We have reached the final countdown. Our trip to Trinidad is right around the corner. Our group is currently hard at work on our best practices report and presentation which we will bring with us to our clients, and we have investigated about a dozen ecotourism organizations in the Caribbean and other parts of the world to pull ideas from for Nature Seekers. Looking to assist Nature Seekers in all facets of their operations, we are trying to find companies from which we can pull marketing, distribution, and other business strategies. While compiling these business suggestions is a very comfortable task, our comfort levels are soon to change. Upon arrival in Trinidad, I expect a few significant cultural challenges will affect our business interactions, and I anticipate a lot of personal growth occurring as I navigate these challenges.
Many of the tests I expect to face revolve around conflicting cultural norms, but there are a few potential conflicts within our team that we worked to mitigate preemptively. We spent multiple weeks crafting a scope of work that would allow us to impact the organizations we are consulting for and stay within the bounds of our capabilities. That said, we anticipate our clients potentially asking for new deliverables or wanting to shift the boundaries of our scope when we are in country. Although we will listen to their new suggestions, we worked hard to define clear goals as a team that we would work to achieve. Staying aligned on these goals is crucial. While we do not plan on shifting our goals dramatically, we do expect to have a lot of unexpected wrenches thrown in our plans in country. For instance, we anticipate having meeting times moved around and having certain representatives that we talk to not knowing information we would like for our project. To handle these unexpected changes, we are frequently talking as a group to develop contingency plans and figure out how we can accomplish our goals in spite of uncontrollable variables. Overall, with excellent team communication and well-established deadlines, we expect to overcome obstacles effectively as a team.
The first, and arguably largest, issue I anticipate is Trini time. I addressed this briefly in the first blog post and expect to have far more to say about it when we return home from the trip. Based on class discussions, pre-departure readings and stories from friends who have gone on this trip, the local concept of time, especially in the very remote town of Matelot, is more different than we could imagine. Rather than rushing to business meetings and having a schedule and a sense of urgency to accomplish tasks, the locals like to take the day as it comes and change plans on a whim. If it’s a warm, sunny day, it is a perfect day to head down to the beach and relax for a little while. Personally, I am extremely organized, and I like planning. If I arrange a group project meeting and group members try to change the plan at the last minute, I am usually frustrated, and it throws off my day. When I am in the proper mindset, I am very comfortable being adaptable, and I am going to attempt to bring this flexible mindset to country. That said, it will still be a curveball when our meetings are held half an hour later than planned or skipped altogether. In addition to Trini time, I expect a challenge in communication.
While English is the primary language for a majority of the population in Trinidad, it would be naïve to think that communication will not be a challenge. Whereas my last study abroad experience in Vietnam was conducted through the English learners in the local university, this experience will be even more culturally immersive as we live the lives of the locals for a few days. They are certainly used to having guests stay with them, but believing that their culture will mirror ours because we share a primary language is just wrong. This class and this program are titled Global Service Learning for a reason. Service learning is the practice of engaging in hands-on activities that complement classroom learning which usually serve to better a community through collaboration. Completing consulting work for organizations in Trinidad without leaving the United States would make our final product far less relevant, and we would likely write in a low context communication style that does not fit well with the higher context local style. While we may make points precisely and simply, communication methods may be more nuanced in Trinidad. Having the chance to embrace the culture and experience their communication style firsthand will allow us to communicate our final ideas in a manner much more consistent with their own. Shifting the context of our communication will be a challenge, but I think this will be a successful learning experience and educate me on conducting international business along with addressing other competencies.
Personally, I expect to gain a good deal of intercultural competence through this program. Primarily, I expect to grow in the two categories I have already discussed. I am usually decent at accommodating random changes and overcoming obstacles in my life, but I definitely am capable of struggling to adapt to changing plans as well. I am optimistic that through this program I will be able to improve my adaptability. Returning home, I feel like I may be so used to the flexibility of Trini life that I will want to apply the same customs to my life here. Hopefully our post-trip blog post the night after we return to the U.S. will help get me back on track. Communication-wise, I have often struggled to understand certain thick accents. Thanks to the extremely diverse cultural background of the island, the locals will likely have accents and slang that combine elements from various cultures which could potentially complicate understanding. In our one pre-trip Skype call with Nature Seekers’ representatives, we could all clearly understand their normal conversation, but it was hard for us to understand the proper names of organizations they referenced. Digital communication often makes talking more challenging as I sometimes struggle to hear my family members as we speak via FaceTime, but the barrier extended slightly past technology in our first chat. Once in-country, I expect that I will slowly adapt to the local lingo and by the end of the week, I would hope that any difficulties are resolved.
As referenced in our pre-departure class discussions, intercultural competence can be defined loosely as the ability to behave appropriately and effectively in situations where people from different cultures are interacting. In my daily life, I clearly know what is considered socially acceptable and appropriate, and it requires little to no focus to avoid crossing any significant boundaries. In international settings, everything I think I know about etiquette, social customs, business practices, and mannerisms is basically thrown out the window. Although we have had extensive discussions about the culture and norms in the country, there is no way to legitimately practice conducting yourself in another culture without being immersed in the other culture. This learning goal directly accompanies the goals of a service learning program; cultural immersion as a means of developing new awareness and skills. To a lesser extent, I had this culturally immersive learning experience during my Vietnam trip. But, as I expressed earlier, that trip was less involved. Rather than providing consulting projects and working hand-in-hand with the local people, we visited, interacted, and left. There was less business exchange. On this trip, each of us will be forced to make a greater effort to connect with the local people, develop relationships, and learn about the culture. In turn, this strong tie to the local communities will motivate each of us to adapt to the culture and provide the highest quality deliverables that we can.
Additionally, as we discussed in our class, the service learning experience is heavily tied to politics. Learning through full immersion in another culture requires, at least to an extent, being well-versed in their politics. We have already researched Trinidad’s government structure and attempted to stay up to date on current events, but I expect to take in different political information through conversations with various islanders. The research that we discussed emphasizes the important role that learning international politics plays in developing domestic political awareness. By studying the political environment of another country or region, it is supposed to be easier to think about politics within your own country. Additionally, one of our readings explained that increased involvement in politics increases an individual’s likelihood to participate in public service. Regardless of my future career, I would like to continue to give back to my community through volunteer opportunities, and I am hopeful this program will push me toward that goal even if it is in a relatively abstract way.
Overall, although this program is only half the length of my initial two-week study abroad experience, I expect it to pose a whole new set of challenges. With each of these roadblocks, I anticipate working together with my friends and classmates to learn from each other in nightly debrief sessions and overcome any obstacles. In addition to group learning, I expect to absorb a lot of internal lessons as I experience a vastly different culture.
I am incredibly excited to finally experience the wonderful people and communities that I have heard so much about. Trinidad, here I come!