Leaving Our Comfort Zones

By Tanner Weigel, Staff Writer

The mission of the Thunderbird School of Global Management is to “educate global leaders who create sustainable prosperity worldwide.” In this spirit, it is of course of little surprise that Thunderbird attracts applicants who not only hail from all parts of the globe, but who also anticipate engaging in careers that are not necessarily limited to any one nation or region. Thunderbirds are comfortable with the challenges of working across cultures and in different languages. And that’s the point: cultivating a global mindset, and learning to work successfully in culturally-unique situations, is challenging. Thunderbird probably wouldn’t need to exist otherwise.

To be sure, there are many who are naturally drawn to the thrill of travel, and work or study abroad. And I think those who are drawn to global affairs and global management have a natural curiosity about the world around them. I share this curiosity, but at the same time have far less of an affinity for adventure and travel than one might expect. I have lived outside of my home country for a total of nearly three years, and every second, while fulfilling, was also difficult in varying degrees. Why put myself through something that was not entirely enjoyable? Because I value the growth that comes when I am outside of my comfort zone.

Santiago, Chile, Courtesy of Tanner Weigel

Leaving home at 19 years old to be a volunteer missionary in Chile was, and is still to this point, one of the most difficult things I have done. I was about as fluent as one could be in Spanish without ever having spent considerable time in a Spanish-speaking country. And yet, arriving in Santiago, I literally could not produce a single utterance when trying to purchase a pass for the subway. Likewise, it took a while to feel confident when calling people on the phone, when asking for something in the local bakery, or in talking to any number of new acquaintances in a given day. Also, my suburban upbringing did not prepare me for all of the noise and bustle of this South American metropolis of well over five million people. I don’t know if was culture shock or just jet lag. But my first couple of weeks were filled with homesickness and sleepless nights. Not to mention that it was freezing in the middle of August (thanks Southern Hemisphere).

Why would I subject myself to this?

With growth comes pain, but also great benefits. In my two years in Chile, I may have been chased by a dog or two, and felt one too many earthquakes, but I also was able to enjoy the majestic scenery of the Andes, eat fresh watermelon daily in the summer months, celebrate independence day with music and dance, speak to survivors of the Pinochet dictatorship and hear their harrowing stories, learn how to eat a completo, and feel the warmth and generosity of the Chilean people. I formed friendships that continue to this day, and I am thankful for the way social media helps to maintain those connections.

Argüelles Neighborhood, Madrid, Courtesy of Tanner Weigel

So Chile was great, but did I really need to travel anymore? Hadn’t I learned what I needed to learn? Apparently not, because after finishing my undergraduate degree, I began an English teaching fellowship in Madrid, Spain. And the cycle continued. Unlike in Chile, I arrived to Spain alone. After some struggle in finding the right train to take me to the city center, I hailed a taxi and finally found my Airbnb, which was in a less-than safe neighborhood, as I came to realize later. But the clock was ticking and I only had a week to find permanent lodging and get my affairs in order for the next year. Rather stressed, I quickly went to buy a SIM card for my phone, open a local bank account, and buy groceries. But when I returned to the Airbnb, the host was gone and I could not for the life of me get the front door to open. I tried for a good twenty minutes, and then just sat there on the steps, dejected. I was eventually able to get in (if I recall, the homeowner was just around the corner), but in those brief moments I was so completely overwhelmed and could not believe I had decided to leave the comfort of my home country for this. I won’t bore you with the stress of actually finding a place to rent for the remainder of the year, but I think the point is fairly clear. Making the transition to living in another country was difficult. I was homesick and had sleepless nights. I missed my friends. And I soon learned that many doors in Spain have “character,” and have to be coerced a little more than I was used to.

Why would I subject myself to this? For the same reasons anyone else would: to immerse myself in a new culture, learn of Spain’s history, explore the diverse landscape of the Iberian peninsula, see world-class art, enjoy time in El Retiro Park, and gorge myself on as many churros as humanly possible. And at the end of my teaching contract, I was genuinely sad to leave those rambunctious middle schoolers. I made wonderful friends and learned that I could indeed accomplish difficult things.

My enrollment at Thunderbird is an extension of my desire to push myself outside of my comfort zone. I believe most students here are willing to face challenges in order to grow. I am humbled and impressed to be surrounded by so many inspiring individuals whose stories make mine pale in comparison. Thunderbird’s campus may have moved, but its vision burns just as brightly. Thunderbirds are preparing themselves to face the challenges of the day, and effect real, positive change in the world.

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