George Athanasopoulos, Nathan Snoke, Nina Sharma & Caroline Weirich on their road trip from Riga to Vilnius.

Words I never thought I’d say: I went on a road trip to Lithuania with three Republicans.

Let me back up. My career is varied: I’ve been an institutional fundraiser, a consultant, an event planner, a partnership builder, an entrepreneur and now I run the innovation program at the University of Denver, called Project X-ITE. Enrolling in the Executive MBA program at the Daniels College of Business was easy. Sticking with it—through the lack of time for a social life, adequate sleep or even minimal exercise—has been worth every pound. I was told by Daniels’ dean, several alums and the Director of Enrollment and Marketing Lisa Grassfield, that I would love the EMBA program. Understatement of the century.

The idea of the EMBA international experience is that you pick two countries to visit with your cohort of classmates—one emerging market and one developed market. They also have to be in relatively close proximity to each other in order to maximize the time spent in each. So, being unlike any cohort to come before us, we picked Latvia and Israel. These weren’t obvious choices, but they were ours.

Cohort 70 in the airport, traveling from Riga, Latvia to Tel Aviv, Israel.

Back to my first statement: with a few days to spare between the end of class and the beginning of the international experience, I went on a road trip to Lithuania with three Republicans. For those who know me, this is a bonkers and improbable statement: I am a staunch, outspoken, dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. On the flipside, my fellow adventurers were life-long Republicans, having proudly voted for Trump and holding nearly across-the-board conflicting political views from me. It was weird for all of us. But to find this foursome road-tripping from Riga to Vilnius without prompting is a testament to the power of the Daniels EMBA program.

We arrived in the early winter darkness, underdressed and jetlagged, and went out in search of sustenance. We ordered sausage and fried bread, we had drinks we couldn’t pronounce and we wandered ancient streets in the Baltic cold. Turn by windy turn, the walls came down. By the time we drove back to Riga, we were full of inside jokes, joining in car sing-a-longs and laughing at the absurdity of paying for a speeding ticket at a grocery store. In short, we had become friends. The kind of friends that are singular to long days, late nights and early mornings in foreign countries. We didn’t realize it, but this was yet to come for all of us.

Meeting with Techstars Barclay’s Tel Aviv.
Nina Sharma, Matt Fuller, Michael Saleeb, Jeff Garcia, and Kari McIntyre with Hilla Hill Ovil-Brenner and Franka Godina.

It’s been six weeks since our closing dinner, and it’s still hard to process what we experienced and what we gained along the way. I’ve tried to narrow it down to 10 lessons learned from the EMBA cohort 70 international experience:

  1. A travel-sized tube of toothpaste will last 11 nights. I might have missed a night or two, due to a little extra fun, but the gist is—don’t overpack. You’ll want the space for all the great stuff you’ll buy. Plus no one in Israel will know what you wore in Latvia. #carryon
  2. Abandon all expectations. Latvia was cosmopolitan, polished, refined—and had a palpable tension with Russia. Israel was a living juxtaposition, a clash of history and modernity, rife with tech innovation—everyone we met wanted peace with Palestine. Learn everything you can, but be ready to have your assumptions challenged.
  3. Ask questions. Of everyone, and about everything. Curious about culture? Economics? Politics? Speak up—you’ll learn so much more and gain so much more if you just raise your hand.
  4. Show up. Every day. No matter how tired you are. You’re in this together, and it only works if you all give it everything. You’ll have your up days and down days, but show up and hold up your classmates when they need some support (it might be you one day).
  5. The women of Cohort 70 at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel.
    Wendy Campbell, Melissa Gustafson, Molly Rolek, Kari McIntyre, Nina Sharma, Caroline Weirich, Krista Wickens, and Genessee Finnegan.

    Say yes. To the weird food, to the offer for suggestions, to the optional excursions. Saying yes on this trip will only result in stories you’ll tell your grandkids.

  6. Know when to call it. I volunteered to set up team meetings, take pictures, write a blog and organize the slide show. On our last night, I had a (minor) melt down getting the slideshow to play. It worked out, but I should have asked for help earlier. Thanks to everyone for not holding my “red” against me (you’ll learn your color in the program)!
  7. Dance it out. Long days of learning require a moment to unwind. There is nothing quite like dancing in a foreign country. You don’t know the music, but you’ll have a total blast sweating it out till the wee hours. (If you aren’t a night owl, I have heard that early-bird runs have the same effect, but I wouldn’t know anything about that.)
  8. Talk to your professors. Kerry Plemmons, Amanda Cahal and Scott McLagan were incredible—they were with us every step of the way, yet sat back and let us have the experience we created. Spend time with them—your trip will be so much richer and more valuable if you do.
  9. Sing! It doesn’t matter if you can’t hold a tune; singing will bring your group together. You might find yourself on a bus at night, driving at break-neck speed through the West Bank. If you do, sing extra loud. It may just be the best part of your trip.
  10. It’s all about the cohort. Outside of the many meetings we had with business leaders, dignitaries, and founders, none of us spent much time meeting other locals. That’s okay. The 22 of us were on an immersive experience; we found comfort in each other that was only possible when out of our comfort zones.

Now that we’re back, when someone asks, “How was your trip?” I pause. I’m rarely at a loss for words. My mouth starts to turn up in a half-smile. My eyebrow might raise a little, but only because I’m in on something that can’t be explained. I look off in the distance.

“Transformational,” I reply.