2,352 Miles to Go!

In about one week, our team will be traveling to Trinidad and if I am being completely honest it does not seem real. In the four days before our departure, I will be taking four midterm examinations as well as completing our best practices report in conjunction with my peers. Under my usual behavior, all of that can only be achieved through proper time management, a strict study schedule, and more caffeine than usual. But then, I will be off to Trinidad where I will have to leave all of those American student tendencies behind. I am nervous about this trip because I know that it will be out of my comfort zone. But during my life, whenever I feel a bit uneasy going into situations, it can almost always be ensured that those are the situations where I will learn and grow the most. Despite the nerves, I am very excited to finally meet our clients and the community members of Matura and Matelot, Trinidad.

After all of our in-class discussions and culture smart presentation about the communities we will be visiting, it is no secret that our clients hold punctuality at a different level of importance than us. American professionals live through google calendars, planners, and assistants as it is seen as rude to be late when you schedule to meet with someone in advance. If you are not 10 minutes early for your interview, you are late. These concepts are the antithesis of “Trini time”. Before we leave, I am making myself comfortable with the expectation that this is not how our Trini clients will approach our schedules in-country. My peers and I are going into this international experience after spending the past two months in a traditional classroom going over what we need to accomplish. I anticipate that once we arrive in Trinidad the pressure may set in. We may feel in a time crunch to get everything we want to achieve finished through the efficient strategies we are used to. But we will not get all the information we need; talk to every person we intend to. Nevertheless, this will only strengthen avital transferable skills such as problem-solving, patience, and flexibility.

Along with Trini time, adjusting to the high context communication style of our clients is another projected struggle of conducting business in-country. The United States is an occupation driven country. Frequently when meeting someone new, you will learn what they do for a living before knowing that they are a parent. If I were to be asked to fill in the statement “I am___” the first thing that comes to my mind is “student” which could be interpreted as “pre-employee”. The weight our occupations as Americans have on our identity directly contributes to our low context communication style. Although this is what I am used to, I am intrigued to experience our Trini client’s high context communication style as I am admittedly envious of it being their cultural norm. Making connections and networking is vital in business but my favorite experiences with it have been when I make a personal connection with someone first, which naturally leads to a business relationship. Getting to know our clients through longer personal introductions and shorter business discussions may feel frustrating as consultants when we feel our time is limited, but in the end, it contributes to our project’s goals by giving us more of the “why” behind our objectives. For example, we will be prepared to go into our introductory meetings with a list of questions, but we may not get direct answers. But if we are active listeners, we may pick up on an aspect of our client’s vision that we had not thought of before that could be used during the creation of our deliverables. Learning why our clients are passionate about their respective communities and projects is just as vital to our in-country experience as getting directions from them on what they need from us as student consultants.

Another area for conflict lies with the fact that we will be entering into organizations and communities that have a plethora of internal and external complications. The past two months our group along with the Pitt Business faculty and staff have been working on solidifying our scope of work. As we create relationships with our clients and people, we meet in the community we will start to develop emotional ties to these organizations which are only possible with in-person communication. Our clients may try to stray from our scope of work, or as it was labeled in class, “scope creep”. However, despite the service aspect of this global service-learning experience, we must stick to our plan and goals and push some of our emotions and desire to please aside. Being assertive, yet understanding and empathic in these situations is vital for the progression and success of our project.

In general, we are all embarking on this trip in positions of privilege as citizens of the United States. Being aware of this is vital in our interactions with everyone we meet. When conducting business this is an important thing to be cognizant of to ensure our behavior as student consultants are not condescending. Our clients know their own organization’s best and although our team’s job is to help improve their business practices, that cannot come at the expense of our client’s opinions. Aside from business, and just as foreign visitors, we must at all times be respectful to every person we meet. I am thankful that the organizations we are working with our welcoming us with open arms, cooking us meals, guiding us around their communities, and giving us a place to stay. Even if the accommodations are more rustic than those we are used to in the United States, it is our job as visitors to adapt and be thankful that we are being given a true Trinidad experience.

Concerning personal growth, developing a greater sensitivity to diversity and intercultural communication is my most significant expectation.  As disclosed in my previous blog, I come from a monocultural hometown where I was never in the minority. I grew up learning about different cultures, societies, religions, and ethnicities in class, but the idea of my intercultural competence never arose in thought. Learning about a country thousands of miles away is completely different than experiencing it firsthand. As defined in a study conducted by Darla Deardorff, intercultural competence is an effective and appropriate behavior and communication in intercultural communications.  Our communication with our clients has been very limited up to this point so there have yet to be significant situations to develop this competence. But since we will be spending an entire week throughout many different parts of Trinidad, situations will arise. I feel that I have already developed the awareness necessary for these communications, meaning recognition that the people that we will interact with have grown up in different environments than myself and will in turn act in different ways. That does not mean that one way of completing a task or communicating is wrong and one is right, it just means they are different. Through our Culture Smartbook and research for our country-specific presentation, our team has been actively seeking additional knowledge on these expected differences. I can say I know a lot more about Trinidad than I did a few months ago but I would not say I have solidified skills of how to act in intercultural situations. This can only be gained through practice and becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Another concern of mine going into this trip that leaves much room for personal growth is the expected frequent conversations and social interactions I will participate in while abroad. Throughout my life, I have always been more of an introvert and although I love talking to people, I also do not always feel a desire or need to strike up a conversation with someone. I value my alone time and that is something I am not expecting to get a lot of on this trip. When asked for examples of personal weaknesses in job interviews, a top response for me is my inability to make a strong first impression and participate in small talk to establish a connection with someone. For me, it usually takes time and many individual interactions before I feel comfortable with people. Meeting a plethora of new people in Trinidad will be pushing myself out of my comfort zone. Becoming more comfortable with social interaction with new people is a necessary skill for life as a business professional and networking. Therefore, I am eager to develop these interpersonal skills further.

Above all, I want to go into this global service-learning experience with an open mind, a positive attitude, and an eagerness to learn. This trip and class are a unique opportunity, one which is out of reach for many other students even in my own country. I am thankful that I have been given the chance to work on such an interesting project that will with no doubt enhance my business skills, personal knowledge, and global competence.

-Sophia