Know When to Get Off The Bus

The Cathedral, Guadalajara, Mexico


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. 

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