Bernell’s Immersive Journey to World Awaits Cultural Tours [Part 3]

2015 Expanded to Youth Summer English Immersion Program

Wanting to earn a commision for planning and booking immersive cultural learning and tour experiences for our English Immersion Program clients, I sought out ways to become a travel advisor. I tried a couple of host agencies, but it was never a fit because their focus was mostly on leisure travel not culturally immersive travel. Therefore, the tools, websites, and booking engines that they provided just were not a fit. As my history has dictated, I realized I would have to start my own tour company to provide culturally immersive experiences as I envisioned. 

While in the works to start my own travel company, Visions International expanded the Executive English Immersion program to include a Youth Summer English Immersion Program. We invited middle and high school students from other countries to live with local host families, attend English classes and experience full language, culture and adventure immersion in Greenville, South Carolina and as far as North Carolina and Georgia. All the features and experiences of the executive immersion program were adapted to the youth program but with academic enrichment, college and career preparation, more play, fun and adventure! 

The program would turn out to be a full-blown adventure and 5-star satisfaction rated program by the students, parents and host families. This was my introduction to play at work and I thought this is how life and work should be! Our last group program we did before the Covid-19 pandemic featured a private, educational boat tour around pristine Lake Jocassee, South Carolina jumping from waterfalls and swimming with both our youth and executive business students! These language and cultural immersion programs were a foreshadowing of the culturally immersive travel experiences we could create with World Awaits Cultural Tours. 

Youth English Immersion students with local youth hosts at Biltmore Estate, Asheville, NC, USA

My Mother, My Business Partner, My Best Friend

The desire to start the travel company would not abate. However, time and energy to start another company was scarce. In a normal mother-daughter conversation, likely a pouting session, I expressed deeply to my mother, “I wanna do this,” I said. “But I can’t do it by myself because I’m so busy with Vision International.”

Mom said, “let’s do it.” I don’t know why I was surprised by her response to join forces. My mother loved to travel. She was a world traveler and even went to the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia in 2000. She had always been my greatest supporter and on the team of ‘let’s get it done!’ for me, my sisters and anyone she served. She joined me in partnership and we legally established World Awaits Cultural Tours. My responsibilities were to manage the legal and financial matters while my mother would be the main travel agent until I could free up because she was planning to retire early the following year when she turned age 62.

My mother began taking all the training and certification courses needed to become a travel advisor. She was, in fact, learning Japanese at my language school. She loved to learn languages and cultures. In her early fifties, she went back to university to get her Bachelor’s Degree. Over those years in school, she had learnt French and Spanish although Japanese became her focus.

With the World Awaits Cultural Tour legally established, we got our first experiences booking international business travel through a Visions International project to remotely manage translation and interpretation projects throughout Japan for a USA-based German company and their Singaporian partner. It was a highly-complex project across four borders and five cultures with no precedence for any of the parties involved and we knocked the ball out of the park for a period of two years managing the intra-country travel and overall project assignments.

When the 2020 Olympics were announced, my mother enthusiastically and resolutely began planning a group cultural tour to Japan with an Olympic experience. She had already started recruiting people for the trip. To our dismay, she never made it to this trip; she only conceived the vision of it. In April 2018, she suddenly and tragically died of anoxic brain injury due to a failed emergency medical situation while on vacation with friends in New Jersey, USA.

2018 Personal Loss of Mother and Business Partner

My mother’s death was both a personal and professional blow. She was 61 years young. She was vivacious, gregarious and full of life. She loved life. She loved people. She loved God. And she served God’s people and the elderly with gladness of heart. I was deeply traumatized by her death because I lost a very essential part of who I am as well as the travel company we endeavored to start together. 

I cherish our last two spontaneous trips that began our travel journey–“Road Trip to Nowhere End up Somewhere (Kentucky 2017)” and Biltmore Estate (Asheville, North Carolina 2018).

My mother’s death happened when I was going through a major transformation both personally and professionally. I was enduring three major losses at once between 2017 and 2018–a divorce, the death of my mother and the decision to exit my language school business of 18 years. 

At that point in my career, I had decided that I was no longer going to own and manage the day-to-day operations of the Visions International Language School. I was in the process of training my team to take over ownership when my mother’s situation happened that led to her untimely death. When we received the dreadful call of her hospitalization, I left my office immediately. Within an hour I was on my way to New Jersey and I did not return to work until five months later.

The unbearable grief would not allow me to be present with the business. I tried to return to the office, but I do not recall doing anything, but crying and forcing myself to be there. I went on a sabbatical to Puerto Rico. I was only supposed to be there for five days. I ended up being there for three weeks! On my last day there, the irony of getting a $500-parking-ticket for accidentally parking in a handicap space turned out to be a very fortuitous mistake. My one week of tourism and rest surprisingly became a life experience of traveling like a local with locals. I was living local life in a friend’s house, working remotely, wandering around solo, happening upon local, non-touristic places, and just exploring. I even had the fortunate opportunity to spend time with my friend’s family in their home and my friend connected me with his friend and founder of We All Care, a non-profit local and international mission organization serving children and families of Puerto Rico, Haiti and other Latin American countries.

Volunteer mission day with We All Care serving at a girl’s home.

Without planning it, God orchestrated this opportunity, refreshing and gift of experiencing my heart’s desire to travel for personal, business and missions and travel like locals with locals.

Travel to Colombia

I had an airline travel credit due to expire within two weeks from my canceled Spring 2018 Japan trip when mommy’s situation happened. While still deeply grieving, on a whim, a friend invited me come visit Colombia. I got my ticket and within a few weeks I was in Colombia for the first time. For four and a half weeks, I had yet another extraordinary experience of traveling like a local with locals and solo travel. I traveled solo and with kind strangers I met along the way, I traveled throughout Medellin, Santa Marta, Capurgana and Guatape. I accepted the challenge to learn Spanish to survive and communicate with locals. Considering I left for Colombia on a whim, I had no idea English-speakers were so scarce in Colombia! This experience sparked my will to acquire Spanish proficiency. 

Guatape, Colombia Trip

Travel to Malawi

As soon as I got back home from Colombia, I was suddenly asked to fill a time-sensitive need to volunteer to teach operations and project management in Malawi for a Christian entrepreneurial organization, African Business Institute (ABI) in four weeks! My passport was off being renewed, I had never taught this course, only lived it through my business, this was a new relationship with ABI and I did not even know where Malawi was! Within 4 weeks, I got my passport expedited, created a full MBA-level course, got all my required and recommended vaccines and did crash research on Malawi. It would be my first trip to Africa. This would also be my first full business as missions trip. Business as missions can be defined as actual, viable, sustainable businesses or business related activities that contribute to God’s overall work of the transformation of people, societies and nations spiritually, economically and socially for the glory of God and His kingdom purposes. Through this mission trip to Malawi, my heart’s desires of traveling for personal, business and ministry were continuing to come to fruition. I was immersed in the local culture, hosted by local colleagues for 2.5 weeks while teaching night classes and doing community mission work and tourism during the day and weekends.

African Business Institute Malawi Class of 2019

Where would you like to go in the world?

Meet Me In…your cultural tour of choice and experience traveling like a local with locals! Check out our upcoming cultural tours.