Getting out of the comfort zone: Daniel’s transformative experience with Next Step Connections in Singapore and Malaysia

Almost everyone will say that work internships are invaluable for gaining practical experience and building professional networks. However, they often fall short of offering the cultural immersion that experiences overseas can offer. Merging the benefits of both can simultaneously foster professional expertise, personal growth, and cultural understanding, which is vital in today’s increasingly interconnected world.

Next Step Connections is a leading provider of experiential learning programs, offering students and young professionals the opportunity to gain practical experience and cultural exposure abroad. They aim to bridge the gap between education and the professional world by facilitating meaningful internships, cultural exchanges, and study tours. They equip participants with the skills, knowledge, and global perspective necessary to thrive in diverse environments and make impactful contributions in their respective fields. Aside from being crucial for personal and professional growth, cultural immersion and diverse life experiences foster empathy, adaptability, and a deeper understanding of different perspectives.

One student who participated in a Next Step Connections program, Daniel Smith, says he was looking to push himself out of his comfort zone for a unique life experience. Embarking on a journey to Singapore and Malaysia, Daniel, a student in the clinical mental health counseling program at Liberty University, saw the trip as more than just an academic accomplishment; it was an opportunity for profound personal and cultural growth.

“I decided to go on the Singapore/Malaysia trip just to really … step outside my comfort zone,” Daniel shares. 

To prepare for the journey, Daniel and the other students could count on Next Step Connections regional tour facilitator Vincent to support them along the way. “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 was just a wonderful tour guide, went above and beyond, made things happen, and just really made the experience wonderful,” says Daniel.

One of the standout aspects of the trip for Daniel was the remarkable cultural diversity of Singapore and Malaysia. He was particularly struck by how these diverse communities coexist harmoniously. “Not only diverse and people not really melting together but holding their own culture and living in harmony with one another, I thought was a very interesting thing,” he notes.

Singapore is a multicultural hub where approximately 74% of the population is Chinese, 13% is Malay, 9% is Indian, and the remaining 4% includes various other ethnicities. The city-state is also religiously diverse, with Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, and Hinduism being the major religions practiced. Malaysia, on the other hand, has a population that is about 69% Malay, 23% Chinese, and 7% Indian, with Islam being the dominant religion, followed by Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism. These stats illustrate the rich range of cultures and religions in both countries, making them ideal destinations for anyone seeking to understand and appreciate cultural diversity.

“I think the big takeaway from this [trip] as far as it’s going to help with my career is just really learning about the different cultures,” Daniel says. “I saw a lot of wonderful cultural landmarks, from many different Buddhist temples to Hindu temples. I actually made a trip to see a cathedral there,” he recalls.

Coming from a faith-based university, Daniel realized through his experiences in Malaysia and Singapore that religious diversity doesn’t need to drive people apart. He found that a common thread across different cultures is the core human need for belonging and love and that people have more in common than they realize. “At the heart of it all, people just need to feel that they belong, that they’re loved. You know, there’s some core human fundamental needs that go above and beyond their religion,” he says.

On the practical front, the journey also gave Daniel valuable insights into counseling practices across different cultural contexts. That included “getting to see the counselors from different faiths, how they interact with their own cultures,” he recalls. This exposure to different counseling approaches, including visits to a halfway house and a Christian Counseling Center in Malaysia, was particularly memorable for him. “Getting to see the Christian Counseling Center in Malaysia and the wonderful work that’s going on there was very inspirational,” he says.

“I got to see so much. The beauty of Singapore was just phenomenal,” Daniel says. “Just being able to be embedded in another country with three doctors from Liberty and being able to hear from them and talk to them about different therapeutic modalities – it’s just been very rewarding. I’m sad that it ended so soon.”

As for personal growth, Daniel shares that an experience with illness during his trip taught him about his resilience and the importance of community support and compassion – universal values that transcend cultural boundaries. “The top things I learned from the trip would probably be that and then also knowing how I could overcome,” he says. “I did come down with a little illness but everyone just kind of rallied around me. I got medicine, and I was able to get to the pharmacy, and I was able to recover from that. People were really concerned about how I was doing; that really touched my heart.”

The trip also allowed Daniel to appreciate the beauty of daily life in the communities he visited. “I was amazed at how everybody uses the mass public transit system, how orderly that was, and how people seem to be very kind to one another. There is a lot of respect for the elderly,” he explains.

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.”

“At Next Step Connections, we believe in the power of real-world experiences. By immersing students in different cultures, we help them develop not just professionally but also personally,” says Next Step Connections founder Jérôme Le Carrou. “Our goal is to create opportunities where they can learn, grow, and connect with the world around them in meaningful ways.”

Daniel found his journey to Singapore and Malaysia a richly rewarding experience filled with cultural insights and opportunities for personal growth. His realizations will undoubtedly inform his future career in counseling, having given him a deeper understanding of the universal aspects of the human experience. For students considering a trip of their own, his experiences offer a compelling case for stepping out of your comfort zone and embracing the unknown. 

“I just want to say thank you so much for this opportunity, and I look forward to maybe a trip down the road,” Daniel says.

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