Student Well-Being Opinion

High School Study Abroad: Three Signs of Student Transformation

By Susannah Martin — August 11, 2016 6 min read
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This summer, U.S. high school students studied abroad in countries across the globe. Dr. Martin, a Senior Program Leader to Berlin, Germany, on behalf of the Council for International Educational Exchange (CIEE) and secondary school German language teacher at the Sacramento Waldorf School in California, shares some of the ways students are transformed by these experiences.

In my experience, high school students who choose to learn a foreign language and study abroad share a radiant, inherent, and tangible interest in other people’s lives and cultures, as well as a desire to connect with them in the most personal and basic of ways, namely through verbal communication and the richness of daily life. By doing so, these teens come out on the proverbial “other side” as changed people, having undergone a very real but almost indescribable transformation.

There are three signs of this transformation that I have learned to recognize:

High school students who have studied abroad “stand taller.”
This is not just a noticeable physical change, but also an internal one. These students acquire an inherent straightening and strengthening of the spine, which can be attributed to a gained self-assurance as well as street and world smarts.

For example, most young people from the United States often have never had the opportunity to see a subway in person let alone navigate one across a huge city with just a tiny map. They perhaps have never ordered alone off of a menu in a different language or figured out a proper tip. And they likely have never been responsible for managing their own money, time, and schedule for school, events, and social life. Students accomplish all of these things, and more, by studying and living abroad, adding to their growth and development.

One of my students, Matthew, says that “Studying abroad has opened my eyes to see that there is a whole world outside of America, with many other languages and cultures, different than the one I’ve grown up with. I grew up pretty sheltered, and while in Berlin I talked to complete strangers in German, made my way home alone from miles away on public transportation, and personally found the best ice cream shops all over the city. I know I can do anything now!”

Another student, Inger, told me that “when I returned to the states I had numerous people tell me that I looked a lot taller. I don’t know if this was the hearty German food or just a boost in self-confidence and independence that improved my posture. Whatever the reason, I definitely gained confidence and independence from my trip to Berlin because I know and feel that I have significantly grown up and have changed....Although I was only gone a month it was somehow simultaneously the longest, shortest, best, and most life-changing month of my life.

However, not all of study abroad is beautiful. It’s difficult to be so far from home for any extended length of time. There are sometimes painful images that never leave our consciousness. Certain areas, even in wealthy countries, have begging children or transients. In Europe, as well as other parts of the world, there are newly erected refugee camps—sights not just foreign but even frightening to a previously sheltered young American.

Attempting to process and to reckon with what has been seen and experienced adds depth as well as maturity to the individual on study abroad, resulting in them “standing taller.” For example, after visiting the former Tempelhof airport, which is now a protected historical building and also home to at least a couple thousand refugees in the middle of cosmopolitan Berlin, student Emily said, “When you leave your comfort zone and dive into the unknown, there is always some fear. Once you acknowledge that, you begin to expect unexpectedness, meeting experiences not with fear, but with a respectful curiosity. You begin to look past the surface and search for the meaning that things like language normally get in the way of, and start to put yourself in their shoes.”

Secondly, students who have studied abroad develop a global perspective about other people and cultures.
Gone is the superficiality of textbook definitions and stereotypes about a nation or a people, and in its place is the desire to explore, discover, and become an integral part of a previously unfamiliar society. Many, if not most, students always talk about ‘when’ they will return to their host country, instead of ‘if.’ The bonds they make with people, be it with new friends or new families, as well as with places, are lifelong and become part of their personality.

Further, the longing to learn, travel, and explore carries over to other countries and cultures as well. Inger adds, “Not only do I want to return to Germany with new language skills, I want to travel elsewhere and see how the cultures compare to my own. On one of our first days in Berlin I remember someone saying I would ‘learn more about my own culture than the one I’m visiting,’ and that is most certainly true. Everywhere I went, I noticed what was different than at home, and now that I’m back I’m acutely aware of the aspects of my culture that make me ‘American’ and not ‘German.’ This study abroad trip was definitely not the last one for me.”

Emily agrees: “After you live in another culture, it becomes part of you. It’s almost as if you were exploring the world and you stumbled across a part of yourself you never knew existed. Suddenly you feel more connected to the country and its people and customs. When you travel abroad, not only do you make friends and memories, but you also absorb pieces of the culture, which you incorporate into your personal life.”

Finally, students who study abroad come to realize that all people are inherently good.
Regardless of where people come from or their cultural, religious, financial, and societal backgrounds, we all want the same positive things from life. Another student, Abdul, certainly attests that studying abroad has helped change the way he views the world for the positive. “Immersing myself in a different culture, in a country four thousand miles from my home has taught me so much. Minor and major cultural differences have helped me realize that each place in the world will have its own wonderful culture. I feel as if learning to adapt to another culture is like flying to Earth for the first time in a spaceship. You are seeing a whole new world filled with interesting beings with their own mannerisms and own ways of life. It can be exciting at times and sometimes scary.”

Matthew tells us that one of the most important things he learned while studying in Berlin is that with people, “good comes first,” and “we make judgements about other people based on limited information. But in my experience studying abroad, it was an idiosyncratic quality of the people to make every human interaction a positive one. Speaking with complete strangers always turned out to be a positive interaction. Getting to know a culture and its people in person is truly the only way, and undoubtedly a better alternative to TV, stereotypes, and social media.”

Inger adds, “Just because we don’t share the same culture and language doesn’t mean we don’t have overlapping morals and the basic kindness of human integrity, something which I’ve now seen can cross all cultures.”

We live in a media- and click-driven world that seems to feast on the extreme and the negative, but students who have been on study abroad experiences cultivate the ability to observe and then to think differently. They have clearer insight based on experience and with this comes a worldly perspective that helps them make discerning decisions and acutely examine what has been presented to them. In short, they have become broad-minded critical thinkers filled with respect, compassion, and love for the world, and this offers all of us hope for the future.

Inger, Emily, Abdul, and Matthew were all participants on CIEE’s High School Summer Abroad program to Berlin, Germany, during the summer of 2016.

Connect with CIEE, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of CIEE.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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