“I was actually contributing to the company in some concrete ways,” explains NEXSTEP alumni, Wren Zegans

At NEXSTEP, we prioritize experiential learning throughout Asia to prepare our younger generation for the future world. Through study abroad programs, internships, study tours, and learning expeditions, we focus on immersion so that students can get the most possible out of their experience and truly feel integrated into the countries and companies that host them. 

Real-world learning experiences can skyrocket careers and help put students on the path to achieving their full potential. In addition, studying and working abroad opens eyes and doors – with a focus on accessibility for all. 

Time and again, students describe these experiential programs as life-changing.

We were lucky to speak with Wren Zegans, a non-binary student (who uses they/them pronouns) and NEXSTEP alumni who recently completed their internship in Thailand at a prominent gaming company. 

Wren’s internship was facilitated in conjunction with their university, specifically with the help of Elin Melchior, one of the two study abroad directors at Champlain College. Wren has gone on to secure a position at the same company they interned with post-internship, and thanks to this connection, they will soon be returning to Thailand as a full-time employee.

“It was a very extensive process to actually get there because this was the first year my school had done the summer internship programs after COVID,” explained Wren when discussing what the journey from intern to employee was like. “Originally I’d applied to go to Japan, but then that didn’t work out, so we ended up having around a month on our end to actually figure out all the visa and travel accommodations.” 

Although the pandemic created roadblocks for their study abroad experience, Wren persevered and was able to turn these into opportunities. This unexpected shift in plans ultimately led to Wren’s new role in Thailand.

“The way I ended up [in my role] was that someone from NEXSTEP knew somebody and so after Japan didn’t work out, I was looking for another country to go to because I still really wanted to travel in Asia and get an internship.” For Wren, another major factor in choosing where to intern abroad was the level of LGBT+ acceptance from their host country. 

Thailand’s reputation as a safe LGBT+ destination helped shape their decision to intern there when Japan did not pan out. “I wasn’t that interested in Seoul, and I couldn’t really go to Singapore,” explained Wren, “so I was interested in Thailand because I think as an LGBT person, I thought the environment there would be more open than in Korea or Singapore – I mean it’s literally illegal to be gay in Singapore … So I was interested in Thailand for that reason.

“I talked to [the company] … and the people there seemed pretty accepting,” recalled Wren, “but I was definitely nervous, mostly just [since] I hadn’t traveled to Asia before, so I didn’t really know what it would be like until I got there.

“[Aaron from NEXSTEP] has been in Thailand for a really long time, so getting to talk with someone who had [experience was helpful]. I felt like he was very frank about things – if he had just been like, ‘Oh, everything will be completely perfect, and nothing will be different from the US,’ – that’s obviously not true. He looked into some things like research-wise, and talked with my company. I felt like he put in a lot of effort to inform me about the actual situation in both positive and some negative ways. But I think, having the mix felt like I was getting very grounded information which helped make me feel like I was going in, in a very informed way.”

When it came to Wren’s experience at prominent gaming company, they explained that becoming immersed not only in their host country but in their host company’s workplace culture really benefited them. 

“For me, I think really what made this internship work out so well was that I felt like I was really working in a professional setting … I felt like I was actually contributing to the company in some concrete ways. While I was there I got to present some documentation that I’ve worked on to the CEO, I was managing a team – stuff like that where I felt like it wasn’t just that I was there to learn (which I was), but I also felt like I was concretely doing actual work with the company. It made the experience more about what I did and a lot more valuable to me.” 

Of course, there can be many challenges when you move to live and work or study somewhere new, no matter how focused you are on your career, or how prepared you feel before you depart. This includes cultural challenges both at work and outside of the workplace. 

When it came to navigating day-to-day challenges, there was definitely an adjustment period. In regards to adjusting to daily life in Thailand, specifically as a non-binary person, Wren explained that navigating the use of they/them pronouns definitely proved difficult. Thankfully, they were able to find a way in which to have people refer to them with gender-affirming language, but it was definitely a point of difference between their home country and the host country’s cultures.

“There’s a lot of cultural foundation [in Thailand] around ladyboys already. The term ladyboy in Thailand, and in a lot of Southeast Asia, isn’t a pejorative, it’s just the descriptive term that they use, but in the US specifically that is considered a pejorative. That’s an example of something where [my] initial reaction to [that term] is like instinctually negative. But I think kind of rewiring that part of my brain [was important], because it’s truly not a pejorative term.I know what the pejorative terms that people use in Thailand are, and that’s just like not one of them. It’s just a very large difference. It’s kind of like how the word in UK English for cigarette is a slur in the US. There’s just some differences that I understand intellectually, but there’s still an inherent jolt.”

