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Advice from Study Abroad Experts: Trusting the Process

By Leslie Gale | Published: July 17, 2018

Concordia Language Villages currently offers three study abroad programs for high school language credit in partnership with Xperitas, a Minnesota-based, not-for-profit organization that specializes in language-immersion study abroad programs for high school students. We asked Leslie Gale, Xperitas Executive Director, for words of advice for students, parents and teachers who are weighing the merits of embarking on a study abroad experience.

A group of Study Abroad students in Costa Rica
American high school students send their greetings
from their study abroad in Costa Rica. 

Going abroad while still in high school can feel overwhelming. Is it better to wait until college?

We know that anxiety and uncertainty are natural responses shared by high school students in our programs. When it comes to our young travelers, a majority report struggling with feelings of isolation, anxiety and/or homesickness while abroad. Thankfully, nearly all of them eventually summon the faith in themselves, and in others, to carry forward with the program. By doing so, they gain not only valuable global competency skills, but also self-confidence, a better understanding of others, and an eagerness for fresh challenges and immersion experiences.

What do you say to parents who are uneasy about sending a child abroad?

Like their children, parents can be extremely anxious during their child’s immersion program. To help offset this, they must place trust in the program, the process and the people behind it. Parents must believe that program leaders will work together to achieve a positive and transformational experience for their child. It’s important to speak directly to program leaders to build this trust from the get-go.

How do you encourage language teachers to embrace the opportunity of leading student groups abroad?

Even the most experienced teachers will tell you that each immersion experience is a growth opportunity, as each trip is unique with its own set of challenges. Not only do teachers encounter many of the same feelings and anxieties as the more inexperienced travelers and their parents, but they must also serve as a stabilizing force, offering support and guidance through any adversity the group faces. Teachers must verify that their program provider has carefully selected in-country vendors and host families to make their programs safe and to meet their educational goals.

Is a host family experience an important ingredient in a study abroad experience?

Host families possess a special blend of open-heartedness, courage and faith that comes from a desire to facilitate intercultural learning. At Xperitas, we do our best to assure that host families and students are a good match through our screening and placement process, but both sides must believe that the product of their cultural exchange will be a net positive with many opportunities for personal discovery and growth through learning about the “other.” Be sure to ask questions about how host families are selected.

How does one become more confident to explore the unknown?

As intercultural learners are introduced to a greater diversity of people and languages and cultures, and positive experiences accumulate, the power dynamic in our relationship with anxiety and doubt is reversed. We find a way to change the part of our brain that says “This is uncomfortable. I don’t know if I can do this,” to “Bring it on.” We become more adept at tackling unfamiliar situations and emotions, armed with the knowledge that we’ve been there before. Fear and doubt are still present, but we no longer let those feelings control us. We control them. Some may call this trait “courage” or “grit” or “audacity.” However one chooses to define it, mastery over these feelings is vital to success on one’s journey toward global citizenship.

What are the ultimate benefits of studying abroad?  

Recently, we spoke to Cara Meyer, a student traveler on a 2016 French immersion program and the recipient of the 2017 Xperitas Global Learners Scholarship. Cara described the transformative power of her cultural immersion experience:

“My experiences traveling abroad in both France and Germany have opened my eyes to what I considered myself capable of doing. Now that I'm in college, I find myself often looking back on specific memories to problem-solve. I can tell myself that if I figured out a bus schedule in a foreign language, or made friends despite cultural differences, surely I can think of a solution to whatever problem I am currently facing. Traveling and living abroad increased both my abilities and confidence in facing unfamiliar situations. This is something I use every day.”

Whether you are a student traveler like Cara, or a parent, host family or group leader (or a combination of those things), you have experienced firsthand the transformative power of an immersion experience. Through these transformations, we begin to understand that success at intercultural learning hinges upon a simple belief: that cultural exchange is a noble endeavor. As we change our relationship with ourselves, we become more acutely aware of our ability to transform others. These transformations in ourselves and others may seem small at first, but they accumulate. Little by little they bring us one step closer to a more peaceful and understanding world, full of interconnected global citizens.

About the Author

A headshot of author Leslie Gale

Leslie Gale has over 25 years of experience in the global education space as a language teacher, as a curriculum designer and in K–12 school operations. She first experienced the life-changing impact of cultural exchange as a college student on a 10-week homestay program in Morelia, Mexico. She currently serves as Executive Director of Xperitas, a nonprofit organization guided by its mission of transforming lives through shared global experience and intercultural learning. Xperitas’ cross-cultural programs embody true language and cultural immersion, inspire personal connections with diverse individuals and communities worldwide and provide transformational experiences for their participants. Leslie sees Xperitas’ mission as an extension of her own passion for bridging the divisions between people through the development of cultural competency and understanding.

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