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Thursday, February 19, 2015

The World as Your Classroom: Traveling as a Study Abroad Learner

Research shows that students who go abroad, as compared to ones who stay home, may be inclined to a broader world-view. International understanding and a care for international issues are two general indicators of the students who are more likely to self-select for enrollment in a global education program, but there are a variety of factors that might aide in motivating the less-certain (but curious about giving it a try) study abroad applicant. International travel leads to a greater understanding of the self, and students return with a greater global-mindedness.

Study abroad programs offer students a unique opportunity to grow academically, professionally and personally.

Academically, international students are presented with the opportunity to earn college credits while immersing themselves in an educational system that can be drastically different than what they are accustomed to at home. Some study abroad travelers describe their educational experience as being the “full-time learning” that they expected from higher education. Many students will take on a full class-load while traveling abroad while also learning the culture in which they become a temporary part of. International students have the opportunity to fine-tune their conversational level second language, or pick up a new one altogether. Being surrounded by native speakers forces the learner to be immersed in the language, which usually leads to a higher retention and a greater chance for fluency.

The most commonly observed impacts on students who studied abroad are better foreign language proficiency, more knowledge about the culture, politics, and society of the host country, and altered perceptions of global networking.

Many students who return from a study abroad travel experience report that they found their ideal career path while on their trip, or at least a new direction of interest that will lead them to a fulfilling job after college. With exposure to global issues and international opportunities, professional development is a large part of the benefit of study abroad travel. The Institute of International Education’s report on “Open Doors” described the value of international study abroad travel as the “competitive edge” that college grads are often missing for when it comes time to apply for jobs. With an extremely competitive job market, and with an increased number of applicants holding college degrees, study abroad provides an advantage to these special travelers. As a way to stand out, students who study abroad can usually demonstrate a higher-level of understanding for other cultures, perhaps have learned a second language while traveling, and usually have a better skill set when it comes to intercultural communication. These are all highly valued skills, especially as the world becomes more connected globally.

In terms of personal growth, studying abroad provides many students with the opportunity to develop an understanding of how they fit into the world. Students learn to depend on themselves in a real-world setting, ask questions, remain proactive, and ask for help. By putting themselves in these vulnerable and often uncomfortable situations, students gain the benefits of increased self-awareness and self-confidence. Being flexible and open to new people, places, cultures and values affords student travelers with platforms for problem-solving. In many cases, these travelers become better team players, as they learn that it is okay to rely on others for assistance, while discovering their own strengths that they can offer to a group.

Traveling for the sake of international education offers students the chance to challenge their personal beliefs, and break down stereotypes and misconceptions about foreign cultures. Student travelers can gain a wealth of insights about not only themselves and their own biases, but will be introduced to people who will serve to demonstrate just how much all people have in common- regardless of where they come from or how they live.
"... a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to
scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own..."
While studying abroad may sound like an escape from reality, student travelers should be wary of some of the challenges that will occur before, during and after their trip. Pre-departure preparations are key to making your study abroad experience a positive one. Thanks to technology, student travelers have access to a wealth of information about their host country, and can take the necessary measures to make their transition as smooth as possible. Language guides, cultural briefings, and city maps are just a few examples of things that travelers can have handy before they depart. With virtual communication capabilities like Skype, students can even connect with their future classmates or roommates.  

While most colleges and universities require their study abroad leaners to enroll in international health insurance, most do not offer travel assistance memberships. Students who will be traveling with any study abroad program should inquire about Travel Assistance membership, as international insurance does not necessarily protect them in all emergencies/ unexpected situations. While travel insurance may protect the traveler in an umbrella sort of way, many details (like medical evacuations, repatriations and prescription replacements) are overlooked. Pre-departure is a good time to review the fine print of your insurance and also enroll in a travel assistance membership.

Students who are not frequent travelers often find themselves facing a serious case of homesickness. While this can be difficult, again, technology can aide in alleviating this discomfort. Facetime, Skype and other international communication programs can reconnect travelers and their families. After the trip is over, travelers returning from study abroad trips should also note that while culture shock can occur upon arriving in their destination country, it can also occur when returning home to their native country. When a traveler becomes accustomed to their new environment, returning back to “regular life” can present them with unforeseen challenges. While this shouldn’t be a deterrent from embarking on this kind of trip, students should be aware that they might face challenges they wouldn’t expect long after they have returned from their adventure.

