International travel can be intimidating at first, but once you have crossed our nation’s borders, your life will be different. I know this not only from my personal experience, but also from students and alumni who eagerly tell stories of their experiences exploring the world. The details always vary, but the pattern is largely the same. Most either had limited or no experience with the world before they embarked on their first global learning experience. The words they use to describe the experience are powerful. Here are a few that have stayed with me:
“It changed the trajectory of my entire life.”
“My whole family was changed by the experience.”
“It changed me as a human being.”
“I learned more about myself thanI ever imagined.”
“It was one of the most important experiences of my life.”
Those of us who have traveled these global roads realize that to be a learner is to be dislodged from what is comfortable. Culture shock is inevitable. There comes a point when we can’t remember why we left the couch in the first place. This experience is accelerated by linguistic isolation, if we don’t know the language well; spatial disorientation, as is the case in visiting any new place; and uncertainty about customs, expected behaviors and interpersonal interactions. The amazing thing is that we become learning sponges. All our senses and interpretive frameworks are at maximum, and we learn at a rate we can’t imagine. It’s pure magic.
Getting it wrong is perhaps the most important aspect of developing skills as global citizens. The skills of patience with delays, comfort in almost any setting and contentment in managing expectations are wonderful side benefits. We also learn very practical things like planning ahead, packing lightly and using kind words with others who are trying to help. Eventually, pattern recognition emerges as the skills of international travel, cultural adaptation and global learning become transferrable from one setting to another.
These are all important skills, but what we value most is what we learn about ourselves. We can be stretched more than we realize in challenging circumstances—and remain composed and focused. We can learn to embrace others who are different and set aside stereotypes. We can discover, as one student put it, “Routine is not my forte.”
This fall, I gave an assignment to our first-year students during orientation: Have a valid passport by Christmas. For some, this may be just another assignment; for others, this may be the single most important gift they give themselves. What about you? Perhaps it’s time to extend this assignment to the entire Central College community. Get your passport…pack lightly…and let’s go.