Our students benefit greatly from traveling domestically and abroad, which allows them to see how people in other parts of our country or the world live. Although many commonalities exist across borders and cultures, rarely do our students find that everything is the same. A common theme when traveling with students: How can we help our students observe and experience differences more objectively, especially when they readily associate “different” with “worse”? Based on numerous trips with students (local, domestic and international; service-learning; outdoor/wilderness pursuits; historical/cultural/curricular), I have arrived at six steps for helping students wrestle with these issues, and this post will focus on the third:

1. Help our students “know their home before knowing the world.”
2. Preview some of the things that students will experience.
3. Challenge students to examine their beliefs and conclusions.
4. Work with students to identify the source of their beliefs and conclusions.
5. Create opportunities for cross-cultural exchange and conversations.
6. Be patient. And ask students to be patient as well.

It certainly helps to be able to anticipate issues that will be salient for travelers, but this is not always possible. Whether addressing some of the different-but-not-worse situations before, during, or after the trip, we should challenge students to examine their beliefs and conclusions. In particular, are students approaching the issue from a position of ethnocentrism, or are they doing so from a perspective of cultural relativism?

Ethnocentrism refers to the tendency to view the world and interpret one’s observations through the lens of one’s own culture; implicit in this is the passing of judgment and the belief that one’s own culture must be superior to others. On the other hand, cultural relativism refers to the practice of examining others’ behaviors and practices in the context of their own culture. With cultural relativism, the goal is to not make comparisons and make better/worse conclusions, but rather, the goal is simply to understand.

Here is one example of ethnocentrism/cultural relativism has surfaced on several trips I’ve taken with students: After spending an hour volunteering at a Romanian elementary school, the students leave the classroom and congregate in the hallway, immediately pulling bottles of Purell out of their bags and cleaning their hands. They not-so-subtly exclaim to each other: “Can you believe how dirty the kids are?” “I don’t understand why no one teaches them to clean themselves.” “Clearly, they don’t care as much about being clean. It’s so gross.” “Yeah, ew. I hope I didn’t catch anything in there.”

As an adult, I have to work hard to engage students in these moments, to push them to step outside of themselves (quite the challenge with most adolescents) to view the situation through a different set of eyes. Through gentle questioning, I challenge students to examine the historical and cultural context of what they have experienced and to learn the underlying reasons for it. Depending on the situation, there may also be different values and morals reflected in the experience, and those are worth unpacking, too.

In this case, there is no question that I need to build a bridge to my students. I might lead with “You are right that the children here don’t engage in the same hygiene practices that we do. Why do you think that is?” This question signals to students that I share their observations (but not their sentiments), and it also moves the students to think about the different reasons underlying their experiences. The question opens the doors to a conversation about access to soap, paper towels, and other personal hygiene products (they are expensive, they are hard to find). It opens the doors to a conversation about lack of education when it comes to hygiene. It also allows students to ask their own questions, coming from a place of empathy and a desire to understand, rather than a perspective of judgment and criticism.

We also learn that the school expends a lot of time and resources teaching students about personal hygiene, but that these lessons are often not reinforced at home (for some of the reasons mentioned above). And we learn that many students do take the lessons to heart, which leads to theft of soap and toilet paper from the bathrooms, which students take home because their families cannot afford these things. By the end of the conversation, our students have developed a deeper understanding of the lives of Romanian children, and they also recognize the ways in which their initial reactions betrayed their ethnocentrism. Their awareness is growing, but more gaffes will certainly occur.

Here’s another example to consider: Students balk at our inn’s traditional breakfast, which consists of sliced meats, cheeses, lettuce, and hard-boiled eggs. The students instead demand cereal, toast, and Pop Tarts. In some years, students have purchased their own food at the local supermarket to bring to breakfast, and last year, the students worked hard (but failed) to persuade the trip leaders to take them to Starbucks for breakfast.

There’s no question that students’ experiences with food are multi-layered, and that there is a strong emotional component to students’ discomfort surrounding food when traveling. But our students’ comments about the cuisine smack of ethnocentrism: “”How can they eat this for breakfast?” “I can’t imagine serving anything like this for breakfast at home.” “Breakfast is not supposed to look like this.” And so on.

How would you respond? My sample response appears below in the comments section.