In general, using study abroad as a means to travel the world is a great idea- as it comes with a variety of benefits and opportunities for growth for all kinds of learners. Margaret Mead once said, "As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own." And if one thing is for certain, traveling will do just that.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Green Can Still Be Glam

A buzz word in the travel industry is “ecotourism”. While trending lately, this mode of travel actually came out of the environmental movements in the 1970’s, and has since become one of the fastest-growing sectors of the tourism industry on a global scale. Since the 1990’s, ecotourism has been growing between 20-30% each year. According to the World Tourism Organization (WTO) in 2004, ecotourism grew three times faster than the tourism industry as a whole.
Ecotourism encompasses the environmental, social, cultural and economic features of travel destinations. In general, it is a means of uniting the traveler with the natural world- while minimizing the damaging aspects of travel. It bridges communities, conservation efforts and sustainable thinking, too.

Ecotourism was founded on, and continues to grow based on a few principals. It is intended to build cultural and environmental awareness, providing positive experiences for both the visitor and the host. The financial benefits of this branch of tourism provide direct aid to conservation efforts, and should also be directed to the local people of the travel destination. In working to travel with a reduced-carbon footprint, “low-impact” facilities are to offer accommodations to visitors, and these facilities are to be designed, constructed and operated in such a manner.

These basic guidelines are important to the companies guiding the eco-friendly travel arrangements, but it is also important for the traveler to keep in mind- from the planning process, through the trip itself- all the way through returning home.  One of the “big picture” intentions of ecotourism is to provide the traveler with memorable experiences that are open for interpretation and sharing- so, in returning home, engaging in discussions and spreading awareness about their experiences allows the ecotravel cycle to continue.

Ecotourism has expanded beyond the idea of being only for the “environmentally responsible” traveler. In the past, there was a negative connotation with this idea, but luckily, this is changing. Traveling with an eco-friendly group also doesn’t mean that you’ll be stuck with a bunch of tree-huggers and hippies. Ecotourism appeals to a wide range of travelers who vary in age, background and culture who happen to share a common thread of making consciously “better” choices while away from home and a desire to explore in nature. Travelers who wish to be a part of the ecotourism movement have the opportunity to connect with people who they probably would not have had the chance to otherwise.

Traveling in an eco-friendly fashion also doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice luxury, if luxury is what you are seeking while on your trip. Again, there is often a misconception that environmentally sustainable travel means primitive accommodations, basic cuisine and a general lack of comfort. Many modern hotels and resorts that have been built for the purpose of ecotourism are actually very high-end, and offer all of the services that any resort might.
Many of the world’s most fascinating natural attractions are located in less-developed countries, making them hard to access or seen as inaccessible by travelers. Ecotourism works to not only connect people with these natural wonders, but also provides an economic boost for the destination in which these places are. Biodiversity exposure and conservation has played a major role in engaging governmental agencies of developing nations to be a part of the ecotourism movement. So first, revenue is generated by ecotourism companies and guide services. They seek out remote locations that tourists might be intrigued by. Then, locals of that destination are provided with work opportunities, as lodging, transportation and logistical planning has to be established. Travelers with money to spend arrive in these places, stimulating the local economy and bringing foreign exchange- affording the government to pour some of these funds into both operating and protecting these natural habitats. The WTO notes that tourism is the world’s largest employer, and be it directly or indirectly, it generates 200 million jobs. Opportunities for employment are brought to remote and sometimes desperate regions. The richest resources are often in the poorest places, so this can be a major boost for ecotourism destinations.

"...the richest resources are
often in the poorest places..."
Of course, there are major dangers in this process. If these building and guiding processes are not highly regulated, there can be adverse affects on these already fragile environments. Overbuilding and drastic influxes of populations can have consequences that are both long-term and irreversible. Forest and marine habitats are particularly sensitive to change, and some of the wildlife that lives in these areas can be driven to extinction if the proper precautions are not made priority. The people of these locations can also be damaged, if not protected by regulations. Local interests can easily be pushed aside or overshadowed by the desire to make a profit. As soon as short-term profits become a priority over the conservation of people and animals, this means of travel is no longer sustainable.
Ecotourism, when done in a respectful and truly eco-conscious way, can provide great benefits to both the traveler and the host/ host country. Travelers interested in participating in this type of travel have the ability to research the most sustainable ways to see the most remote locations, while contributing to the local economy and interacting with natives, who can provide them with the best information about their own land. Many reputable ecotravel companies can assist the traveler in making the best choices when it comes time to plan an eco-friendly adventure. The best ecotourism practices will integrate the natural with the native, allowing visitors to experience the destination from the perspective of the people who know it best. Ecotourism must focus on the long-term contributions to the environment and the community for it to be truly responsible traveling.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Interface and the Face-to-Face

Technology has had an immense impact on the tourism industry as a whole, providing travelers with unlimited options, resources and information. It has shown us places that were once unvisitable with real-time views of our destinations through cameras and satellites, aided us in translation and broken down language barriers, and even given us forums to write about the pro’s and con’s of our destinations- including the culture, cuisine and accommodations. The hidden gems of cities are exposed through photographs on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Technology has played an incredible role in connecting humans on a global scale. With just a few clicks or taps, we can virtually connect with people around the world.

