“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” — Mark Twain

More students are traveling and studying abroad these days, as the trend becomes less for the privileged and more often part of the traditional educational experience. Proponents say international travel builds maturity and character in the students who participate, broadens their understanding of the world, and often sculpts the work they do on behalf of other cultures.

Research shows the value of student experience in a foreign country—whether it’s a year of study in China, a month of work in an African village, or even a week visiting popular tourist locations in Paris. Students will inevitably tell you how much they enjoyed it, and those who know them will tell you they’ve changed.

“I believe the most effective way to help students gain new perspectives, overcome adversity, make connections, and develop new skills is through experiencing it firsthand. What better way than through travel?” says Sara Nilles, executive director of the Salem-based Oregon Association of Student Councils, who encourages international travel for her students—and whose students credit her with helping them find and prepare for such opportunities.

“I’ve led student groups to many states across the nation and internationally to Japan and the Dominican Republic. Whether it’s for three days or two weeks, students have always come home with a new appreciation for not only where they come from, but where others come from. It’s opened their minds to viewpoints different than their own,” Nilles says.

Ryan Findley was an active high school student leader and was involved in international experiences at a young age. Eventually, he became a leader in helping U.S. students work and study in Africa, and he’s helped African student leaders enhance their skills. Findley is now the global programs manager at the growing African Leadership Academy—a secondary institution in Africa that helps young people build leadership and entrepreneurial skills through community service. Findley speaks broadly to students in this country, including at NHS/NJHS and NASC LEAD conferences, about involvement in Africa.

“I think international experience is a game changer for young people. To get outside of their context and see life from another angle—this is the sort of thing that I think should be required learning for any American teenager,” Findley says. “You see the entitlement drop little by little; you see the self-centeredness drop too. Even more impressively, you see empathy kick up quickly.”

Travel Abroad Grows

There is both anecdotal and statistical data about the growth and value of international study or travel. The number of young people studying abroad rose to well over 300,000 in 2014, including college students studying for credit, and the number of programs offering international study has expanded widely.

Colleges in several studies regularly report that students with international experiences are more likely to graduate (and graduate more quickly), and are likely to have a higher GPA.

“Among all groups, at least 80 percent reported moderate to high growth in independence, cultural sophistication, awareness of international issues, overall maturity, self-confidence, and flexibility/adaptability,” a study at the University of Delaware reported.

One report says five years after graduation, the unemployment rate for European students who had been “internationally mobile” was 23 percent lower than for other students; another report states that 97 percent of American college students studying abroad found employment in one year—nearly double the rate for all students.

First Lady Michelle Obama put it this way last year, citing research supporting international travel for students: “Studying abroad isn’t just an important part of a well-rounded educational experience. It’s also becoming increasingly important for success in the modern global economy. Getting ahead in today’s workplaces isn’t just about the skills you bring from the classroom. It’s also about the experience you have with the world beyond our borders with people and languages and cultures that are very different from our own.”

The Value to Students

It is hard to measure the ways international experiences affect students, but ask a group of them about their trips (after a week of rest), and they’ll generally bubble with enthusiasm.

“Traveling to Europe was such a life-changing experience. Seeing all of the different cultures really opened my eyes.” That’s what recent graduate Jody Trevino told her NHS adviser Anthony Warzecha at Floresville High School in Floresville, TX, who took a group to Greece and Italy. Warzecha himself called the trip “life changing” for the students. As a history teacher, he says it can make his subject “come alive.”

Students traveling abroad and the adults who work with them suggest the experience helps young people understand themselves better, learn to be more resourceful, and solve problems—all skills that help in leadership. They can learn another language, learn about art or history in another location, and expand their understanding of other cultures. This allows them to improve their résumés for college or employment.

August Harrison, a senior at Tualatin High School in Tualatin, OR, says travel helped him think more broadly. “I learned how big the actual world is, and how similar all teenagers really are, even if they are on the other side of the planet. As teens, we get so caught up in our little bubble and don’t realize how big the world really is out there,” he says.

Michael Hagan, former president of the Maryland Association of Student Councils, says his international study experience in England with others from around the world included formal learning opportunities, as well as more personal moments.

“The most important experiences I had were those moments, whether in a structured or unstructured setting, when the universal languages of laughter, compassion, solidarity, and empathy reached across cultural gaps. These remain immeasurably valuable in leadership and, as those things at the heart of leadership always are, in life,” Hagan says.

Others found their work in student leadership paid off.

“My time abroad taught me a lot about myself and my personal qualities. Problem solving was a key component, and I can certainly thank my previous leadership training for the way I handled it,” says Malory Turner, a student at Oregon State University, who explains the impact of her two trips and how it relates to working for four years on her high school student council. “It also gave me the confidence to go above and beyond experiences that I was normally used to, and it allowed me to put the communications skills I had learned to use.”

Austin Milne, an 11th-grade student leader in San Diego, says he learned to make decisions for himself during the three weeks he spent in Santiago, Chile, through Quest Exchange. “The experience of studying abroad had a huge impact on my independence. I needed to quickly adapt to being able to understand people with a language barrier,” he says. “I believe that studying in another country opens eyes to the expansive variety of the rest of the world. Also, I was able to get other people interested in the culture of my own country and possibly motivated them to study abroad themselves.”

Casey Siddons, an NJHS adviser at Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, MD, has taken students on two international trips, and is about to travel on a third. He says even middle school students are changed by the experience, becoming more self-reliant and more confident. They are at a point in their lives when they are open to understanding new cultures before they develop preconceived ideas about them.

Value More Broadly

Adam White is founder and director of Atlas Workshops, a unique program that takes high school students abroad to study and undertake “international field research and trips that tackle contemporary issues and real-world problems.” He says Atlas students move beyond tourism, and engage in research and produce meaningful work through trip-based projects.

“Each trip is framed by a question or problem, and our goal is to seek answers and craft an idea,” White says. “Projects might include new software designs, social media campaigns, photo exhibits, or business plans. Each trip demands a unique project that has the potential to impact communities near and far.”

Students also return with plans. Tessa Houser was a junior and NHS member at Quaker Valley High School in Leetsdale, PA. When she was a winner in the Global Travel Scholarship Program from the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, which allowed her to spend a summer in Tanzania and form close relationships with her host family, she saw two family members contract malaria. When she returned to the Pittsburgh area, she worked with her NHS chapter to raise more than $1,000 for a program called Nothing But Nets, which provides mosquito netting in regions where malaria is a problem. She and the chapter continue to work on the cause. “Coming back into the United States, I knew I had to do something to try to fix this problem,” she wrote in a blog post.

White and Findley both say they often find that students who travel abroad come back, like Houser, energized about doing other work to support other countries, often through their leadership groups.

“Connecting with people with different backgrounds and experiences as equals and partners, not just guides or aid recipients, can change students and give them purpose and understanding,” White says. “This perspective can help students relate the root issues to their global impacts. I’ve seen trips like this shape the way a student sees the world … and major issues facing it.” —

Jim Paterson is a writer and editor who has covered education for a variety of national publications. He also works as a school counselor in Montgomery County, MD, where he helped found an NJHS chapter. 

Sidebar: Take Off

There are a lot of places offering international travel opportunities for young people. Here are a few sites to check out: