Get out of Your Comfort Zone and Partner for the Goals!
I thought after being a member of AIESEC for five years and being on two Member Committee Executive Boards (MCEBs) would be enough for my leadership skill development…
Then, I signed up for a Global Talent Program and quickly realized I was wrong. I knew from arrival, this experience was going to transform me from the core, once again.
I am Edem Hlonu, former Member Committee President (MCP) of AIESEC in Togo 2016-17. After my term, I was in India for a whole year with the ACE Career Development Program powered by TATA CONSULTANCY SERVICES (TCS) during 2018.
“It is too far…”
There were plenty of worries from my friends and family across West Africa.
Living in Bangalore, a 12-million-souls-and-counting city was a truly challenging experience, as my entire home country has only 7 million inhabitants.
My first month had been just an introduction to their culture—I was shocked every single day!
How rich and how extremely poor people can be and still share the same city. You can tell the difference so clearly as the caste-system still exists. I was living near my fancy office, but the neighbourhood looked dirty and crowded everywhere.
There was a queue every place I went, no matter whether it was a small or big shop, a church, a restaurant or a barber.
“Spicy or chilly?” These are the only two options for food. As most of the locals are vegetarians, which is unusual where I come from, vegetarian cuisine was foreign to me at first. But later, I started to appreciate it, and even now, as I’m already back in my home country, I miss it dearly.
In India, prepare yourself not to eat beef.
The cow is one of their many, many gods. That is why you can see them on the street roam undisturbed. Every day is a festival for a god, so there are almost three holidays every month. Their culture is different from any culture in the world and I appreciate it. Men and women do not mix. To greet someone from the opposite sex, men can shake hands, but never should try to hug women in public!
I looked strange to most of the locals there. My blackness drew attention and people asked many things based on assumptions: “Are you African? Or wait, are you from Jamaica? Perhaps from South Africa?”
“No, I am actually from Togo.”
It was not much of my surprise that nobody knew where Togo was. Nevertheless, they were all curious to learn, so they asked me to explain.
The craziest request they had was to take selfies—like I was a superstar, even though I told them I was not— but they insisted to snap a photo right there on the street, while eating at restaurants, or wandering around at malls or markets. I even got used to it and started to enjoy it too.
Some of my colleagues even used to touch my hair to see how it felt, as I cleaned it differently. As most of them studied IT at school, I guess they had not been focusing much on geography. Therefore, I was often asked to teach them everything I knew about Africa. Burst some misconceptions, I might add, such as Africa was not a country, but indeed a diverse continent with more than 50 amazing countries!
But there was a lot to be learned too.
I visited Hindu temples and witnessed amazing wedding ceremonies, which I learned were an important event for not just friends and family, but the whole community and neighbourhood. So they share a lot of their joy. I have met some African interns from different regions of Africa too. So my internship not only enhanced my Indian cultural awareness, but I learned about other cultures and habits from my continent too. Things I had not known before.
Working at TCS, a top 3 global IT company, was challenging for me as I did not graduate from the field of IT or anything similar. I had skills in need to them in speaking two international languages fluently (French is the official language in Togo, and I learned English). They often joked: “How did you get to work in an IT company?” But also were curious by asking: “What will you do after the internship?” So to help me professionally with the job, TCS provided a 4 weeklong training course on IT and security, which I completed.
I became a Language specialist, supporting clients in IT. Working in a service desk project team looks sometimes like working in an emergency hospital. As things change suddenly in the field, and the tasks are diverse, the position made me more flexible. I needed to learn new things every day to update my knowledge as well, so it required me to be more patient and proactive.
The company is huge, with many employees, teams, processes, rules, leaders and organizations inside it. Apart from Indians, I was also working together with other interns coming from countries like Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Netherlands, Spain, Kenya, Namibia and Indonesia. We had a lot of fun with the project team during our team building days, and even in our free time.
Working on a crazy shift timetable, as our project was running 24/7, we were supporting Europe and North America. The time zones were different, therefore I had to work from 4 pm to 2 am, working sometimes on weekends as well.
I quickly learned to plan extra activities flexibly. I started going to the gym, doing Yoga, reading English books from the company library… which all were a new experience for me.
Every time I could, I planned short trips to visit numerous places across the giant country as India is. Sometimes I used my long weekends to get further.
At one point, I could travel to New Delhi, Mumbai, Pondicherry and Goa where Indian culture looks even more different than what I got familiar with living in Bangalore—India truly is a country of millions of cultures and religions.
I can clearly state from my heart, that going for an internship was one of the best things that happened to me. It changed my perception of life and shaped me into a better person, and an even better leader, which I thought I’d already mastered as an MCP.
Besides that, I had developed my professional and personal skills and network too. Now I know how to work in a multicultural environment and how to survive far from home. How to report to different leaders and how to be accountable for my responsibilities.
Now I had mastered how to plan differently and be more focused according to the priorities and the ever-changing environment I faced. How to handle change is part of my daily life as sometimes a process that I thought to follow might not work to solve one problem, so being a solution-oriented person, I learned to how to handle change.
Today, after India and year-long professional experience, I am a more self-aware and open-minded person who is more adaptable and welcome to differences and cherishes them from the heart.
I can give to my friends in Togo, who look up to me because I was able to live in completely different conditions on my own for 12 months. I learned how to motivate and condition myself to see the opportunities in everything. The experience truly shaped me in my very core.
After it, I could see my professional career differently. I am more comfortable in customer management and IT now, even though originally I had a background in Law.
I will always encourage young people to get out of their comfort zones and if it is needed, travel to the other side of the world to discover their true selves and find new horizons.
Travelling and working in a drastically different culture might be the best thing you can do in your youth that will positively impact your entire life.
© Edem Hlonu 2019 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Created and Edited by Edem@Whatareyoustillwaitingfor.Space
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