Next Step Connections aims to help students take their next step into their desired career path, by connecting them to internship opportunities and other immersive journeys throughout Asia Pacific (APAC). These experiential learning opportunities are vital stepping stones that nurture students to develop their skills and employability to reach their potential.
Through virtual and in-person placements, Next Step Connections help students step out of their comfort zone allowing for exponential growth. Helping over 5,000 students since 2008, Next Step Connections continues to work with their academic partners and employers to inspire and empower the next generation.
Jérôme Le Carrou, the founder of Next Step Connections, began his journey much like the students he is dedicated to helping today. Hailing from France, Jérôme took an internship in Shanghai for four months before his graduate studies, which led him to an entrepreneurial employment opportunity at the Foreign Culture Club in Shanghai. Creating Next Step Connections in 2008, “a platform for students to enhance and transform through experiential learning programs” that is committed to helping students succeed, and 15 years later, the success of Next Step Connections and their participants continues.
In September of this year, Jérôme embarked on an exciting yet challenging expedition in Nepal to the Himalayas (Mera Peak). This journey was demanding both mentally and physically, but also an incredible opportunity for personal and spiritual growth as “you bear the consequences of your decision immediately.” Unlike other decisions where you can feel the consequences minutes, days, or even weeks later, being in an environment where you are almost entirely digitally disconnected is transformative.
The content team at Next Step Connections spoke with Jerome a week after his intense journey to gain insight into the motivation behind embarking on such a trip, the challenges (mentally, emotionally, and physically), the learnings, and the insights.
Here is what he had to say.
“At just 30, my energy levels were depleted from working too much and lacking balance,” begins Jerome, “During this burnout I could barely do a lap in a swimming pool without being tired or out of breath, and 10 years later, I’m on a 6,200 meter mountain.”
Through that journey of burnout, which is now officially recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO), and having gained a certain level of awareness Jérôme has since been able to get to know how his mind and body function. Jérôme has been on a growth journey and he continues to inspire students at Next Step Connections to take on opportunities that will help them grow.
The Mera Peak expedition entailed 19 days of mountain treks and glacier climbing. Beginning in Kathmandu and trekking to a new place each day, from Ningsow to Chhatara Khola to Kothe, and finally turning back to the start point from Lukla. The expedition allowed Jérôme to turn inwards, tuning into the mind and body as he shifted his perspective, becoming a small entity amongst vast elements of nature.
While wading through sunshine, rain, and snow up Mera Peak, Jérôme stayed in lodges where you can purchase wifi for several hours. “I contacted some friends and family to let them know I was ok, but, when doing so, I had hundreds of things coming in, messages, emails.” As Jerome was also intently monitoring his heart rate due to the altitude and the lack of oxygen in his location, the influx of notifications made his heart rate jump.
“This goes to show that we may not be aware of the impact technology can have on our bodies. We can limit ourselves from connecting with the natural environment around us, which can slowly lead to burnout as a result of this. I really hope that the younger generations today can understand and continuously remind themselves of the importance of being in nature, and taking in the energy around us to alert our senses and perception that may have been numbed by technology.”
Growth begins outside your comfort zone
“It’s hard to grow without taking any risk. Now the question is how much risk are you willing to take and is that sensible?”
When applying Jerome’s philosophy to students, it can be challenging for them due to the evolution of our society and technology to consciously take a step outside of their comfort zone. Students who take part in Next Step Connections experience this challenge, but once they complete the program and look back on who they were before, many express immense pride in their growth and who they have become. “This experience is one I will never forget and has helped me to grow so much as a person.” says Morgan Misiaszek from St. Lawrence University , US.
Depending on whether a student completes a virtual or in-person internship, they have wielded various skills by the end of it, which they can transfer to whatever challenges they go on to face. This is reflected in the student feedback and many testimonials Next Step Connections receives, reassuring them that some students may need a nudge in the right direction.
“Participating in this internship has been a truly transformative experience. It not only equipped me with valuable skills and knowledge but also broadened my horizons. Next Step Connections played an integral role in guiding me through the application process and ensuring that I was well-prepared for this opportunity,” explains Bokang Sephapo from Botho University , Botswana. “The projects I worked on, the mentorship I received, and the global network I became a part of have made this internship an unforgettable journey. I’m grateful for the chance to be part of this program, and I’m excited to see how it will continue to shape my career in the future.”
When speaking further on discomfort, Jerome looks down and recalls a terrifying day of his expedition when the terrain was slippery. He slipped and found himself hanging off the edge of a mountain hill with the weight of his bag pulling him further off the mountainside. Under such intensive conditions, this incident occurred when he least expected it, on a day when he had to cross 17 waterfalls.
“I was super super uncomfortable there, and just trying to focus on nothing else but the next step that was important to my life.” After making it to the end of such a rigorous day, Jérôme took some time to meditate and breathe to accept what had happened to him.
“I need to not let it create doubts for the next day because if it does, then I’m done the next morning. It will be just as tough. That’s how I rebuilt my confidence, small step, small step, small step.”
The importance of protecting mental health
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a global focus on mental health to ensure that people who suffer from anxiety, depression, and any other mental health issues can access the tools and help they need. The pandemic had a detrimental impact on students, with around 20% of adolescents around the globe now suffering from mental health conditions. Therefore, it is now more vital than before for people to take the necessary steps to protect their wellbeing.
Throughout the interview, Jérôme expressed the need for striking a balance, in terms of your mental health, learning how to gain mastery over your mind, body, energy and emotions. For students, especially now, living in a world full of uncertainties, being able to turn inwards to develop clarity and awareness in times of external adversity can make a significant difference. Therefore, doing practices such as meditation and breathing for a few minutes a day allows you to remain present and gain clarity about a situation. Whether that be a physical challenge of climbing a mountain or mentally in a work environment, to know the next step, utilize the tools you have.
“Making conscious decisions lead to more effective decisions, leading to better results. Seeing things for the way that they are. Sometimes reality is distorted by an experience that you just had. Images, video or sound” that make an impression on your mind. On that cold summit push night, at 6200m only 200m from the summit, Jérôme consciously decided to turn back as the conditions were no longer aligned for success.
For Jérôme, after enduring 16 days of intense trekking and intensity for a singular moment on a glacier at 6 a.m., he could appreciate nature’s beauty for a few seconds at sunrise, which made pushing himself well beyond his comfort zone worthwhile.
“The journey is the most important part, what you think wasn’t possible becomes achievable because the only limitation we have is the one we put on ourselves.”