And Other Life Lessons Learned in Guadalajara
Trish McFarlane over at the HR Ringleader has asked us to dig deep and share a personal story of an event in our lives that helped us chart a new path. She’s going to publish these stories for the Carnival of HR “Game Changing Moments” edition. When I reflect on pivotal life experiences, one that stands out is my time spent as a college student in Mexico. It was part of coursework to complete a major in Spanish.
What follows is my story and the lessons learned.
In the winter of 1983, during my sophomore year in college, I convinced my parents to let me attend a summer international study program offered in Guadalajara, Mexico. Looking back, it’s amazing that I even considered the idea much less executed it. I’d never even flown on a plane before. Call it the ignorance of youth, but instead of trepidation, I only felt excitement about the adventure I was about to undertake.On the day of my departure, my parents put me on a shuttle bus to make the three hour trip from my tiny hometown in southwest Michigan to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. I arrived at the International terminal, a sheltered twenty-year-old college student, trying to locate the Mexicana Airlines terminal.
The flight was uneventful and before I knew it, the plane was landing in Mexico. The adventure was about to start— so far, so good! It wasn’t until I went through Customs and the Customs Agent started asking me questions in rapid-fire succession (most of which I didn’t understand) that I wondered, “Am I in over my head?” There was no friendly face to greet me, to help me navigate those first few hours in a new world. The only thing I had was a piece of paper with my host family’s address. I was all alone in an airport in a third world country. How would I survive?
The trip got off to a rocky start. I was extremely homesick. This being the days before the internet, it was difficult to stay in touch with my family back in the States. During the entire three months I was there, I made just six phone calls to my parents in. It was too costly to do otherwise. I had my share of situations that could only be described as “precarious”. Like, for example, the time I found myself wandering the streets of Guadalajara (a city the size of Chicago), trying to figure out how to get back “home” because I missed my bus stop and the city bus driver kicked me off at the end of the route.
But survive I did. I met fellow American students enrolled in the same program. My host family was fantastic, taking me to cultural and family events to immerse me in their ways of life. I befriended college-aged Mexican students as well. Overall, my experience ended up being one of the most rewarding and influential of my life.
Here’s what I love about significant life events: they have the power to teach you long after you’ve experienced them. It’s been awhile since I’ve reflected on my Guadalajara experience and I find that even now, I can draw out new lessons to use in my personal and professional life.
What Three Months In Guadalajara Taught Me
- If you’re going to have a dream, you better have a plan too. As much as I wanted to attend the program in Guadalajara, I knew I’d have to “sell” it to the people holding the purse strings: my parents. So I presented this plan to them: I would apply for a Resident Advisor job, which paid for room and board. The money saved on room and board would cover the tuition and travel fees for studying abroad. I applied for and got the RA job which freed up the money for the trip.
- When you venture far out of your comfort zone, scary things happen, but you’ll be OK. There were several times during my stay in Guadalajara when I felt the fear gripping me, threatening to paralyze me. Each time I felt this, I said to myself, “panicking is not going to help. Stay calm. What’s the best way to handle this situation?” Each time I came through the frightening situation, my confidence soared.
- You may think you’re smart and worldly, but you’re not. Traveling to another country sets you straight on that in a heart beat. There are so many different ways to view a word, a situation, a culture. What’s completely acceptable in “my” world may be totally verboten in someone else’s world.
- The people who love you might think your idea is crazy. Prove them wrong. I know my parents had serious reservations about sending me alone to another country. I was extremely grateful to them for allowing me the opportunity and I was determined to show them that my time in Mexico was a valuable investment.
- Effective communication requires hard work. If we speak the same native language, we take for granted that people understand us. When you are called upon to communicate in a non-native language, you are much more conscious of the process and how easy it is to get the communication wires crossed.
So how did this experience become a game-changer for me? Rather than being an immediate catalyst, my study abroad has been more of a “slow burn”. My living in another country didn’t immediately change my path, but instead, over the years, it has informed my world view It has shaped how I respond to ambiguous situations. The ability to successfully live on my own in a different culture has helped me to take on bigger risks with confidence in school and then ultimately, in my career. Those three months significantly changed the way I navigated the world, both literally and figuratively and for that, I’m immensely grateful.