Cultural Exchange – Where the Traditional Meets the Unique

GeoVisions logo

Today on GoAbroad, we are pleased to share an interview with you between GoAbroad Co-Founder, Troy Peden, and Randy LeGrant of GeoVisions.

Randy LeGrant is Executive Director and Co-Founder of GeoVisions.  GeoVisions is an innovative volunteer, work and teach abroad provider established in 2001 by three leaders from the international education field. GeoVisions’ programs range from the traditional experiential programs abroad to some of the most unique and enticing programs listed on GoAbroad.com.

GeoVisions has several unique international experiences that are hard to categorize.  ConversationCorps is one of those.  Can you put a label on it?

“Cultural Exchange” is the best I can do. 

And with tongue in cheek, “copied.”  Six years ago we were the only ones providing this experience.  Today there must be 15 organizations trying it.  You volunteer 15 – 20 hours a week.  You teach.  So it is volunteer and it’s teach abroad.  A hybrid, certainly.  The outcome of Conversation Corps was Conversation Partner…again, the homestay experience but you leave the home each day to meet with a group of people like baseball players in Italy, the tourist police in Costa Rica, college students in Jordan.  You help them practice their English in a group.  Certainly, cultural exchange is the leading value for all parties.

GeoVisions Teacher in Thailand

GeoVisions Teacher in Thailand

Another type of travel GeoVisions promotes is teaching abroad, including paid teaching opportunities.  What are the advantages to teaching through GeoVisions rather than finding a gig on your own?

I was a teacher for seven years.  And over the 38 years I have been involved in this industry, I have met other teachers who have had horrible experiences when they think they are going into a fantastic overseas teaching job only to find out they are not going to a real school, but a corporate school and not a true International school.  They have been caught in a signed contract without having visited the school or met the administrators.  Where do they turn without a support team who’s only job is to look out for you?

At GeoVisions, we pre-screen the school and the position and in most cases, we have placed teachers at that school before.

We make sure our teachers are being paid the highest salary possible. 

We provide a formal orientation, starting when we pick you up at the airport.  You will meet other teachers just like you the day you arrive.  We help you with your visa, your formal documents and we make sure your new school is ready to receive you.  In fact, if your placement doesn’t work out, we will move you to another school.  Good luck with finding a gig like that on your own!

Why don’t more Americans Au Pair abroad?  It seems to be a right of passage for many Europeans, do Americans just not know what it’s all about?

I have to agree that Americans are just now finding this program.  They really haven’t found the Gap Year in America either.  We tried the Au Pair program concept in 2010 and we were surprised with how many people (young women AND some brave young men) gave it a shot.

In 2011 this one program grew 700%. 

I say that, and tomorrow you’ll see a few of our competitors giving it a try.  This year we are way ahead of projection on Au Pairs going abroad.  Part of it is certainly that it is new to Americans and we like new things.  Another is that the pay is really good.  When Americans need to have a job and be paid, this is a wonderful alternative because the program includes work and good pay with benefits…and international travel.  Add to that the security of living with a host family, a built-in social network and friendships for life…it’s an amazing opportunity that we think will continue to grow.

The corporate question is, did we cannibalize our volunteer programs?  Only time will tell.  If you can go abroad and volunteer and pay a fee, or you can go abroad and get paid a great salary…what are you going to do in a struggling economy?  We’re still evaluating the wisdom of our decision, because this program is huge for us right now.

GeoVisions also places international students in paid employment in the US.  How does a student get a job at Yellowstone National Park instead of flipping burgers in Des Moines?

Wow!  U.S.A. Work and Travel is mired down now with so many State Department regulations that one has to wonder about the future of this amazing program.  We are allocated thousands of visas by the State Department and each year we use them all up.  But with unemployment still high in the U.S., it is harder and harder to find those Yellowstone jobs vs. the jobs flipping burgers.  There is so much government regulation now with this program.  The government now regulates where students can work, how much they must be paid and even the number of hours they can work.

We have a sales department dedicated only to finding jobs.  Translated, that means developing long-term relationships with employers willing to hire foreign workers and seasonal workers at that.  We talk to employers all over the United States where our staff would like to work.  And we talk and talk, then go visit them.  This is key to offering great jobs that also show the best of America, which we want to do of course.  So when the students choose GeoVisions, they are being introduced to great areas of the United States and interesting jobs.

With the new regs, it is impossible for an international student on this program to come to the U.S. without a job.  So if international students want to come to the U.S. to work during their summer break, they have to have a job before we can provide them with the visa papers.  This means we have to work even harder at finding those interesting jobs in great locations.  They must have a sponsor these days.  And the State Dept. has put a freeze on new sponsors, so that means we really have to comb the U.S. and find those great seasonal jobs with only the best employers.

Randy LeGrant, GeoVisions Executive Director & Co-Founder

Randy LeGrant, GeoVisions Executive Director & Co-Founder

GeoVisions founders have 130 years experience, normally that would take ten founders.  You guys don’t really look that old?

Kevin is 63, I’m 62 and Jim is 58.  Kevin is an avid skier.  I’m working on my 3rd Degree Black Belt in TaeKown-Do and I compete internationally.  Jim , having spent most of his time in Asia, meditates and walks a lot.

