My First International Experience: The Build-Up to My First International Experience

Growing up, I never traveled outside of the United States, so I knew that when I started college studying abroad was definitely an experience that I wanted to have; however, being that I am graduating early, a full semester was not an option for me. This led to a hunt for another alternative. After countless hours of research and speaking with the Center for Global Engagement at California Lutheran University, I came across the opportunity to do a brief 2 to 4 week seminar in which I not only got to experience a new country, but I also had the chance to visit companies, such as Intel, Osprey, and Ikea. I not only spoke with directors and executives, but I also toured the company facilities within their respective countries. International Business Seminars enabled me to experience the out of classroom, out of country experience I craved as an undergraduate student, but to experience this I had to get to the country.

Let Your Dreams Take Flight

After attending the first information session held by IBS at my university, I was intrigued because it highlighted that IBS is an affordable, brief travel seminar abroad that I could earn college credit for and also build my resume. Once I reviewed the various program options, I decided to pursue the Winter Southeast Asia trip. Before the introduction of IBS, I never thought I would travel to Asia. What changed my mind was the ability to travel to Asia with a group of experienced leaders who would be readily available while I was in country, meaning I could ask questions every step of the way if need be. Rather than asking questions for assistance though, I found myself having personal conversations with the group leaders and they became mentors as well because I could connect not only on a professional level, but also a personal level. 

Furthermore, although the seminar is only a twelve day excursion, this option felt suiting for a couple of  reasons:

    • This was my first time going international and I did not know how I would handle it. Being more of a home body, I did not want feel overwhelmed once I got in country and realize I overcommitted.
    • Based on the itinerary, there was a healthy balance between free time, scheduled company visits, and scheduled attraction tours. My afternoons and evenings were almost always free, so all of the sightseeing that I wanted to do outside of the scheduled tours was possible. And I found this to be true while on the trip. The only time I was in the hotel was to sleep, otherwise I was walking the streets of Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh city because the hotels were within walking distance of main attractions!

After the first week, I knew a shorter trip was perfect for me. Every day I would wake up around 7-8am and would not go to bed until about 12am. After company tours, the group would change and go out for food and exploration, whether it was visiting the Ben Than Market in Vietnam or Terminal 21 in Bangkok. Every minute was capitalized on while abroad. 

Soaring Through the Stress

Upon finding this opportunity, I expressed excitement, but before leaving America I steadily became nervous because this entire journey was brand new to me. I was unfamiliar with navigating the international flight check-in process, I had never experienced a 20 hour, trans-pacific flight before, and I had no clue what I should be packing or preparing for the trip. 

Being that I had never been to Asia, I did not know what to expect in regards to the cultural immersion I was about to experience either. I had a lot of concerns regarding the language barriers and being a respectful visitor while I was in country. To alieve these concerns, I learned customary greetings to have positive, first impressions on the locals. Then, while I was in country, I made the effort every day while walking the streets to embraced the hustling people, the buzz and honks of the cars, the uneven sidewalks, and more. Thailand and Vietnam were completely different environments than what I was surrounded by growing up, but this juxtaposition proved to be enlightening. The differences in culture forced me to recognize characteristics about myself and how I interact with my environment.

Being able to enjoy the experience did not occur until after I landed in country. Before landing in Thailand and then Vietnam, the mere idea of leaving the country became intimidating. So what did I do? I looked to the resources that I had available to me.

Getting Comfortable in Your Seat of Resources

Throughout the months leading up to the departure for the trip, various members from IBS check-in with you regarding paperwork requirements, providing helpful hints and tips for traveling, and expressing their availability to reach out any time with questions. The constant virtual presence of the IBS team through email and text  in the months leading up to my trip eased my mind because through them, I had all of the tools necessary to be successful during my stay in country. With that, checking emails and keeping an eye out for the communications was important. The individuals sending those emails provide valuable information, such as how to obtain a visa and basic information about the country, and more. And more importantly, this communication continues during the seminar, but its in-person communication instead. 

Additionally, to reduce stress even further for myself, I allowed IBS to handle my travel affairs. By having IBS book my flights, I did not have to worry about monitoring prices, finding reasonable connections, or concerning myself with the stress of coordinating the timing to ensure I arrived in country at the proper time for events on the first day.  I capitalized on the knowledge that the IBS team collectively had regarding what to expect and prepare for once I landed in Southeast Asia.  

However, I did not stop there. To help myself prepare even more, I did some self-research online:

    • Weather,
    • items to bring in case of emergency (hard copies of travel documents, allergy medications, comfort medicine in case of illness, etc),
    • types of internet coverage available in country (wifi-only, sim card, or a plan through your phone service),
    • and of course, places to visit! 

Furthermore, I travelled with a group of 16 peers. Each person within our group contributed to the family dynamic we formed. We had two medics, several wander lusters, a couple of navigators, some right-hand mans who never left anyone behind or alone, and also the go-with-the-flow journeyers.  Since most of us were first-time international travelers, or at least first-time being in SE Asia, it was easy to overcome any discomfort in getting to know each other. We all faced similar struggles and questions while in the country, thus we quickly became comfortable with each other because it enabled us to communicate better in a foreign location. Within this group, I developed friendships that will last a lifetime.  Also, I was able to explore various areas in both Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh without ever being alone. 

Collectively, all this information provided a solid foundation of resources that I could use to mentally preparing for leaving for my trip and while I was in country.

Earning Your International Wings

Despite maintaining communication with the constant check-ins and asking clarifying questions, I still made errors along the way. It is challenging to ask the “right” questions when you hardly know what to even expect. There was a huge learning curve each step of the way. 

Prior to this trip I never had to go through a check-in process. Consequently, I had a moment in the airport in which I got the pleasure of hearing my name being called overhead by the airline because they needed to speak to me. I confusedly walked up to the desk at the gate I had been waiting at for my flight with my passport and boarding pass in hand and the gate officer informed me I did not check-in to the airline. I had managed to bypass this vital step. Fortunately for me they checked me in at the gate right before I boarded the plane. In this moment I learned that for all international flights, you have to check-in with the airlines, which is before security, and in foreign airports you pass through immigration and passport control afterwards. 

Another new experience was meals on a plane. Foolishly, I had selected meals through the airline website check-in because I thought it was a requirement. I later learned that it was only required for dietary restrictions: reading instructions in full is always helpful! I was able to correct this for my returning flights, but I got stuck eating meals on my way to Thailand that contained foods that I was not familiar with because it was food based on the local culture, in this cause Thai cuisine.  In eating local street foods and looking around local markets I later learned what I was served on the plane. 

I learned a lot through the experience of even just getting out of America. Throughout all of it though, I absorbed each mistake and rather than being harsh on myself, I took a lesson from every moment to make the necessary improvements for later. In going on this trip, I knew I was taking on a new journey and stretching myself. Just like a plane ride, you know there may be a change in wind and in turn some turbulence, but eventually with the proper navigation, the plane will exit the weather system and return to a calm, smooth flight. The key is to remain calm and look for other pathways when the route you’re taking is leading you to constant failure.

By: Karlee Cuddy