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Career Growth Through Cultural Immersion

by Matt Portillo

On April 25, 2012, about a month before I graduated from college, I got an email that would go on to wreck my career and change my life.

It was an invitation from a former colleague, Laura, to participate in a six-month fellowship with a nonprofit organization in Central America in a communications role. Though the “job” was pretty untraditional, it seemed a lot better than anything I was pursuing in the U.S. at that time. I had minored in Spanish in college, and although I hadn't actively pursued it, I had always been interested in spending time in Latin America and refining my conversation skills. On top of that, my internships up to that point had focused on branding, journalism and content marketing. Like any good Millennial, I was mega-interested in developing those skills in an advocacy role. My turn to step up and change the world! Right?

"Don't you think it'd be good to make some money at a real job first?" my concerned mother asked me. Ha! Not a chance, I thought. I’ve got plenty of time to make money. And, when you get an opportunity like this, who needs a career anyway? Pursue your passion and the money will follow. Isn't that how it works?

I spent that summer and fall working as a contract copywriter at an Austin ad agency and having fun with all the friends with whom I’d just graduated. 2013 finally arrived, and with it, the beginning of my time in Guatemala.

Within the first few months, reality started getting a grip on me. I didn’t know it then, but the process would last nearly three years.

Getting used to things like speaking Spanish all the time, hanging clothes to dry, cramming into crowded buses, and trudging along narrow sidewalks during each rainy afternoon — that was the easy part.

I had to learn how to work within rickety management structures and eccentric lines of reporting. Because the organization was so young and so small, I had to deal with ambiguity in goals and processes, and I often had to define goals and processes myself — and I learned that it’s hard to maintain focus on all of that when you’re a tiny team with constantly evolving circumstances and priorities.

On top of that, I went to Guatemala knowing nearly nothing about the professional culture there, which was different from my own. The formality of business and relationships irked me at first, and I didn't always handle it so well. Looking back, there were some Guatemalan colleagues and friends who graciously persevered with me, teaching me about the culture’s intricacies and helping me to channel my aptitudes toward productive ends. It was a lesson in gratitude.

And humility.

In those three years, I didn’t change the world in any big way. The world changed me. In Guatemala, I didn’t get my big break. I got my second education.

Slowly, I've learned to listen more and talk less. I’m much more culturally empathic, and thus a more effective worker. I've learned to love becoming adaptable, to embrace what's different and uncomfortable. Uncomfortable is good. Uncomfortable indicates growth.

I finally returned from Guatemala at the end of 2015, and I’m in the process of figuring out what’s next. Meanwhile, my friends who followed my mom’s advice and got real jobs are living in big cities, enjoying nice salaries, and moving upward in their careers. I won’t lie: part of me pines for what they have — things like stability, clout, and complete freedom to do whatever they want. But I think maybe they too might wish for what I have — personal growth, seized learning opportunities, cross-cultural training, and an experience that just can’t be bought.

Moving forward, I hope to leverage all these things in a new full-time role. The trick is finding a company that values a globalized perspective and takes a chance on hiring people like me who sacrificed “traditional” career paths in order to obtain it. We’re an odd bunch. We think outside the box too much for our own good. We question things. We don’t always fit in.

But that’s what makes a place like NONC so special. I began taking on freelance projects for NONC at the end of my time in Guatemala, before even returning home, and it has been a pleasure from day one. I know that my perspective is appreciated. Our wonderful principal, Lisa, shares the belief that travel and cultural exposure aren’t just luxuries — they’re highly valuable in a globalizing world. It’s evident both in the way that her company does business and in the kind of clients it helps. Over the next few decades, social consciousness will become more and more important, and the companies like NONC that stay on the leading edge of this trend are the ones that will thrive.

It’s always easy to play the worrier and fret about what opportunities will or won’t be available to me. But I’m grateful to be, for now, at NONC, where mentoring, affirmation, and global perspective form the company’s ethos. The future is exciting — for all of us.