By Isabelle Thompson
There is simply nothing like it. Venturing to a place of unfamiliarity is a learning experience that transcends classroom teachings and encourages us to embrace diversity and challenge personal truths. In this way, by broadening our comfort zones, we are allowing the world to leave its fingerprint on our beliefs. This can shape our way of life and illuminate cultural awareness, leading the way to a more accepting and respectful world.
My worldview has been greatly influenced by my own experiences. After spending time in various countries, I have realized that each experience is united by a sense of national pride and celebration of individuality. Yet despite this individuality, I was able to find similarity and parallels to my own reality.
My cousin Juliet Stuck, who currently lives in South Africa once told me, “you need to come in completely teachable with a humble heart, which can be very challenging for people to do. You have to be a learner. You have to try to understand things culturally that you simply don’t. You need to detach yourself from your own cultural mindset to be able to mentally and emotionally walk in the shoes of someone from a different world than your own.”
Cultural immersion can result in a variety of reactions. It is not uncommon for people to experience culture shock when going from a familiar setting to one unknown.
“Culture shock happens because nothing is normal for the person who just stepped into a different culture,” said Phil Steiner, founder of a service trip program called Be2Live. “The food is different, people look different, the smells are different. If people aren't properly prepared and educated, it can be very difficult. I think it also happens because people are taken out of their comfort zone and this can be difficult.”
There is also something immensely fascinating about experiencing a completely new environment.
“You get to see different cultures and people, and how they live and what they value and the stuff that you take for granted,” said senior Jillian Raiger of her service trip to Guatemala.
Discovering differences in language, economic structure and currency, cultural values, food and art was really interesting to me. When I traveled to Italy, I was constantly picking up words and phrases in order to interact with some of the natives. By the end of the trip, I could order in Italian. My recent trip to Ghana taught me how to say a few greetings in Twi. And since I had been learning to speak Spanish for practically all my life, I have also had some good conversations in Mexico. It is interesting to see the different reactions to these conversations, as my efforts occasionally earned a sympathetic glance of disapproval, but mostly people seemed happy to help teach me new words.
My trip to Ghana showed me what it was like to live in a country with a struggling economy. One American dollar was the equivalent to four Ghanaian cedes, which made my $140 look like a lot more than it was. I also learned that the area in which I was staying relied heavily on the fishing industry, as many individual industries had a history of exploiting children for labor from as young as five. Although there are laws in place to protect against this, government enforcement has proven to be very ineffective, making modern-day slavery a huge concern.
Aside from that, however, Ghana taught me about embracing the moment and introduced me to some amazing food. The first night there I had the spiciest chicken of my life and I tried fufu for the first time (a thick white substance made from the yam). Unexpectedly, I also realized that my daily routine was not that different from those around me. Fundamentally, my life had a variety of similarities that I had not thought about before. It made the world seem so much smaller for some reason. Most importantly, the connections I have made are something I will never forget. I constantly find myself thinking of people back in Ghana, and I know I will remember them forever.
For me, the spark to travel came from a mission trip to Mexico when I was seven. This was my first encounter with an area impacted by widespread poverty. I was staying at an orphanage in Tijuana. I soon learned that despite the tragic backgrounds these children had experienced, they seemed to live pretty normal lives. A complete revelation for a seven year-old who grew up thinking all orphaned kids lived “a hard-knock life.”
In High school, I was compelled to go back and found a trip available through Novato High School in collaboration with Be2Live. This is how I met Phil Steiner, who has constantly encouraged me as well as many other students to travel and find meaning in their experiences.
“I took a number of trips outside the country when I was in high school and these trips had such a profound impact on my life that I wanted to share this experience with as many people and students as possible,” he said.
Jason Searle, one of Novato High’s social studies teachers, has also played a leading role in organizing school trips to Europe.
“Having an opportunity to go places gives you more of a first-hand account of what’s going on,” said Searle. “You can apply the knowledge you learned in class, and actually experiencing it is probably one of the best ways to remember something.”
Although there won’t be a trip this coming summer, Searle is planning to take a group the following year. These school-led trips are not only packed with the arts, culture and sight-seeing, but they can also provide an insightful new perspective of peers and friends as they are undergoing the same experiences and similar feelings.
In the words of senior Elena Golubovich, “traveling the world is something I’ll never get over. I fully intend to travel to every continent before I die. It has helped me decide the kind of path I want to take in life, which won’t keep me in one place for long. As a result of all the places I’ve been to, I’ve become more humble, empathetic and knowledgeable as a human.”
The experience of travel can be indescribable, which is why it should be one of life’s priorities to travel past what is familiar and learn with an open mind. As students, this time of high school to college provides a period free from distraction in which students should be taking advantage of the student discounts and maximizing this opportunity to learn of both the world and self.