Educational travel inevitably expands personal horizons, especially for those teens who are just beginning to venture beyond the confines of their own local community. If done well, it can be a transformational experience resulting in new perspectives on their world and what it means to be a global citizen. By traveling to a new country or even another region within the U.S., experiencing a new culture and customs, teens learn to appreciate that there are different ways of doing things. It helps open their eyes to the wider world, especially in doing everyday things that they take for granted. Educational travel also facilitates personal growth and development. Most teenagers return home not only with radically expanded ideas about other people and cultures, but also with new perspectives on themselves and their own lives.
But all of these benefits of growth and transformation are not automatic. Evidence collected by anthropologists and cross-cultural experts highlights that most people would benefit from some sort of preparation before crossing cultures, as well as intervention on the ground and help unpacking the experience once back in the U.S. Quick exposure to information sessions alone may not be enough to prepare students for the radically different environment they will encounter in their travels. Failure to properly prepare can prevent students from getting the most out of the investment.
If one of the benefits of educational travel is to acquire cross-cultural competency skills, it’s necessary to first understand the differences in order to successfully communicate and collaborate across cultural boundaries. Culture entails differences in perspectives. Culture constitutes the cornerstone of our identities – who we think we are, the ways we make meaning, what is important to us and why. Culture is also a key source of conflict between people.
Good cross-cultural preparation can help students better adapt to new environments by accelerating this process and providing a specific framework for:
- Understanding differences between/among cultures;
- Learning cross-cultural communication dos and don’ts;
- Developing skills to adapt to new environments;
- Working within diverse teams; and
- Providing an overview of the cultural, historical, political and economic fundamentals of a country.
If this sounds like work, it is. Although educational travel is great fun and invariably exciting, to be truly worthwhile it also needs to be academically and intellectually challenging. Therefore, as teens travel and begin to explore another country or region of the U.S. and the relevant cultures, it’s critical they have a resource to help them interpret and process the experience while it’s happening and after they return home. This type of intervention can enhance a teen’s experience manifold if done properly.
Like others who have spent time abroad, teens need help unpacking the experience in order for it to become part of their identity. This doesn’t happen automatically, but there are ways parents can help their teens indirectly by encouraging them to:
- Tell you stories.
- Think through how they’ve changed and what it means on a personal and intellectual level.
- Talk with people who have had similar experiences.
- Stay engaged in the new culture they’ve experienced.
- Document their memories.
- Keep thinking globally and cross-culturally.
- Share their experience at their high school.
No matter where a teen travels, the best programs include someone who can lead the students through a reflection on their experiences and their own cultural and intellectual development throughout the experience. Without such intervention, students are likely to simply “shoebox” their experiences and not let the experience truly become part of their lives. Educational travel is much more than a one-off adventure. It provides an interactive opportunity to learn and grow in ways not possible in the classroom.
Stacie Nevadomski Berdan is an international careers expert and award-winning author of four books, most recently, Raising Global Children (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages 2013). Based on her work in more than 50 countries, she counsels companies on global issues and speaks frequently on college campuses.