How impactful is study abroad? Very.
This heartfelt endorsement of study abroad popped up on my personal Facebook page. It’s written by Liam Hulse, a Pennsylvania college student.
“Studying abroad and traveling in Europe has been the craziest adventure and there was no getting ready for the amount I would learn and grow along the way.
I wanna thank everyone who I met along the way bc I will be spreading nothing but positivity about all of you when I am back in the states. I have felt like the luckiest kid and its all thanks to my amazing parents who worked harder than words can put for 21 years so I could grow in Europe.
This is for you Mom + Dad I am forever grateful and I hope one day I can give my child this journey bc the world is a bigger place than all of us know. People are all just people and when you meet so many on your own you learn a ton about yourself and the world.”
This wasn’t something Liam wrote for an assignment. He dashed it off in a minute to share his enthusiasm and thank his parents. These are life-changing experiences. The world is big! It’s beautiful out there! People are good!
Why wait until college? Let’s share the good in the world with our kids now when they’re small.
Here are some ideas to experience the world with your kids starting now when they’re young.
Tip #1 Insert yourself into a wildly different culture with a movie, a book or some photographs
Discovering that people live in different ways helps kids find their true selves. Just like they need to try new foods and try new hairstyles, seeing that people live in all kinds of ways helps them see how they want to live.
While they’re still too young to study abroad, try watching a travel movie as recommended by Common Sense Media or Travel Mamas that inspires curiosity about a new place. Or, try reading one of the books illustrated by Ted Lewin whose illustrations nearly transport you to far-flung places. My favorite is the Day of Ahmed’s Secret which gives you the feeling that Cairo is your own neighborhood. My favorite photographer is Steve McCurry whose photos show the true beauty of the world and respect for its people. And you can go to our country boards for kids on Pinterest to see some of the fascinating food, people, sites, and aspects of everyday life out there in the world that are hard to imagine.
Tip #2 Travel locally to a new culture
Being the oddball helps kids develop empathy. Most people spend time with others who are much like themselves and that’s a comfy cocoon for most days of the year. When you study abroad you step out of the bubble and you quickly realize that it’s not easy being the one who doesn’t know the way, doesn’t understand how things are done and even looks different. If you can’t travel, go to a cultural festival like a Dragon Boat Race or an Indian Holi celebration. Try a visit to a Chinatown or a community of recent immigrants.
Tip #3 Research any simple object to find its world connections
Understanding how deeply intertwined we are with the world makes the world seem closer. When you travel or study abroad you see things that are completely new to you and come to realize that good things have a way of finding their way around the world.
Look in your spice cabinet to and find out where those spices are grown. Go to a museum or a botanical garden to see where beautiful things come from. Look at the label in your clothes to see where they were made.
Take the example of the pencil. It may say made in the USA, but it wouldn’t be here without the expertise, raw materials and transportation from across the globe. And, that’s just a pencil. The story from Freakonomics called How Can This Possibly Be True? gives a mind-blowing example of what it takes to bring that pencil to you. Look at any simple object in your house and research what it took to invent the processes, find the raw materials, produce the final product and transport it to you.
Tip #4 Practice talking to people who are not like you
If they speak your language, make some small talk and then ask “ What’s your story?” Or “What do you think?” Without a common language, you can still communicate! You won’t be able to learn quantum physics from someone with hand signals and smiles, but for almost everything else, you’ll get by and it’ll be memorable. If you’re in a restaurant, they know you want to eat. If you’re looking lost, they know you need directions.
When you cross paths with someone who doesn’t speak your language, it’s tempting to try to get away because we find it embarrassing. But, resist the urge and try. Speak slowly (but not more loudly) and say something nice just to get started.
Tip #5 Ask your child to help navigate
If you’re in a new place, you will need to look for signs, follow the GPS, read a map and figure things out. That adrenaline rush when you have no idea how to find your way, what the other person is doing or what to do next is both wonderful and challenging. But you and your kids won’t learn to do hard things unless you do hard things.
Feeling competent comes from overcoming obstacles. And, you’ll quickly realize that it isn’t that hard. When you’re out and about, include your child in the routine issues of travel such as helping you spot a place you’re searching for, leading the way in the airport from check-in to security to your gate, or translating a food label of an unfamiliar food. A day will come, not too far in the future, when they’re traveling alone or venturing out to study abroad and all that experience will come in very handy!
Tip #6 Play the country game
This is a simple guessing game for car rides or waiting somewhere. One person silently chooses a country. Others take turns asking a question that has a yes/no answer and then tries to guess the country. The person who correctly identifies the country wins. You can limit the number of questions to 20 if you prefer. This game usually gets a good conversation going when the person who chose the country doesn’t know the answer to the questions being asked and others offer up what they know.
Tip #7 Foster curiosity and respect for cultures
It doesn’t have to be a social studies lesson. Food is a good place to start. Use a new cuisine as a launching point to ask questions about a new culture. Why are many Chinese dishes already in bite-sized pieces? Why do the Swiss make delicious chocolate? Where are cocoa beans grown?
if you want to bring the world home to play, here’s a guest post I wrote for Kids Travel Books called 15 Best Toys for Easy Summer Armchair Travel. There are some beautiful toys out there that make learning about the world as easy as playing.
I’ll wrap up with another quote from a college student. Her name is Kate Montgomery and she recently returned from trips to Guatemala and Ghana. Here’s what she had to say:
“A few years ago if you had asked me or my family if they could forsee me doing such a thing we all would have said “no”. As a kid, I preferred time at home to anywhere within a 10 minute radius, so Africa was definitely a no-go. However, something in me changed, and thank goodness for it.”
“I know that traveling is not feasible for everyone for a number of reasons, but if fear is what is holding you back, I’m asking you to take a leap of faith. The world would be a much better place if we could blur the lines we draw between people of other cultures.”
An appreciation of cultures is an important life skill both for life in diverse neighborhoods and for many, many jobs. Understanding and respect for others is certainly one of life’s most valuable attributes.
Update: I just found this article called Why More and More Millennials are Choosing to Become Expats by Nikki Vargas, so study abroad isn’t the end of the story at all!