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 fourth:

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.

When students react negatively to a new experience, it is too easy to attribute part (or perhaps all) of a student’s negative reaction to a lack of familiarity or understanding (although these do play some role). My experience has taught me that when we take the time to probe and identify more clearly the source of our students’ beliefs and conclusions about differences, we often discover that more subtle reasons exist to help explain the students’ reactions. And by helping students identify the true source of their negative reactions, they will be able to both understand themselves and more fully engage with the experience of traveling. Moreover, we all emerge better off by having the additional insight and tending to our students’ underlying socioemotional needs.

Consider the following:

Is the student homesick? Many students have never traveled without their family before. Perhaps some have simply never traveled (or flown on a plane, or left the country or even their state), with or without their families. Some students will quickly displace their discomfort, sadness, and anxiety onto the unfamiliar because that is easier than wrestling with the challenges that come with greater independence.

How does the student deal with change? Some students have a hard time with change. The daily routine of wake up – get ready for school – go to school – attend play rehearsal – go home – do homework – sleep can often great comfort, and nothing disrupts routine like travel does. After a sleepless flight, you learn that the airline lost your luggage. You look at the clock and it’s eight hours ahead of the time at home. It’s winter at home, but summer here. And you can’t communicate with anyone. If you have trouble with change, travel can be your worst nightmare.

What is most salient in the student’s life right now? During my first few trips, I was surprised to observe how fixated students were on the way people in our destination countries drive. Yes, we spend a lot of time traveling from place to place in vehicles, and yes, in some places, we drive on the left side of the road or the steering wheel is on the right side of the car, but these oddities don’t tell the full story. Most of our high school students are in the process of learning to drive, or they have just earned their drivers’ licenses after months of drivers’ ed and driving hours. As new drivers, they’re still nervous on the road, so they pay extra close attention to how other people drive. And if the new rules of the road don’t match up with their understanding of what driving should look like, be prepared for many comments about how dangerous driving conditions are. Never mind the fact that they grew up learning to drive around Boston.

What (important) events took place right before leaving for the trip? Did the student hand in a ten-page history term paper? Did the student get into a fight with her best friend / significant other / sibling / parent? Are college acceptances (or rejections) arriving during the time away? Whereas some students compartmentalize well and switch into travel mode, leaving home at home, other students must deal with lingering emotions and events that they cannot resolve until the trip is over and they are back at home.

What other questions might you ask in order to better understand why your student is having trouble adjusting and reacting negatively to differences at your travel destination?