Bernell’s Immersive Journey to World Awaits Cultural Tours [Part I]

Washington D.C. Family vacation. Guess which one I am!

First USA travel experience

When we first arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1987, mommy ran the first three or so traffic lights because she didn’t see the lights on the side posts. The city was so different from rural Greenville, South Carolina. This was our first family road trip sightseeing in major cities. I was absorbing all the sights, sounds, movement, graffiti, more advanced technological systems, transportation systems, and ways of life. I was intrigued–everything was different! We visited family in Washington D.C., New York, Maryland and Connecticut. At the age of eight, I had no idea this formidable experience would continue to be so indelible and I would continue to explore the world with the curiosity of a child. 

Even while I was raised in a struggling middle class, single-mother-headed household, mommy always provided. What was more amazing was that she took us on road trips. I became very intrigued with travel. My responses were usually wow, why, and what! I was curious about the world outside of the USA. As a child, I even thought I wanted to live in Australia because I never heard bad things about Australia on the news!

While the USA is my home country and where I reside, I don’t fully feel the USA is my place. The world is my home. From the moment I first experienced the world outside of the USA, I have tenaciously sought to create opportunities to travel and mutually contribute to our beautiful world.

I am a career entrepreneur. I have never known anything different than entrepreneurship. I have never worked for a corporation nor had a salaried job other than the salary I created for myself in the seventh year of my first company, Visions International LLC. In these early years of entrepreneurship, I did not have the freedom, flexibility or finances to travel the world, so the world came to me through Visions International where I built long-term, deep relationships with clients, friends and partners from around the world. Visions International would become the catalyst of World Awaits Cultural Tours.

This unquenchable thirst to discover the world’s beauty through travel began in my mother’s womb. While my mother was pregnant with me and when I was too young to remember, my sisters told me we went to Tampa, Florida and South of the Border, South Carolina. I recall at a very young age Sunday drives in the nearby mountains, and beach vacations to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I was fortunate to travel outside of our hometown of Greenville, South Carolina.

In these formidable years, I was simply a curious observer of the world around me. I never imagined or realized I would actually travel the world. Unbeknownst to me, an unplanned decision to learn Japanese my last year of high school put me on the trajectory to world cultures and world travel. My high school was the first in the school district to offer Japanese language classes. I was curious about it, but not enough to give up the freedom of less schoolwork my senior year! My mentality was let me get my A in English, the only required class to graduate, and get out of here! I will forever be grateful to Mrs. Issie Wright, my keyboarding teacher at J.L. Mann High School who tired of my apathy and firmly yelled, “Bernell just take the class!” I fell in love with the Japanese language and culture; I made all A’s. My most memorable high school experience learning Japanese was learning the theme song for Chibimaruko-chan, a beloved Japanese children’s animation, and performing it for the school.

1996 High school graduation

1996 University

In 1996, I was accepted into Clemson University in Computer Science. Computers were cutting-edge technology at that time. I was amongst a small group of students on the newspaper team in high school and we had access to Apple computers to produce the newsletter. I was fascinated by computers and my skills to produce a newsletter. I had no idea I would have to study science and math, particularly calculus, to earn a degree in Computer Science. I had just earned a whopping F in calculus my senior year of high school because remember, I did not need it to graduate. I opted to recuse myself from the major Computer Science!

During summer orientation, I capriciously changed my major to Japanese and International Trade without a thought and without a plan. Japanese was not even an approved major of study. However, the advisor assured me by saying, “But by the time you meet all the requirements in four years, it will be approved.” Little did I know this path was preparing me for entrepreneurship—blazing a trail, training myself in vision, risk-taking, and strategic planning or maybe just fortuity.

1999 First Flight to a Heavenly Encounter

Upon my third year of college spring break, I was invited to visit a friend in New Jersey. I left warm, beautiful Spring Break in South Carolina to travel north to cold and snow! This was my first northern winter experience. I thought I had packed accordingly. I didn’t even own a winter coat thick enough to withstand the weather. I had to borrow my friend’s coat! I recall my friend saying let’s drive to New York. Like the southerner I am, I said, “it’s snowing.” He said, “oh, I’m used to this.” And off we went and not in a 4-wheel drive vehicle!

At this point in my life, I was earnestly seeking a relationship with God for the first time ever of my own volition. I came to realize that I was aimlessly wandering just meeting the requirements of life, school and what I had been indoctrinated with by society as the path to success. I was seeking happiness in temporal things. I had heard of Jesus and how great He was and sought to find out for myself. Well, in New Jersey my silent prayers and seeking returned with an answer. I had an irrefutable encounter with God and I responded. From that day, my life changed. I began to change from the inside out. I began to pursue a relationship with God, not a knowledge of Him or a religious cultural practice. I began to pursue wisdom and knowledge not of my own. I began to learn who I am and how to live life with God, His people and His creation. “When I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life, I was given life that I might enjoy all things.” – Anonymous

1999 Fall First International Travel

Considering the Japanese program was new at the university, there were no established study abroad, internship or corporate relationships that I was qualified to apply for. I had to find my own programs outside the university. Non-university affiliated programs were not eligible to transfer or use my state and federal grants and scholarship funds. I was required to pay 100% out of pocket for my study abroad. It was estimated to cost almost $15,000 for one semester of school, travel and living expenses.

I, however, applied for the American Institute for Foreign Study College Division Minority Scholarship (AIFS) worth over $10,000. I became the 1999 recipient thanks to the late Starlett Craig, former Clemson University Academic Program Director in the Division of Undergraduate Studies who also served as an international student advisor. Starlett was a staunch advocate for minority students studying abroad. She wrote extensively on international study and was associated with the Multicultural Professionals in International Education. 

Starlett served on the Diversity Scholarship Committee for the American Institute for Foreign Study. Starlett and I had not encountered each other at Clemson, but when she learned that I was a local student, she arranged to meet me to get to know who I am. From that meeting, Starlet said, “I am going to go to the committee meeting in California and I am going to fight for you to be awarded this scholarship.”

Starlett did just that. I was up against the best and brightest minority college students in the USA whose high school and college resumé, volunteerism and performance outshined mine, but in the words of Starlett Craig, “she is a young black girl from South Carolina desiring to study Japanese in Japan.”

When I received the news that I was the full minority scholarship recipient for 1999, I broke down in tears in the very spot I stood in the university computer lab because by that time I had been fighting with the university office of financial aid to retain some of my scholarship money to no avail. This AIFS scholarship was the only and final option.

In addition to the AIFS scholarship, I had to have an additional $3000 of uncovered school expenses, travel and living expenses. I won the Clemson University Department of Languages Travel Scholarship and the Japan America Association of South Carolina Scholarship. One week before my departure to Japan, my father’s employer gave me a $500 scholarship, and my church and individuals gave me donations. I had ample funds to pay for my study abroad expenses and maintain college living expenses I couldn’t release during the semester abroad.

1999 Fall semester study abroad and homestay in Japan

In the Fall of 1999, I took my first international flight to Japan and my study abroad officially began. It would be the first of many truly local, immersive experiences. My host family did not speak any English. I lived in a small rural town with very few foreigners. I had to commute almost one hour each way to school every day on three modes of transportation including my feet–a new experience!

I was fortunate to have a friendly network of young professional Japanese engineers and Japanese teaching assistants in Japan that I had met during my studies at Clemson University. I had trained them in English in my part-time job at a Japanese-owned language institute in partnership with special engineering programs at Clemson University.

I spent much time with them, traveled with them and they hosted me in their homes. I had local experiences that were not on the tourism radar. Japanese hospitality is very distinct amongst world cultures. I recall meeting a young lady on the flight to Japan who invited me to stay in her home in Tokyo. We kept in touch and she fulfilled the promise of that offer. I was a stranger! She gave me her bed and she slept on what I considered the floor–a very gracious form of hospitality–but it was a typical Japanese futon and manner of sleeping. As we walked the streets of Tokyo, we talked about local happenings and shifts in the way of life amongst immigrants. Often in Japan, even in Tokyo, I was very noticeable and curious to locals as a black American female. I was spotted in a crowd of hundreds of Japanese people chasing and thronging famous comedians at the popular Odaiba shopping center. They were filming onspot. Suddenly, their eyes and the cameras beckoned me to come forth out of the crowd. I appeared on Japanese TV about a month later. One of my Japanese students from Clemson saw me on TV and called back to the states to ask my employer if I was in Japan. We reunited, he hosted me in his home area and we have remained in contact since. We met up at the local izakaya each time I go back to Japan! This was the beginning of my personal journey of “traveling like a local with locals” – the heart of World Awaits Cultural Tours.

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