At age 17, I encountered one of the most stressful problems in all my years of schooling. My teachers never taught me how to deal with this. I was left clueless. "This seems impossible," I said to myself. To make matters worse, all of the other students seemed unfazed while I had no idea what to do.
What was the problem that I faced?
Well...more on that in just a minute.
Before heading into high school, students in my school district were given the opportunity to enroll in foreign language courses. Fortunately, my high school was one where every student was encouraged to pursue competency in at least one foreign language. Administrators and teachers shared in the belief that upon graduation day, their students should be well equipped to excel in an increasingly globalized society.
French culture piqued my curiosity. The challenge of mastering an unfamiliar subject area persuaded me to select French as my language of study for the next four years. After performing well in my first three years of coursework, my instructor advised several of us to apply for a statewide study abroad program. Accepted students would spend an entire summer living in the home country of their language of study under the care of a pre-approved host family.
This leads me back to my problem from earlier...
After acceptance into the program, I realized that one of the conditions of participation was to only speak French for the duration of the trip. That meant absolutely no English for an entire eight weeks! But...I grew up with English as my only language and my French studies were limited to homework assignments and weekly class time.
Thus, my dilemma: I understood some key French fundamentals, but could I really survive on such limited vocabulary and experience?
Challenges akin to the one above are disguised opportunities for character development. I did not always have this approach, but it was my time spent as a child traveling with my family across the United States that encouraged me to take on this challenge and move forward with the program.
Even though I spent my first days in France wishing I could go back home, by summer’s end I was initiating and maintaining regular conversations with my host family and fellow classmates...in French. Talk about progress!
I was amazed at how this uncomfortable situation on foreign soil actually spurred incredible growth for me as a student. I returned to the States with:
- proficient French language skills,
- a richer understanding of French culture, and
- a changed mindset towards problem-solving.
After my time in France, I went on to travel to seven countries across Europe and Asia throughout my high school and college years. Encountering different cultures, languages, and traditions equipped me to work cohesively with people from all walks of life. My world travels diversified my contributions in the classroom; I became a more culturally-aware, critically thinking, and adaptable student who was better prepared for life’s journey ahead.
- Cultural Awareness - Congestion takes on a different meaning in India. At ⅓ the size of the United States, it is home to nearly 18% of the world’s population. Traveling the streets and surrounding areas of Old Delhi, I came face-to-face with the unfortunate reality of the dire poverty that exists across the globe. This realization was a humbling reminder of the many heart-wrenching issues facing our world. Academically, I became less consumed in my personal success and more invested in how my education might benefit my community at large.
- Critical Thinking - In the Na Ngoi, Sakon Nakhon Province of northeastern Thailand, my colleagues and I worked alongside local villagers on a sustainable global development project. Our team’s diverse backgrounds and fields of study sparked enriching discussions on community, nutrition, architecture, marketing, and product engineering. The rigors of this initiative challenged me to solve problems under significant time and financial constraints. Here, I also learned the art of synthesizing a group’s ideas into a singular course of action.
- Adaptability - While studying abroad in Europe, I found myself stranded in Chamonix, France after a communication mishap with traveling friends. Without phone service or a map for directions, I was forced to find my way in this very uncomfortable situation. Relative familiarity with France and the French language helped me to eventually reunite with my cohorts. Experiences like this translated into improved performance under pressure in the classroom. As I learned how to better adapt in new environments, I gained an eagerness to take on even more challenges in my academics.
Traveling abroad at a young age taught me that learning is a lifelong journey. One of the most invaluable lessons is to know that I am forever a student. Whilst I spend very little time in a classroom now, the lessons from traveling abroad continue pouring into every area of my life. In fact, I will venture to say that it has indeed changed my approach to each and every day.
And that is why I am WellTraveled.
Educators/Parents/Administrators: Share this blog post or your own travel abroad experience with your students and children. Invite them to brainstorm opportunities to pursue that will challenge them in a new way. Afterward, pose the question: What can they bring back to share with their classmates?
Stay Educated. Stay Empowered. Stay WellTraveled.