What is your favorite travel memory?
Although not an inspiring travel story, it is a funny one. The third time I visited Madrid when I was 17 was with a childhood friend, who had a distant cousin living there who we had planned to stay with. We arrived at his building, rang, and his wife opened the door for us with a surprised look on her face - she said her husband didn't mention anything regarding our visit. We talked to her for a while and then proceeded to attack their fridge after a 10 hour bus ride from Lisbon. After making a considerable dent on their food supplies her husband arrived, and to our surprise (and theirs!) we were on the wrong floor, eating the neighbor's food. All the while my friend's cousin was waiting for us in the apartment above us, worried sick we hadn't arrived yet! We all had a good laugh and before we left Madrid we went grocery shopping and stocked the neighbor's food pantry.
What do you believe to be the biggest factor in being a successful company?
The team as a whole contributes to the success of a company. There are so many factors involved in order for the program to run smoothly - beginning in Austin and continuing to the destination country - and it is impossible unless everyone does their share, communicates, collaborates, and when needed, helps one another out. There are so many things that can happen during the program, that only a team that works closely together can provide the best program experience possible, ensuring that all potential problems are dealt with appropriately. Having a prepared team that knows what they will need, what issues they might come across, and what they need to know at any given time ensures that everyone is one step ahead and participants will have everything they need to live this experience to the fullest.
How have you changed/grown since working for your current company?
It really can change you if you are a person with a special interest in different languages and cultures. At SOL, we tend to have closer contact with students than other companies related to education or tourism, which can lack personal contact, be more automated, and are often cold at times. You get to know so many different people and although most come from the US, they have such a rich and diverse background; be it from different regions of the US, which often varies greatly from state to state, to Asian, Latin American, or Middle Eastern backgrounds. With each new group you're provided with the opportunity to learn new things, few jobs offer this experience and I have learned so much during this time. Knowledge and information changes you profoundly.
What unique qualities does your company possess?
As I mentioned previously, the team itself, with their experience and background in languages and traveling, and also the network of families, companies and people whom we work with in the different destinations set us apart. The fact that the company knows the exact traits they are looking for in the staff, the collaborators, the families, and being able to either think ahead and solve problems that eventually might appear at any given time, or in case of something unforeseeable, being able to solve the incident the in best way and as soon as possible so it does not interfere with the student’s experience. Also for me, one of the main pillars are the families, because the students get to go where no traveler can go, into a Spanish household. Anyone can get on a plane, buy tickets to see a monument, or eat at a Spanish restaurant. To truly live as a Spaniard, within a family, share their house and lives - that offers an opportunity to really experience life in a different country, in a way, impossible to most. On one hand, students get to see what every one sees, while on the other they get to live something truly unique.
Describe a time when you felt especially proud to be part of your current team.
It might seem trivial at first, but the way a student's look changes after the first or second week. During the first few days you recognize a sense of anxiety and (healthy) fear with the overwhelming experience of being in a new place, new language, and culture, especially when having to move around in a new surroundings. After those first days you see them breaking through their comfort zone, and moving freely throughout the city. When you finish an activity in a new part of the city and they don´t even ask for directions or help, they just go. They loose that initial fear and it is replaced with confidence. In my opinion that is priceless, to be able to feel confident in a new place and truly enjoy it, knowing that you will be able to go wherever you need, and communicate with the locals if needed. This will leave a mark that will remain with them wherever they travel.
What is the best story you've heard from a return student?
Although the students are very young and many things will happen over the course of their lives, I have met two students whom I will not forget, and, without getting into personal details, their story left a mark on me. One decided her major here after feeling lost for a while not knowing what to do with her life, and the other changed it after coming here. The experience they lived here was so powerful that it changed their mindset, allowing them to finally choose a path for their lives, and causing them to change their previous plans. After living this experience - knowing the language, the people, the culture - even though many things might change with time, what they felt here will be with them for a long, long time.