A conversation about study abroad with GT alumna Jenny Sample
The international corporation Caterpillar Inc. spent a day recruiting on Georgia Tech campus last Thursday. A cheerful yellow tractor by the Campanile fountain beckoned students to learn about internship and job opportunities across the globe (Caterpillar now has offices in over 180 countries). By the looks of it, our mascot Buzz the Bee got some good networking done as well.
I had the privilege of sitting down with Caterpillar’s Georgia Tech Campus Coordinator Jennifer Sample, a recent Georgia Tech alumna and fellow world traveler, to learn how her study abroad experiences have influenced her life and career. Jennifer graduated from Georgia Tech with a B.S. in Business Administration and a Minor in French. “I always wanted to do something global,” she said. Although she started off in International Relations, she quickly changed her major to Business Administration. “I admit, I loved all the rules and regulations,” she says. Ultimately, though, it was about being able to help individuals: “Business Administration let me focus on the people side of things.” Committed to working internationally, Jennifer completed a co-op at Delta Airlines and spent a summer in Paris on GT’s LBAT study abroad program.
As Jennifer shared photos from her time in Paris, I was struck by her unique talent for turning complete strangers into lifelong friends. Almost all of her photos are of people she met by accident: crossing paths on a morning jog, standing in line for tickets, waiting for the bus. As an introvert, I am impressed by the sheer act of striking up conversation with a complete stranger, let alone in a foreign language.
What struck me most was that all of these meetings had a moment of lucky connection (“it turned out she lived nearby!” or “it turned out they spoke French!”). They all had that “it turned out” moment. It wasn’t just luck that led Jennifer to find common ground with so many people, but rather a mindset: being attuned to connection and curious about difference.
When we met, Jennifer had just returned from Versailles. One of the couples she’d met in Paris had asked her to be a bridesmaid in their wedding. Indeed, this communicative mindset has led Jennifer to stay in touch with almost everyone she’s met along the way.
Being attuned to connection and curious about difference has also been vital to Jennifer’s success at Caterpillar. She spoke again and again about the importance of meeting people where they are — whether by speaking their language or by taking the time to understand their background and needs. Jennifer described the challenge of having to close down an entire facility for the company. Here, too, she emphasized the need to connect with the employees, so she could help them find new positions. To figure out what they needed, she needed to find common ground.
Her experience abroad ultimately helped spark that connection. “Two of the employees simply preferred speaking French, and one day we just started having a conversation. After that…the trust was just there.” And it helped her build relationships with everyone else at the facility. “You just gain their trust, once they could see that you’re willing to meet them where they are.” And she adds, with some pride, “and we were able to re-employ 99% percent of the employees in the end.”
Study abroad is more than the opportunity to learn a language. It is also an unparalleled training ground in the communicative mindset that has helped Jennifer connect with so many people. Operating in a foreign language forces us to think consciously about good communication: What do we want from this interaction? How do we expect the other to respond? Simple tasks like getting money from the bank, ordering from a restaurant menu, or buying a train ticket become part of a grand obstacle course made up of uphill conversations. To succeed, you need to be attuned to connection (so you know if they understood you) and curious about difference (so you know which questions to ask).
The challenge, as Jennifer described it, is letting the conversation take its course. “At first, when you talk to a French person, it’s really hard. You’re trying imagine the entire conversation in your head.” The real connection happens once you let go of those pre-planned dialogues and let the other person steer with you.
Before Jennifer went back to recruiting, I wanted to get her advice for students on the job search. “Just picture like we’re just having a conversation,” she told me. “You have to be yourself. You can tell when students are not being themselves: they look you in the eye, power-walk straight to you, and start listing their entire resume to you by memorization. And you don’t have even time to introduce yourself.” I couldn’t help thinking of the pre-planned Parisian conversations that Jennifer had described moments earlier. It was certainly a strategy I’d once used in Berlin. Like living abroad, finding a job is about creating a connection. And to create connection, you have to pause and listen: for both common ground and for difference.
Jennifer’s advice? “Just introduce yourself. Hi, my name is Jenny Sample. Firm handshake. How are you doing?”
If her recent trip to Versailles is any indication, that is a powerful beginning.
Georgia Tech Students: Enrollment and application for Summer 2018 LBATs is open. Please visit https://modlangs.gatech.edu/study-abroad for more information. Contact the faculty in your program of interest directly to learn more.