“You choose your scary, you choose your hard:” Sara Gonzalez on her internship experience with NEXSTEP

NEXSTEP specializes in experiential, on-the-ground study and internship-abroad programs. Hosting programs throughout Asia, we allow students from all over the world to leave their comfort zones behind and launch their careers in a global environment.

Students can choose from studying abroad, interning, study tour opportunities, and expeditions depending on their interests and future plans. Regardless of how they structure their time abroad, NEXSTEP can guarantee that it will be immersive and life-changing.

Sara Gonzalez, University of Texas at Austin alumna and Account Executive at Dell Technologies, participated in a NEXSTEP program herself. She remembers walking into the study abroad office at her college and asking them, “Where is the farthest place that I could go?” “I remember they pulled a map out and they pointed at Thailand,” she says. So that was that for Sara, naturally optimistic and driven by a desire to move beyond the confines of the US.

On leaving the US, Sara shares, “I’m very curious, and I want to learn as much as I can, especially for my career, my education, and just [to get] more exposure to different cultures. I [wasn’t] knowledgeable in Thai culture or anything in Southeast Asia, so [the experience] was definitely something that I knew was going to be scary, but I was more than ready to face my fears.”

Sara had little hesitation when embarking on her internship abroad experience. It helped that, through NEXSTEP, she was able to engage in a thrilling career opportunity while abroad. “I studied PR and Advertising at UT, and I wanted so badly to intern for a public relations firm. Somehow, someway, NEXSTEP was able to get me an internship at one of the best US-based PR firms in Bangkok, and to this day, I’m still like, ‘Wow, that was awesome that they were able to do that’.”

Aside from cultural immersion and the chance to learn a host of new things, Sara biggest hope for her time with NEXSTEP hinged on the internship experience. Although she had participated in internships prior, she had never had the chance to intern at such a prominent company. She worked at Weber Shandwick, where she was able to work directly with huge clients in the PR industry. “I knew that having that exposure with clients in a different country was going to help me a lot in my career.”

Sara now works at Dell, having completed her master’s degree in PR and worked on a variety of projects with the company as part of the completion of her studies. Although she now works in sales rather than PR, she feels that she uses the PR skills and storytelling training, which she gained partially during her internship in Thailand. For example, how she presents herself online and in meetings and expresses her thoughts. She sees the two industries as being very interconnected.

So, being such a positive experience, was it all smooth sailing? “Oh my gosh, not at all!” exclaims Sara.

“I truly thought it was going to be [smooth sailing], I’m just so optimistic about everything, and I remember from day one, we flew to Tokyo and there the culture shock was like ‘Woah, why is everyone staring?’”

“Me and my friend were shocked. I think we got there around 11pm, it was raining, we didn’t have phone signal, we didn’t have any phones, we got to the wrong hotel. Right away the biggest thing that struck me was the language barrier and us not speaking that language and them not speaking English. I had thought a lot of people would be familiar with English, but I was so, so wrong and it was hard, it was very hard. I did not anticipate that.”

Despite the rough start and bumpy transfer in the dark, rainy Tokyo night, Sara remains sunny about the experience and says she doesn’t regret it for a moment. “There was good and bad, but it was a great experience overall.”

When asked how NEXSTEP supported her during her internship, she immediately chimes in, “Oh, they were so helpful!”

“We met them the day after we all arrived. We met with the different people that were going to be in this program, and they were [very clear that] anything we needed, we could count on them. The communication was very open and if they needed to talk to our school or vice versa [it was easy]—they were very supportive.”

In terms of group dynamics with other interns and program participants, “I think we were all a little bit shocked, I don’t think any of us knew what we were getting ourselves into, but the support was definitely there,” says Sara.

What surprised her most about the NEXSTEP program was “[the] reach that they have,” shares Gonzales. “I think my internship was truly remarkable and I don’t think I had any opportunities like that in the United States. For [NEXSTEP] to be able to get me an internship at a top firm, where I was working with huge customers, brands that everybody knows, helping them with PR and articles and on websites—that exposure itself [was remarkable]. I did not expect it to be that great just because I hadn’t experienced that in the United States.”

Thanks to this, Sara feels that her time in Thailand was particularly enriching on both a professional and personal level. “Professionally, I definitely got very much into accounts and with the company. They were just so welcoming themselves, and as I was the only one there that grew up speaking English, they trusted me a lot with their projects. I got a lot of experience on the PR side.”

“When it comes to a personal level, I would definitely say it just made me stronger and more patient. For the longest time the language barrier was so hard, and little by little, trying to understand words that they would say or for me [to try and] learn some specific language or key words that would help me just navigate on a day-to-day basis [I made headway]. It was so frustrating not to be able to understand anyone nor to tell them what I needed, but I think that that patience and adaptability [that it brought]… at the end of the day, being able to adapt to and move across countries, to adapt to a new culture, to adapt to a new language, to everything new, was huge for me.”

Sara is adamant that she would never have been able to experience these lessons in a classroom. “I think you have to be exposed to it all in-person, I don’t think any of it you would ever get in a classroom, I think, for example, being on a subway trying to find your way to some part of the city you’ve never been to, is the only way you’re going to learn, definitely not [in the confines of a classroom].”

“Even to this day—I’ve been working at Dell in corporate America for almost five years now—every time I have the opportunity to speak about my experiences and the development that I did, I always bring up [the NEXSTEP program]. My fun fact is that ‘I lived in Thailand for a couple months,’ because it’s so unique. Being able to tell that story of exposure and learning, adapting, is so, so critical especially for when you graduate college and companies and recruiters and masters of other colleges look at what you’ve experienced. [They’re looking for] those skills that you get from studying abroad.”

In terms of advice, she’d share with someone considering the program, “It’s scary. And it is hard and you choose your scary, you choose your hard but at the end of the day, looking back at it, I wish I would have embraced it more. It was a great program, and I recommend it for anyone. These are opportunities that you don’t get anymore. UT has a great relationship with NEXSTEP and it’s important to take advantage of that because when will you be able to do [something like NEXSTEP] again? I would [always] say, ‘Take the risk;’ it is definitely worth it.”

In the future, Sara would love to return to Thailand. She’s kept in touch with the firm she interned at, and now that the pandemic is calming down and travel is returning to a relative normal, she would love to bring her friends and family to visit. 

“I definitely want to go back,” she says, “I think Thailand is a great place to be.”

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