We are all very different people, bringing together in one room our passion for international intercultural education.

When you have 130 years of passion in one room, it’s daunting, I will say that.  We know what it was like in 1978 when we all started doing this full time.  All three of us started with AIFS and over time went our own ways.  Kevin and Jim ventured on with World Learning and then CIEE.  I made my way from AIFS to AFS and then World Learning and life eventually brought us back together and we started GeoVisions.

We have seen upturns and downturns.  We have seen technology play a leading role in marketing the experiences.  But at the end of the day, you can only have this longevity in this industry by keeping that passion for international intercultural exchange very strong.  By being true to your word.  By insisting that everything we do…everything…benefit the industry, not just our organization.  If you do it for the passion and for the industry, the benefits will follow.  You can’t have 130 years in one room without it any other way.

You recently blogged about a teacher in Italy who is sick.  An unusual topic for a corporate blog.  How is she doing?  What kind of response did you receive from your community?

She spent 10 days in Intensive Care.  At one point her family was told she had around 18 hours to live.  Just yesterday I received a call from the hospital and she had been removed from Intensive Care.  Still serious, she is recovering.  She’s a very strong 65 years old.  An amazing human being that has captured all of our hearts, mostly those of her students and host family in Italy.

The response to that blog post was amazing.  We received some comments.  Mostly emails of support and some phone calls.  We like to believe that helped, in some odd way.

Our Blog is not the typical “look at all these great GeoVisions’ programs.”  Our Blog is different because we are so different.  Our teacher was given 18 hours to live.  I remember calling our insurance rep and literally having the tears run down my face because of the arrangements we were making to bring her home.  Thinking about how this would impact her host family and the children.  Thoughts of how her students were going to handle this.  How her family here in the U.S. simply would never understand.  I put those feelings to the keyboard…I literally could not contain myself.  And that generated a huge wave of support from industry leaders who had this experience before and understood.  And from the public who took a minute and sent her very positive thoughts.

Our Blog is mostly “up in your grill” type of stuff.  We don’t like our competitors copying what we do.  And we say so.  We don’t like review sites allowing the posting of fake reviews and we think if you have one, your duty to the industry is to verify that the person leaving the review actually participated in the program they are reviewing.  And we Blog a lot about that.  We don’t like it when organizations market volunteer programs for $120/week, and then when you look at their site they are not including the application fee, insurance and other costs.  We think they should be called out.  And we do that.  It’s very odd.  When we blog about one of our programs, the read rate is good.  When we blog about a controversial subject like online reviews, our read rate is off the charts.  It is obvious our readers want to know where we stand and what we stand for.

GeoVisions, Local Bedouin Girl

Local Bedouin Girl

2011 Was a very challenging year for international volunteer organizations with most organizations reporting lower numbers. How will GeoVisions survive this economy?  Have you adjusted any programs or modified your delivery?

Here is something that will make your eyebrows go up.  Our numbers were up in 2011. In fact, we ended 2011 up 22% over 2010. 

And so we came to 2012 having been one of the few who beat the odds and 2012 was going to be an amazing year.  Right?  Wrong, wrong, wrong.  2012 is not being kind to us right now.  How many business owners will be that honest with you?  For us, 2011 was an amazing time for growth.  We added infrastructure to provide great customer care.  We hired.  We supported our business and supported our incredible volunteers and teachers.  So why wouldn’t we have thought we got through the worst of it?

So we are a little surprised with 2012.  I think we are faced with enormous competition.  I see more senders than ever before.  At the same time I see more receivers marketing their projects on their own, turning receivers into competitors in fact.  We see owners posting fake reviews on sites to make them seem better than they really are.  We see owners in one country, setting up 2 or 3 companies in the U.S. and we think that’s dishonest.  But it goes unreported.

GeoVisions will survive this economy by doing what we always do.  Innovate.  We have added Au Pair sending.  We have decided to focus on only one aspect of volunteer abroad and that is medical.  We have the most amazing medical projects out there.  And in two months you will see Pharmacy projects, since no one else is serving this aspect of medical volunteering.  In researching pharmacy projects, did you know there are mobile pharmacies in Africa on camels?  These will be life-changing projects that no one else is doing.

Recently, we added the most exciting Conversation Partner program we have ever had.  Go to Italy, live in an apartment or with a host family and coach baseball.  But you must tutor the players in English.  You must have an impressive baseball resume, because you’ll be a coach.  But you’ll also be a tutor.  We need 2 each month, 12 months out of the year.  That is so exciting.

The future looks incredible. 

It is what gets me out of bed each day, feeling better now than I did 20 years ago.   Innovation is a big part of our success.  The passion for what caused me to take my first trip abroad in the 70s and how that impacted my life is as strong today as it was 38 years ago.  And, as long as I’m able, I’ll be here with my partners and we’ll be sitting around a table talking about the good old days and how we survived 2011 and 2012.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One Response to “Cultural Exchange – Where the Traditional Meets the Unique”

  1. ravil
    Sunday, 20 May 2012 at 6:52 #

    i want come to join . im ravil from indonesia 16 years old i love everything about arts and culture in every countries. i hope i can get a exchange student or kind it .