Guiding the Next Generation of Women Travelers
My first experience abroad was at the tender and impressionable age of 14, on a group choir trip to Scotland. For those of us who were fortunate enough to travel during our formative years, many of us would agree that those international experiences were especially impactful, and influenced the development of our world views, political opinions, and even tastes in food. (After a year abroad in France, my palette was forever changed!)
These experiences gave me the travel bug, and convinced me to devote my career to making life-changing, international experiences possible for young people.
Their observations were often surface-level, and accompanied by shock, confusion, and/or giggles.
After college, I worked as a tour guide for a group of American high school students in Europe, which, incidentally, is a great way to travel the world for free! (Simply Google “teen tour” and you’ll find a lot of reputable companies.) Although they were cocooned in an air-conditioned American bubble, the “foreignness” of Europe leaked through successfully.
Over the course of five weeks, I watched them make the same observations and ask the same questions I had as a teen. “Their candy bar wrappers look different over here!” “Europe is so OLD! They have so much more history than us.” Their observations were often surface-level, and accompanied by shock, confusion, and/or giggles.
The new skills they acquired tended to be simple: doing their laundry for the first time, learning to use a map. Their conclusions tended to the binary: U.S. vs. U.K, us/them, black and white. They were not immersed, they made no lasting connections with Europeans. But they started to develop a sense of the world around them, and some of them – not all, but some – began to think a little harder about what they knew to be “normal.”
In my current position as an administrator at a women’s college, I’ve been fortunate to travel with female undergraduate students all over the world. Although just a few years separate them from high school, a lot of development happens in that time, and their experience of traveling in a foreign country is subsequently different.
I once spent a night in an Italian hospital at the side of an ill teen, and I can assure you I was hardly better equipped than she was to deal with the situation.
The discussions we have are more complex. What does female leadership mean in a rapidly changing China, where the sex ratio at birth is 118 boys for every 100 girls (the highest in the world)? As a young American woman, what are the privileges I enjoy and take for granted?
As the students’ adviser, I am not expected to have all the answers, but I do guide the discussions, and try to find knowledgeable people in-country to shed light on the issues which are important to the students. I give them opportunities for self-reflection, watch for signs of discomfort and culture shock, and encourage them to debrief with each other regularly. Their observations are often insightful. They develop valuable intercultural skills, the conclusions they reach are nuanced. When they return home, they often describe these experiences as life-changing.
Traveling with young people is an incredible opportunity, especially if it’s their first experience abroad. No matter their age, I, the seasoned traveler, have the proud task of guiding a young person’s international experience and making them fall in love with travel just like I did.
It is crucial, however, to take into account a youth’s background and developmental level, and to remember my own first clueless experiences abroad, when I, too, fried my curling iron. I juggle the roles of tour guide, camp counselor, mentor, and friend, and sometimes have to lay down the law. “Young man, we do NOT holler in the Catacombs.” “I said, ‘Closed-toe shoes!’ I don’t care how cute your sandals are. Go back and change. You’ll thank me later.” (She did.)
Sometimes the challenges test even my boundaries of comfort. I once spent a night in an Italian hospital at the side of an ill teen, and I can assure you I was hardly better equipped than she was to deal with the situation. Often I must be patient and willing to lend out my converters, contact solution, and all the things I remembered to bring but they didn’t even though I told them to.
The best part is the ripple effect. That tip I shared with a student? She shared it with her friend and her cousin.
Homesickness, tears, and drama are inevitable, especially with adolescents and especially in groups. But it’s all worth it to see the difference an international experience can make in a young person’s life. And you know what? Each trip, each student, helps me to grow a little bit too.
I’ve watched the high school students go on to college–one even came to my alma mater, based on our many discussions during long bus rides! I’ve watched my college students graduate, several of them returning to the countries we traveled to in order to work or research, one even winning a Fulbright.
The best part is the ripple effect. That tip I shared with a student? She shared it with her friend and her cousin. That discussion we had? It inspired her to pursue the topic for a thesis.
And when I stay connected with these young people throughout the years, and see their photos from vacations, studying abroad, and other adventures, I know I played a small role in the formation of the next generation of globetrotters, culture investigators, and storytellers. And someday they’ll pay it forward, just like I did.
Top photo by Giuseppe Martino (Creative Commons)