Here are just a few of the benefits that travelers can take advantage of to maximize their time, money and satisfy their inner explorer while on their trip:

You can plan ahead extensively, or plan as-you-go:

Depending on if you are the kind of traveler who needs to have every part of your itinerary planned in advance, or if you are a more flexible type who likes to act on a whim when you see or hear of something you want to do, technology allows both types to travel with ease.

For the more structured type, hotel rooms, dinner reservations, tours and excursions can be booked in advance as to not have to worry about a shortage of accommodations or not catching a seat at the show you wanted to see. Many tourist-friendly hotels and restaurants will have websites that allow the traveler to handle all of this virtually, without having to deal with language barriers and other communication issues that happen over the phone or in person.  Some websites, like Tripomatic, will not only assist you in building your itinerary, but will also stay with you and keep you on schedule while away. Essentially, the traveler chooses their destination, specifies the dates that they will be there, and this program aides them in choosing things to do/ places to stay/ where to eat- all on a schedule. As you are traveling, the program alerts the traveler when it is time to move on to their next activity, and even tells them how to get there. You can also share the planning with other people on your trip, and it will sync with their smartphones as well.

For the more impulsive traveler, technology allows them the flexibility to do last-minute research to search and find a bed in a part of town that they stumbled upon, or help them to find a local eatery that specializes in that food they have been craving all afternoon. Websites like Yelp and Tripadvisor provide forums where people who have “been there, done that” can give honest, raw reviews of restaurants and make note of the highlights of their meal, post pictures of their hotel rooms, rate the service they received from a car service. Available both domestically and abroad, these tools can assist the whimsy traveler to make great decisions about what comes next on their itinerary.

You can find great deals:

Technology has given us the ability to take advantage of “last-minute deals” through a variety of websites. Often, when a hotel has just a few rooms left, or a tour company has a couple of seats remaining on their bus, rather than let them go unused, they will offer discounts. Most booking websites, like Travelocity, even have a “deals section” where explorers can look for short-notice flights, too.

You can find travel companions:

Traveling solo is not for everyone. While some people may embrace the opportunity, others might fear the idea of being in a new place by themselves. If you happen to have a free afternoon or a day with nothing planned, or even a week in a new palce, solo travelers can use technology to connect them with a travel buddy- sites like TravBuddy are designed for just that. Users can login with an account, enter their location and their interest in finding a companion, and the site provides a space for travelers to connect and eventually meet up to share an experience of exploration. It is a very organized way to find travelers and locals who are in the same place at the same time as you.

Find alternative accommodations:

Travelers looking for accommodations who don’t want to stay in a standard hotel have options, thanks to services like AirBnB. When traveling to a new place, there is something magical about learning about the destination through the eyes of the people who already live there- so why not stay in their home or apartment? AirBnB provides locals with a place to list their extra bedroom or rental home for travelers to reserve for their time in a new city. Available internationally, travelers can search and find spaces to stay- providing them access to the people who already live there- the most valuable resource when traveling. Locals can post photos and details about their space, and travelers can reserve them online.

Now, with all of the amazing benefits that technology provides us, we can’t forget that human connection is half of the experience to be gained in travel. Travelers should use caution when turning to technology while traveling- and like all things, find a balance between the virtual conveniences and the real-time options available.

Certainly, half of the beauty of travel is to see new places and experience new cultures- but isn’t the other half about connecting with people of that place and experiencing the world through their eyes and their experiences? Missing out on that human connection affords the traveler only half of the potential experience they could have while on their journey. The lessons in personal growth and exploration come as a result of human interaction while taking in the culture and the beauty of one’s physical surroundings. In relying too heavily on technology to do the work for us, we can overlook the importance of these face-to-face interactions that the virtual world has replaced.

Think back to the travels of your own- how many of the memories that you cherish are interactions that you had with people? Those moments of embarrassment because you used the wrong words, or those moments of gratitude when a stranger helped you to find something on the map. Sure, you might never have caught the other person’s name, or even remember what city you were in when it happened- but those face-to-face and human-to-human encounters are such a valuable part of the journey. Those are the stories worth sharing when you return from your trip.

Travelers should also be aware of how the instantaneous nature of the internet and associated technology has seeped into our normal expectations- that everything around us function at this speed, too. Instant gratification is a part of who we are as a society, but it is so important to remember that perceptions of time and pace of life vary so greatly from culture to culture, and from country to country.

Technology can lead us down new and exciting paths when used appropriately, and is best used as a supplement to local resources, rather than as the only resource.