Today, Wren has taken up a full-time role, and undergone personal transformations beyond what others might see at first glance. They shared how their internship experience helped bring them greater self-confidence and helped affirm their independence, capability, and self-reliance. 

“I won’t go into too much detail, but I have Obsessive-compulsive disorder. In the past, I’ve struggled a lot with it, especially around traveling. There’s a lot of specific triggers that I have that travel makes a lot worse, so for me being able to go to Thailand and live there successfully and want to go back marked, for me, a big sign of personal growth in terms of being able to deal.”

It helped solidify a lot of the mental growth, and also, I think it kind of helped me prove to myself that I had gotten to a significantly better place. Since I did it towards the end of my college experience, I think it was kind of a good kind of capstone to test myself in a way.”

At NEXSTEP, we are all about getting students out of the classroom and into the world. Wren personified this concept, explaining that they would not have been able to experience everything they experienced, personally as well as professionally, had they not gone and done their internship experience in Thailand. 

Description: University-of-Texas-at-Austin-Students-Completes-Bangkok-Internship-Program

“There’s just something about being in a place that tells you way more about it. Being really immersed in the culture there was a very unique experience. The reason why I want to move back to Bangkok is that I really loved being in Bangkok, but I think I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t actually gone there because on paper Bangkok is super different from anywhere else I live.” This is one of the main reasons why it is so important that students study and work on the ground – they may not know just how well they will fit or how much they will excel in a new environment when they are viewing it from the familiarity of home. Stepping outside their comfort zone can bring a whole wealth of knowledge and experiences.

“A lot of the reasons why it’s different are things that I really like. One thing that I don’t think you could capture at all is being in Bangkok is a whirlwind of activity. There’s always something going on, everywhere, in a way that, like even cities I have been in like New York, that are big, don’t [have]. It has a very unique energy to it, and I think without being there something like that – it’s very ephemeral – is very hard to express. But all the people who are also going on the trip felt similarly to me …”.

The solidarity that those on exchange experiences feel with their peers is palpable, and yet many are at a loss for words to describe what their new environment truly meant to them and just what made it click as a new home. “I couldn’t explain why I liked it,” said Wren of their newly found joy in the whirlwind of Bangkok. However, much of their feeling of belonging and joy in their experience came from the locals in Bangkok and their daily interactions. “A lot of it honestly as well is that people are really friendly in Thailand.”  

Thailand is often referred to as the ‘land of smiles,’ and Wren got to experience the kindness of the Thai people first-hand.

For example, there was someone who I didn’t talk to [at my company] the whole time I was there. She wasn’t even in the same department, she was in marketing, but towards the end of [the internship], she was like, ‘We haven’t talked. Let’s go get lunch.’ It was really nice, and we’ve kept in vague contact; we’re probably gonna hang out when I get back. I felt like people went out of their way to be nice and invite me to things, and that felt really nice for me because when I met that company, I felt immediately accepted as part of things; I wasn’t just plopped in.”

Thanks to their belief that “you get out of it what you put in,” Wren was able to maximize their experience on a personal level and fulfill their goals for the internship.

“I think a big part of it is just letting yourself experience the country that you’re going to. For example, I remember, Aaron said that we were the first students who’d ever gone to Thailand who watched Thai TV shows while we were there. I think stuff like that, even if it seems kind of minor, goes a decent way to understanding things.”

We live in a very globalized world. Nowadays, when people talk about having children or what the next generation is going to be like, there is a lot of emphasis on ensuring that there is cross-border cultural understanding being fostered in the new generation. Experiential learning opportunities are vital for students today as well as in the future. They allow students to encounter first-hand situations and experiences that shift their perspective and force them to consider differing points of view.

“In a world that’s changing as rapidly as ours, having experience adjusting rapidly to a culture very different from your own gives you experience adjusting to slower, over time changes as well. Learning resilience and adaptability is very useful, no matter what the circumstances. I found that very helpful – especially if you’re in America, with its [far-reaching influence in pop culture] – [to break] out of that a little bit. It’s good in a lot of ways for growth because you’ll get exposed to things you wouldn’t otherwise [be exposed to], and I’m sure that’s true, no matter where you are.”

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