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 fifth:

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.

We all know that students will listen more readily to their peers than they will to us, and we should continue to recognize this phenomenon when traveling. By creating opportunities for students to interact with other people their age, we provide opportunities for our students to learn from the people they want to hear from most. 

During our last trip abroad, my trip co-leader and I worked with our partners in Bulgaria to create several opportunities that would bring together close to twenty students to engage in conversations about school, civic life, and opportunities to effect change in one’s community. First, we chose to invite a group of Bulgarian high school students to join us on a day-long tour of the region we were visiting. The Bulgarian students were able to serve as tour guides, teaching our group about their history, culture, and experiences growing up in a post-Communist country. Second, we organized a half-day conference at which the American and Bulgarian students could continue getting to know each other and discuss issues related to their lives as students and teenagers in their respective countries. In addition, we invited several local leaders to speak to the group about their experiences working in the community.

We had no idea what to expect, given that we had never done anything like this before, but the results more than affirmed for us that we need to make these types of events a part of every trip we lead. The success of these conversations lies in the fact that our students wanted to hear what their peers had to say. It didn’t seem to matter that we had engaged our students in a pre-trip curriculum that involved conducting research, reading literature, watching videos, and making presentations about different aspects of Bulgarian culture. After two hours of conversation in Bulgaria, our students did not want to part ways with their new friends — they wanted more! Students on both sides of the table still had more questions to ask and more stories to share. So we sent them out in mixed groups of Bulgarians and Americans to grab food, shop, and hang out. Hands down, this was the most powerful half-day of learning we could have offered during the ten days we spent abroad.

Our students’ feedback about the trip spoke directly to the value of the cross-cultural exchange that they had participated in. One student wrote, “I enjoyed meeting with the Bulgarian students more than I thought I would, because we had more in common that I had originally imagined. Hearing their opinions on some issues going on in the world, Bulgaria, and the United States was really interesting because even though we’ve grown up on different continents, we still shared some of the same beliefs and ideals.” Most students expressed similar sentiments, and one even suggested that we extend the trip and add a home-stay component to the experience.

One thing that we had hoped to do in the lead-up to our trips, but did not bring to fruition, was to create a similar opportunity for dialogue by using Skype or other video chat platform. The logistics of gathering multiple people in one place at the same time and negotiating a six-hour time difference proved too challenging. However, in looking ahead to future trips, I feel more strongly than ever that we need to make these pre-trip “meetings” happen. Perhaps by using smaller groups of students instead of requiring everyone to be present at once, and offering several different opportunities for people to connect, we will find greater success with this particular endeavor. I can only imagine how much more meaningful the in-person conversations might be if everyone got to know each other ahead of time.

The takeaway here is that if our students travel without the opportunity to authentically interact with the people they meet, we lose a tremendous opportunity for learning and understanding. Moreover, when we create opportunities for students to connect with their peers in other countries, they will engage deeply and offer themselves to the exchange.