Kim Richardson and Beverly Browning on the bus to
the NIH/NCIRD campus in Johannesburg.
After a year’s worth of planning, the time had finally come. Beverly Browning and I were sitting in the Delta Sky Club lounge at the International Terminal of Atlanta Airport. We were waiting to board our non-stop flight to Johannesburg, South Africa, where the following week we would be facilitating a five-day Grant Writing Boot Camp training for public health officials working throughout Africa to address influenza and other respiratory illnesses that can be especially deadly on this particular continent. This was our part in International Grant Professionals Week.
The detailed workshop curriculum we had developed addressed all of the critical topics needed to draft a successful grant proposal, and we were confident that no stone had been left unturned. However, after just a few days on the ground, we quickly realized that when it comes to international grants consulting, it’s not just the stuff you know, but the stuff you don’t know that really needs to be planned for. That being the case, here are our five takeaways from undertaking an international grant consulting project:
1. Don’t Underestimate the Power of Jet Lag
As experienced travelers, we realized early on that we needed to build in extra time on the front end of our trip to overcome the 7-to-9-hour time difference we’d experience once on the ground. We arrived three days early assuming this would give us plenty of time to adjust. However, by day 1 of the training, we were both still waking up at 1:00 a.m. This can be a serious problem when you have a full day of teaching scheduled. Lesson Learned: The greater the time difference from your place of residence, the more time you’ll need to adjust. Take this into account and negotiate as much lead time as possible. For our next international adventure, we will likely arrive in our host country at least one day early for every hour in the time zone differentiation between our destination and our farthest home time zone (in the case of Arizona, that is 9 hours; thus, we would arrive 8 days earlier, if possible).
2. Anticipate That Someone Will Get Sick (Very Sick)
When traveling internationally, there are so many factors that can wreak havoc on even the healthiest of immune systems: extended time in airports and airplanes where exposure to lots of other potentially sick people is high, different food preparation practices, and lax health and sanitation codes to name a few. As frequent travelers, we both packed commonly needed items such as antacids, cold and sinus meds, and multi-vitamins. But despite our efforts, we both got sick, very sick. Thankfully, the staff made pharmacy runs to keep us on our feet. However, the bottle of cold medicine with instructions written in Dutch was just one unexpected hurdle. Lesson Learned: Pack an emergency kit of standard medications as well as remedies for worst-case scenarios. Along the same line, don't be cheap and skip the travel insurance. You may luck out like we did and not need to use it, but you’ll be glad to have it if the need arises.
3. Culture Matters
As with any project, we spent numerous hours planning a detailed curriculum for each training day, with the standard breaks and lunches built in. However, all of those plans quickly went out the window when we realized that in this particular culture, a schedule is more of a suggestion than a hard rule. Without fail, every day our (client-coordinated) transportation was late in departing for the training site, 15-minute breaks doubled, and lunchtime was an extended event. Lesson Learned: However much time you think you’ll need to get your work done, estimate at least 25 percent more. When it comes to work, our American perspective of regimented schedules is just that, an America perspective. Do some research to see how the culture you’ll be working in views scheduling.
4. Contingency Plans Are Your Friend
By the end of the week, we had experienced quite a few hurdles that threw off our plans. Some could have been anticipated (like the limited internet access at the training site), while others were not as easy to foresee (like load shedding, a national policy of randomly cutting power in order to conserve energy and prevent a national blackout). In such circumstances, you’ll quickly find that back-up plans are essential. For example, it’s okay to build your presentations and group activities using technology, but don’t rely on technology to carry them out. Consider the possibility that you might be faced with super slow internet or incompatible technology. Lesson Learned: Expect that you’ll need to be flexible with your planned activities. Don’t make assumptions based on the luxuries of the typical American workplace. Better yet, assume that nothing will work as anticipated and have a back-up plan.
5. Take Time to Smell the Roses
View your international grant consulting opportunity as not just a work goal, but also as a chance to explore the culture and history of the place you’re in (matter of fact, this applies to domestic opportunities as well.). Our early arrival gave us ample time to explore the City of Johannesburg. Similarly, we built in time after the project's end to fly to Cape Town and explore that city as well. Our tours of the township of Soweto, Robben Island, and Table Mountain turned what could have been solely a professional experience into a truly personal one. The extra time we spent together expanded our worldview and deepened our eight-year friendship. Lesson Learned: Playing hard is just as important as working hard (we really already knew this one, but wanted to emphasize the point). The ticket price is usually the same whether the round trip is for 7 days or 14. Always take the extra days to live life to the fullest and celebrate a project well done.
Even after a full and challenging week of training, there were smiles all around on the final day. Charming traditions of gift giving by the project planners and workshop participants were a pleasant surprise. All-around positive feedback was received, and we felt truly blessed to have met such a wonderful group of brilliant and friendly people from 16 different countries. As we boarded the bus for our final trip back to the hotel, we were exhausted to say the least. But would we do it again? Definitely!