One of my former classmates posted this week that it has been ten years since we were in Cape Town, South Africa for our international internship program for our Master’s degree at USC.

This internship program was pretty much the deciding factor for me when I was applying to graduate schools. I applied to nine (yes, nine!) Master’s programs and what stood out to me about SC was this program. I only had a chance to really do one internship when I was at Florida due to my track and field obligations, and I thought – well, go big or go home if I wanted to get some real world experience in the field of public relations.

Did I get this? Absolutely, but I got much more than that from this experience. This was probably one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life.

So, I wanted to write about the lessons I have learned from my time in South Africa and how this one experience has helped shape who I am today as a professor.

Jumping in with both feet and hitting the ground running may be hard at first. I had the chance before going to South Africa to see different countries (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Mexico), but never for this space in time. I was very happy I was able to go to South Africa with some great classmates (and we are all still connected and friends today!)

This was pretty much my entire experience working in PR. I was not an intern that just made copies or got coffee. I was pitching the media for our fashion and consumer clients. I was doing research on blogs and outlets we would reach out to about our clients. I had a chance to talk with the fashion director for Prada in Milan… on the second day of my internship. You have to be able to get to work immediately and have the confidence of your work. Is there a learning curve? Absolutely, but you want to take everything in stride and learn from the experiences.

I am forever grateful for the wonderful team at Total Media for allowing me to be part of their team for a few months. Each professional took their time to work with me and made sure not only was I aware of the PR landscape, but the culture as well.

South Africa taught me a lot about taking every opportunity to experience the culture, people, and environment. I not only learned about the PR field, but I got to fully immerse myself in the day to day life in Cape Town. I went to local restaurants and toured the attractions. I went grocery shopping and had to figure out the transportation system for the city. I went out and made sure to embrace what it was like to be in South Africa across the board.

Someone has to go first. Before South Africa, I would sometimes let others lead. After South Africa, I pretty much would be the first person to say – why not?!

I became a true foodie in South Africa. This was SO true. I loved food before, but I really embraced the food culture during my South Africa. I pretty much ate all game meat when I was in the country. I tried out the local dishes and really explored foods I never had before. My fellow classmates designated me somewhat as the foodie “guinea pig” to try out some of cuisine. All of it was such a remarkable education. One of my favorite trips was to go to the Food and Wine show in Cape Town and try out some of the local cuisine for one of our clients at the show.

Now? I pretty much try to experience every aspect of the local cuisine I can get my hands on. I never go to chain restaurants unless it is unique to the country I am in. I try to order food in the language of the country (or at least coffee!).

My blogging skills were emphasized in South Africa tremendously. I had created this blog in 2006 (a year before I went to South Africa), but South Africa was the first time where I was really documenting my travels for my readership. I had a newsletter I would send out and even archived my posts here.

I do look back at some of my posts to reflect what I was writing about, what stories I felt were good to share, and my overall writing style. I still document and share my travels to this day and use social media to share with others what I am seeing first hand and the experiences I am able to takeaway.

Someone has be a leader and  go first. Taking more of a leadership role in situations was another thing that I really got from South Africa. It’s always hard raising your hand first in class or bringing up an idea in a conference room. I did neither of these things before South Africa. However, one incident changed all that for me.

We had a chance to go to Stellenbosch for a day trip (one of my favorites!) and got to go to a cheetah conversation resort. We were told we would be seeing cheetah cubs – which we all thought would be super cute. However, these cubs were a bit larger than any of us thought!

I remember thinking to myself and looking around my classmates – okay, someone has to go first and touch these cubs. They were sleeping and relaxed, and a few of us were nervous. But, I took it upon myself to be the first to go over. It was quite a momentous experience for me because for the first time, I took a lead on a task outside of my own comfort zone.

Since then, I have a hard time almost not being first or taking a leadership role on things! It only takes one thing to really change your perspective on things and bring you confidence to take actions more often.

Put yourself in situations that are not in your comfort zone professionally to grow personally. You will grow up pretty quickly. Absolutely agree with this. Before South Africa, I was pretty cautious and always thinking about always being prepared. I was petrified of cold calling on the phone and to be honest, I would have considered myself to be a pretty shy person. What did I have to do on the first day of my internship? Cold call about 40 journalists on the spot across different media outlets, including some in different languages. This was hard for me to definitely do, but I came back each day to the internship ready to go. By the end of my time in Cape Town, I was very comfortable talking with the media, reaching out to clients, and being able to share my ideas in various situations.

This was one of the main reasons why I wanted to go to South Africa. I had the chance to go to other places for my internship, but I wanted to go to a place where I knew 1) I’d get some real world experience and 2) I wanted to go to a place where I could grow as a person and professional. I was able to accomplish both of these tasks. This continues with me to this very day in looking for professional opportunities and conferences.

I try to share these insights with my students when they are looking at internships and jobs. I let them know – you got to be able to push yourself so you can grow – otherwise, what are we doing here? Yes, it may be challenging, but if it all came easy to us, where is the joy in that?

Sometimes you have to embrace your fears and try something you would have never thought you would ever do. You’ll surprise yourself. This was me. I always considered my older sister Kristin to be the adventurer of the family. She would always go skydiving in Hawaii or even scuba dive with sharks (yikes!). However, I had a chance in South Africa to do a few activities that really, really were intimidating. Case in point – go out on a helicopter ride to Cape Point, the southern most part of Africa.

Did I mention there were no doors on the helicopter? I remember my two classmates Daryl and Jaclyn were going, and I thought to myself “What would Kristin or Dad say if I told them I had a chance to do this, and I didn’t go for it?” That made me realize – you got to embrace your fears and try something knew. This was probably one of the best experiences I had and truly one of my favorites.

Don’t witness life, experience it. The world is a pretty amazing place and it is inviting you to explore it. By the time I was able to leave Cape Town and South Africa, I really would have classified myself as an explorer for sure. Since then, wherever I have tried to go, I try not only to make sure I go and experience the main things about a place, but really try to see what it is like at the local level and beyond.

I have tried to share this with my students as well when it comes to what they need to do in the profession. It is very easy to sit back and watch the world go by. I share my stories about my time in South Africa all the time – but I also share with them what I am doing now that continues on this path, whether it is pictures, posts on social media, or even walking in my office where I now have a map with pins showing where I have been around the world presenting or doing research in.

Ultimately, working and living in South Africa was pretty much one of the best decisions I have ever made. I continue to look back and share the insights, lessons, and experiences I had when I was in Cape Town. You got to invest in yourself to reap the benefits in the long run, which this experience has taught me over these past ten years and I am sure it will continue to stay with me in the future.

Hope you all are having a great day!

Best Wishes,