“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain
International travel is growing, and changing the students who participate.
Sarah Niles heard it again as she wearily walked through the busy airport through a crowd of parents, siblings and friends bearing homemade signs and balloons welcoming back her equally weary traveling partners.
“It was awesome. It was the best thing I’ve ever done,” said one of Niles’ traveling companions, an excited, teary, tall blonde girl who initially had been her most reluctant traveler.
“I love to hear that,” Niles says. “She and her parents were beaming, and I really believe it was the best thing she’s ever done – and may be one of the best things she’ll ever do.”
Niles, executive director of the Oregon Association of Student Councils, encourages international travel for students in leadership positions across the state. And the students credit her with helping them find and prepare for the best opportunities, and make the most of them
More students are traveling and studying abroad today as it becomes less often a lark for the privileged few, and more often part of the traditional educational experience – from middle school through college. And proponents say its benefits are evident in the heightened maturity and better grades of the students, in their understanding of the world, and often in the work they do on behalf of other cultures.
Research shows the value of students having an experience in a foreign country – whether it’s a year of study in a Chinese school, a month of work in an African village helping establish a clean water system or even a week visiting popular tourist locations in Paris. They will inevitably tell you how much they enjoyed it and others who know them will tell you they’ve changed.
“I believe the most effective way to help students gain new perspectives, overcome adversity, make connections and develop new skills is through experiencing it first hand. What better way than through travel,” says Miles.
“I’ve led student groups to many states across the nation and internationally to Japan and the Dominican Republic – whether its for three days or two weeks, students have always come home with a new appreciation for not only where they come from but where others come from. It’s opened their minds to viewpoints different than their own.”
Ryan Findley was an active high school student leader and was involved in international experiences at a young age. Eventually he became a leader in helping U.S. students work and study in Africa and in helping African student leaders enhance their skills. He is now the global programs manager at the growing African Leadership Academy and speaks broadly to students in this country about involvement in Africa – including at NHS and NASC conferences.
“I think international experience is a game changer for young people. To get outside of their context and see life from another angle – this is the sort of thing that I think should be required learning for any American teenager,” he says “You see the entitlement drop little by little; you see the self-centeredness drop too. Even more impressively, you see empathy kick up quickly.”
Travel abroad grows
There is both anecdotal and statistical data about the growth and value of international study or travel, which dates back at far as Holland in 1190, when school records show students traveled to Oxford University in England for study. It has always been recognized as a valuable experience.
The number of young people studying abroad rose to well over 300,000 in 2014, including college students studying for credit, and the number of programs offering international study has expanded widely.
One of the oldest and largest companies helping schools with international travel, EF Educational Tours, now works with more than 500 schools in 50 countries, and another, American Institute for Foreign Study, which also started in the mid-60’s, says it has sent 1.5 million students abroad and has grown to annually helping about 50,000 students travel to foreign countries and come here.
Colleges in several studies regularly reported that students with international experiences were more likely to graduate (and graduate more quickly), and likely to have a higher GPA.
“Among all groups, at least 80% reported moderate to high growth in independence, cultural sophistication, awareness of international issues, overall maturity, self-confidence, and flexibility/adaptability,” a study at the University of Delaware reported.
One report says five years after graduation the unemployment rate for European students who had been “internationally mobile” was 23 percent lower than for other students, and another in this country reports that 97 percent of college students studying abroad found employment, in a year, nearly double the rate for all students. It offers a variety of other data about benefits of study in foreign countries.
The Obama administration, based on what it says is its value to education and our economy, has been a strong supporter of International Travel with the Department of State, Department of Education and Commerce Department offering programs to support it.
First Lady Michele Obama put it this way last year, citing research supporting international travel for students
“…studying abroad isn’t just an important part of a well-rounded educational experience. It’s also becoming increasingly important for success in the modern global economy. Getting ahead in today’s workplaces isn’t just about the skills you bring from the classroom. It’s also about the experience you have with the world beyond our borders with people, and languages, and cultures that are very different from our own.”
The value to students
It is hard to measure the ways international experiences affect students, but ask a group of them about their trips (after a week of rest) and they’ll generally bubble with enthusiasm.
“Traveling to Europe was such a life-changing experience. Seeing all of the different cultures really opened my eyes.” That’s what recent graduate Jody Trevino told Floresville, TX, High School NHS sponsor Anthony Warzecha, who took a group to Greece and Italy. Warzecha himself called the trip “life changing” for the students. As a history teacher he says it can make his subject “come alive.”
Students traveling abroad and the adults who work with them suggest the experience helps young people understand themselves better, learn to be more resourceful and solve problems, all skills that help in leadership. They can learn another language, learn about art or history in another location and expand their understanding of other cultures and improve their resumes for college or employment.
