak to them in a way that will be understood. Knowing this, I will be able to identify my audience and the context they operate within to better communicate my ideas and be more easily understood.
In addition to the importance of communication, another key lesson I have taken away from this experience is that when working or studying abroad relaxing into the culture of the host country is beneficial. While in Trinidad we were constantly told to slow down and breathe which is typical of their relaxed culture. In the beginning this was difficult, but by the end of the trip it felt natural. Relaxing into the Trini way of life allowed the group to better form relationships with the DORCAS Women’s Group because we were not rushing to complete tasks; rather, we were relaxing and having more open conversations with the women because we were making the effort to match their way of life. This allowed both us and the women to feel more comfortable and by the middle of the week I felt that we learned more than we would have if we had been rushing around and try to fit everything in on a set schedule.
The ability to allow myself to become immersed and match the life style of another culture is very valuable and is something that can be utilized in moving forward toward a career. Being open and willing to experience new cultures will be beneficial especially in a field where there is a lot of client interaction. When working with a client, it is important to go in not with all the answers and disrupt their business. Being open and willing to meet a client and match their company culture, which can be as simple as the clothes worn, will make both parties more comfortable and aid in the communication and work relationship.
The final key lesson I learned through this experience is that flexibility and adaptability are extremely important when completing a project abroad. Throughout the semester this idea of being able to pivot came up time and time again, but before the in-country experience they were just words. This idea of flexibility is so vital when working with an organization in another culture. While in-country, our networking presentation got postponed multiple times, but the group rolled with the schedule changes. This relieved some stress for Michelle, the site coordinator, as she did not have to deal with an upset or stressed out group. This also was beneficial to the group because rolling with the changes allowed us to remain calm and not “freak out” over the possibility of not completing the workshop.
While the ability to be flexible and adapt is clearly important while abroad and in other cultures, it is also a skill I believe I will be able to carry with me forward toward a career. Being able to pivot when something does not go as planned instead of stressing out is beneficial in any work environment. When there is a deadline to meet or a busy time of year, being able to adapt to a situation is a valuable skill.
Looking back on my expectations of this experience one thing I really wanted to expand upon was my cultural competence. Through researching and understanding the culture of Trinidad prior to departure and being able to relax into the Trini culture I feel that I have succeeded in expanding my cultural competence. I now understand the importance of becoming immersed into a culture before visiting the country, but also doing so with an open mind because the reality in-country is not necessarily going to match every detail in a Culture Smart Book. While in-country, I felt that I was able to become immersed in the culture and get more out of the experience because I had an idea of what I would be experiencing, but I was willing to adapt to the reality of this way of life.
Furthermore, I was hoping to apply what I have learned in the classroom and specifically see the importance of service learning and how it is a “two-way-street.” I really saw this while in-country during our customer service workshop. We went in with a lot of information we could share with the DORCAS Women’s Group, but the workshop ended up being even more of a conversation than we had expected. The women were so willing to share personal experiences with customer service and I felt that I came out of the workshop not only knowing more about customer service in Trinidad, but also knowing more about the women we were interacting with. It was incredible to see how the workshop left both us and the women with knowledge I had not expected to gain.
Finally, I hoped to grow by learning alongside the DORCAS Women’s Group which I feel I did. The group went through a networking workshop with the women and it was a more difficult topic for the women to relate to. While on the site visits it was incredible to see how the women took what we talked about and put their own spin on it to make it relevant to their culture. They asked questions we were not expecting and talked with the site directors after every visit. It was interesting to see how the women took what we talked about and utilized it in a way that worked for them. I feel like through watching this I was able to learn that information about networking or other topics we learn in the business school can be taken and manipulated in a way to work for any person; they do not need to be taken at face value. This may seem obvious, but so far in my college career I feel that I personally have been trying to network or do tasks like these in a specific way, but what we are taught are guidelines, not what must be done. While this is only one example, I feel that I learned a lot from the DORCAS Women through interactions and the site visits.
While in country, I feel as if the group faced challenges especially with communication and adapting to the culture. In all the preparation for the trip, however, there was a large emphasis placed on going into the experience with an open-mind and being prepared to pivot. Going into the experience with these expectations made me feel prepared to face any challenges that would occur. The challenge with communication, while difficult, was something I was able to overcome the more I talked to the women and people within the community. Knowing we would need to pivot made schedule changes less of a challenge as I was prepared for the unexpected.
All in all, this course on service learning and the in-country experience in Trinidad taught me a lot. As a result of this semester, I feel I have expanded my skills in communication along with adaptability and flexibility. Reflecting on my experience and comparing it to my expectations I feel like I achieved everything I was expecting from this course and much more.