Just picture it...You're getting ready to travel with nine of your co-workers to install solar panels in a country that's new to you. You'll be staying with a family that speaks a language you don't know. Eating food that could be completely unfamiliar. What's your first reaction? Excitement? Hesitation?
When it comes to being immersed in a new culture, Brad Gosche, Vice President, Education & Communications with the Columbus Council on World Affairs (CCWA), says preparation is the best tool to combat uncertainty. Brad oversees the Global Fluency Institute in Columbus, which is a training program led by the CCWA. "When you're not prepared to experience a new culture, you are more likely to focus on the negative. For example, you may be less tolerant of even minor things – like low water pressure," he said.
Global fluency training is designed to help professionals live and work in a globally interconnected world. "The Global Fluency Training brings more than just theory to participants. It encourages discussion and cross-cultural simulations to help break down stereotypes and understand what it feels like to be the 'other' in a situation, or someone who grew up in a different place," Brad explained. "Even for those who are well-traveled, there's always an opportunity to come away from a new culture with something you didn't know before."
RENEWABLE ENERGY CORPS TAKES NICARAGUA
In mid-August 2017, a group of 10 employees from the IGS family of companies, known as the Renewable Energy Corps, traveled to Nicaragua for nine days. Prior to departure, the group received training from the CCWA's Global Fluency Institute, which Brad explained was customized to the needs of the experience. "The training was very much focused on cultural immersion – for example, how to be a good guest in your host family's home, explaining the phases of adjustment, and providing specifics about the Nicaraguan culture," he said. The participants started off the training by presenting about Nicaraguan culture to the other team members.
Pauletta Hatchett, Akron territory manager with IGS Energy, praised the training. "It helped us understand our biases and fears in advance. The research project helped us better understand the culture and customs before we left. We all learned a lot," she said.
When the group arrived in Nicaragua, they received safety training from host organization GFID Alternative and were tasked with helping to install 18 solar home systems alongside members of the San Isidro community. Together, they built boxes that included an inverter, battery pack, and a solar panel, installed on the homes to deliver electricity.
Joe Macklin, a commercial solar analyst with IGS Solar and a Renewable Energy Corps member, explained that GFI Alternatives doesn't simply gift the systems to the families. "They ask for 25% payment from the community ($1,000 in total). Each family must pull together $250, which is typically about 10% of their annual income," he said. To raise the money, families often grow produce as a source of income or sell other goods. There is tremendous pride in earning money for the systems, considering that a common commodity – large bunches of bananas – are carried for miles by hand, and may only sell for three cents. Members of the community are also trained to troubleshoot any problems and keep the solar energy systems running well into the future.
While the participants were quick to comment on how "humbling and life-changing" the experience was for them personally, they were even more complimentary about the impact solar energy will likely have in the San Isidro community. "They just have more time in their days," said Sara Vest, billing manager at IGS Energy.