August Harrison, a senior at Tualatin, OR, High School, says his travel helped him think more broadly
“I learned how big the actual world is, and how similar all teenagers really are, even if they are on the other side of the planet. As teens we get so caught up in our little bubble and don’t realize how big the world really is out there”
Michael Hagan, former president of the Maryland Association of Student Councils, said his international study experience in England with others from throughout the world included formal learning opportunities, but also more personal moments.
“The most important experiences I had were those moments, be they in a structured or unstructured settings, when the universal languages of laughter, compassion, solidarity, and empathy reached across cultural gaps. These remain immeasurably valuable in leadership and, as those things at the heart of leadership always are, in life.”
Others found their work in student leadership paid off.
“My time abroad taught me a lot about myself and my personal qualities. Problem solving was a key component and I can certainly thank my previous leadership training for the way I handled it.” That’s how Malory Turner, a student at Oregon State University, explains the impact of her two trips and its connection to working for four years on her high school student council. “It also gave me the confidence to go above and beyond experiences that I was normally used to and it allowed me to put the communications skills I had learned to use.”
Austin Milne, a student leader in 11th grade in San Diego, said he learned to make decisions for himself during the three weeks he spent in Santiago, Chile through Quest Exchange. “The experience of studying abroad had a huge impact on my independence. I needed to quickly adapt to being able to understand people with a language barrier.”
He says that helped him understand others and, he hopes, might help others understand our culture.
“I believe that studying in another country opens eyes to the expansive variety of the rest of the world. Also, I was able to get other people interested in the culture of my own country and possibly motivated them to study abroad themselves.”
Casey Siddons, an NJHS adviser at Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, MD, has taken students on two international trips and is about to travel on a third. He says even middle school students are changed by the experience, becoming more self reliant and more confident. They are at a point in their lives when they are open to understanding new cultures before they develop preconceived ideas about them.
Value more broadly
Adam White is founder and director of Atlas Workshops, a unique program that takes high school students abroad to study and undertake “international field research and trips that tackle contemporary issues and real world problems”. He says Atlas students “move beyond tourism,” and “engage in real research and produce meaningful work through trip-based projects.”
“Each trip is framed by a question or problem and our goal is to seek answers and craft an idea. Projects might include new software designs, social media campaigns, photo exhibits or business plans. Each trip demands a unique project that has the potential to impact communities near and far.”
Students also return with plans.
Tessa Houser was a junior the NHS at Quaker Valley High School in Leetsdale, PA. when she was a winner in the Global Travel Scholarship Program, which allowed her to spend a summer in Tanzania and form close relationships with her host family, which saw two members contract malaria.
When she returned to the Pittsburgh area, she worked with her NHS chapter to raise more than $1000 for a program called Nothing But Nets, which provides mosquito netting in regions where malaria is a problem. She and the chapter continue to work on the cause.
“Coming back into the United States, I knew I had to do something to try to fix this problem,” she said in a blog.
White and Findley both say they often find that students who travel abroad come back, like Tessa, energized about doing other work to support other countries, and often through their leadership groups.
White says it can cause students to “pick-up on the nuance of a global issue”.
“Connecting with people with different backgrounds and experiences as equals and partners, not just guides or aid recipients, can charge students and give them purpose and understanding,” he says. “This perspective can help students relate the root issues to their global impacts. I’ve seen trips like this shape the way a student sees the world … and major issues facing it.”
Five reasons to take students abroad
- A different world. They get real-life experience speaking in a different language and understanding a different culture, which broadens their way of thinking about this country and other lands for a lifetime. They can see art and history and culture first hand. Things they see in pictures or hear about in the classroom come to life. They make emories they will never forget.
- Handling stuff. They have to manage a budget, get their laundry done, use public transportation, and keep their stuff organized. It’s like a summer camp experience – but with so much more opportunity They will have to make decisions about how much they rest, what they eat, where they go.
- Friends and contacts and…themselves. They’ll become very close with the students and adults with whom they are traveling – and will make connections in the countries they visit. It all is valuable experience socio-emotionally, and the contacts may pay off later in other ways. Students often report they “got to know” themselves, which often means how they relate to others.
- The resume. While it doesn’t guarantee admission to an Ivy League school, an international experience looks good on the resume for colleges and future employers. It apparently helps the GPA and interest in school.
- Giving back.There are a lot of opportunities to help in the communities students visit through a variety of programs, and ways that the experience abroad can be brought back to fuel a service project at home or for another country from home.
Some places to start — carefully
There are A LOT of places offering international travel opportunities for young people – and just as many places rating them. Here are a few sites to check out.
(Obviously, advisers and families must be careful when choosing an organization to work with, looking at their history and talking to others who have used their service.)
– Federal government has some travel abroad tips.
– Princeton Review – summer study programs
– GoOversees has two articles about study and travel
- High school travel programs:
- High school study programs:
– The Globalist, a Seattle-based online publication that offers information about international connections, has this article with tips and lists: http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2013/04/02/guide-for-high-school-study-abroad/11862