Experiencing cultural immersion for professional growth: Jennifer Hoback’s journey with Next Step Connections

In today’s globalized world, international experience is an invaluable tool. For university students and professionals alike, getting to know diverse perspectives and cultures is key to both their personal and professional growth. Next Step Connections is an organization dedicated to providing transformative learning experiences through curated opportunities abroad. One student from Liberty University (LU), Jennifer Hoback, recently shared more about her own experience participating in a Next Step Connections program, where she visited care centers in Singapore and Malaysia.

Jennifer had a specific goal when she signed up for the journey: to connect with her peers and gain a broader perspective on her field of study.  “As an online student, I was initially interested in participating in a university trip to connect with my peers. I really wanted peer connection and to share the cultural experience with like-minded folks, folks that are going into the same profession as I am,” she explains.

Jennifer approached the experience with an open mind, but she was also guided by insights provided by Vincent, Next Step Connections’ regional tour facilitator. Vincent played a pivotal role in shaping the students’ experiences and ensuring they were prepared for the cultural immersion. “I act as both a guide and coordinator for the study tour. Making sure that the students are well informed of our program for the day, answering any questions that they may have about the local scene, and being the pathfinder are the key things I take care of,” he shares.

“Vincent began sharing cultural perspectives of Singapore and Malaysia as soon as we we left the airport and boarded our bus transporter,” says Jennifer, “It was fascinating to consider the similarities and the differences of the countries and with my home country, the United States of America, I knew I had to keep an open mind and that more would be revealed throughout the trip.”

Upon arriving at the care centers, Jennifer was immediately struck by the warm reception the students received. “Very positive. We were eagerly welcomed,” she recalls. “The center in Singapore was very nice. In both locations, [they were] very hospitable and eager to share their services and also curious about how things are done in the US as well.”

Jennifer and the other students participated in a range of educational and interactive experiences through the program. “In Singapore, we discussed a case study, and then later, we went to a hub where high schoolers from that age range attended, and we cooked for them and also played games and interacted with them,” she recalls. This hands-on approach allowed the students to apply their academic knowledge while also building meaningful connections with local youth. “In Malaysia, we visited a counseling center where we had the opportunity to engage and discuss cultural considerations with the care team’s staff. It was eye-opening,” Jennifer explains.

Singapore is a cultural melting pot where diverse faiths and cultural backgrounds converge within a single population. The city-state is home to a rich tapestry of ethnicities, including Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian communities, each contributing to its unique cultural landscape. Walking through the streets, you’ll pass by temples, mosques, churches, and synagogues, all often located near one another. Singapore’s multicultural essence is also reflected in its festivals, cuisine, and everyday interactions, where people from various backgrounds coexist. 

Jennifer says she particularly enjoyed engaging with the local culture. “We walked a lot and became quite familiar with Singapore’s public transportation system. It was kind of nice to be among the locals in that respect. Walking shoulder to shoulder with them, in their daily grind. Eating was a big cultural connection; we went to the local hawkers in both places, and I think that really showed the local flair and what type of foods people like. There was a lot of shopping, and what I really liked in Singapore was going to Little India and Chinatown,” she says.

Malaysia’s cultural landscape, like Singapore’s, is rich and diverse but has distinct characteristics. The country is predominantly Malay, with significant Chinese and Indian communities adding to its multicultural fabric. While Singapore’s urban environment showcases different faiths and cultural practices side by side, Malaysia’s diversity is shaped by its historical and political context, with different groups often maintaining distinct identities. The two cultural landscapes each contributed in unique ways to the overall experience of the program.

“A difference that particularly surprised me between Singapore and Malaysia, was how we were looked at as tourists,” she recalls. “It was Ramadan when we were in Malaysia, so it just felt a little more out of place there. Whether it’s because people were fasting or the way we were dressed. Even though our attire was not inappropriate, we didn’t have head coverings and stood out. So I feel like that difference just made me more aware that I was an outsider,” she reflects.

Vincent saw the tour leave a remarkable impression on the students. “I feel that the students were struck by the difference in cultures. Many of them commented about it in our daily debrief at the end of each day. I felt that it was a good study tour for them, as they got to enjoy both the cultural and educational aspects. The smiles, tears, and feedback I got during the tour are a way in which I gauge the success of the study tour.”

Vincent also finds working with a wide range of students with different backgrounds to be rewarding. 

“With the regular study tours, it’s usually a younger bunch, and they are more interested in going out on the town,” he notes. “With LU, the focus is more on a holistic approach towards the study tour. I’m always humbled by all the experiences I share with the students, but more so with LU as the church visit is part of their study tour itinerary. Even though I’m not required to work on the weekend, I make it a point to visit church with the group as I also benefit from it,” he explains.

Coming from a faith-based university, Jennifer says the cultural immersion and professional insights she gained from this experience have had a lasting impact. “It really just continues to reiterate differences among different cultures. Even within countries, there are still subcultures, and so to not assume, to go in with an open mind, a learner’s mind, to provide people space to engage and to meet them where they are, instead of forcing my perspective and my US culture,” she shares.

Recent research shows that exposure to different cultures and faith backgrounds has major benefits. For instance, a study by NAFSA found that study-abroad experiences enhance key employability skills valued by employers, including global-mindedness, self-confidence, self-awareness, international knowledge, and improved communication. Plus, people who have studied abroad are often more likely to receive job offers and have higher early-career wages compared to those who haven’t​​. Overall, cultural exposure helps enhance personal development and professional success while contributing to a more inclusive society.

Jennifer also found her interactions with local staff and other volunteers during the program to be inspiring. “I would say they were all very knowledgeable and really deeply connected and passionate about the work that they’re doing. I really got a good glimpse of that in Malaysia, where it seemed like it was such an upward curve to getting established, whether it’s government regulations for counseling or getting the appropriate funding. So with all those different levels of bureaucracy and red tape, the fact that people are still pushing through and paving the way to help people and also to inspire future generations of counselors was really admirable,” she says.

Looking forward, Jennifer’s experience with Next Step Connections was a supportive foundation for her future plans and aspirations. “I currently live in Israel, and I have an internship in the fall; this multicultural perspectivism is really relevant to me,” she says. “I will be returning to the US  next June (2025). I hope that with my multicultural experience living and attending internship in Tel Aviv, as well as visiting other countries, that I can be more empathetic and understanding as a counselor and connect with clients of any culture.”

To other students considering a similar experience abroad, Jennifer says it’s worth it. “I think it was very valuable. Learning about different cultural norms, this can be anywhere from tipping, which side of the street to walk on, how to properly dress, you know, those really basic things that are quite different among different cultures and countries. As an aspiring counselor, it reminded me to be patient, to be aware of my perspectives, and to really hold space for a client as they reveal themselves.”

Jennifer’s journey with Next Step Connections exemplifies the organization’s mission to provide life-changing, on-the-ground learning experiences. Her story is a powerful reminder of the transformative potential of global learning and the importance of approaching every new experience with an open mind and a willingness to learn.

“Our goal is to immerse students in diverse cultural environments, fostering both personal growth and professional competence,” says Next Step Connections founder Jerome Le Carrou. “These experiences not only broaden their global perspective but also equip them with the skills necessary to navigate and thrive in an interconnected world.”

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