When it comes to giving students opportunities for personal growth, an overseas trip is a sure-fire way to push their mental (and often physical!) boundaries.

It can also encourage students to broaden their understandings of foreign cultures, and perhaps most crucially, empower them with the knowledge they can make a profound difference in this world. 

Whether your school offers foreign language tours, cultural immersions or community-based challenges in developing countries for students to sign up to, the rewards for all involved are immeasurable.

‘Life-changing’, ‘amazing’ and ‘experience of a lifetime’ are just some of the common post-trip reflections espoused by students, but it is often a challenge in itself to adequately sum up how one has changed and matured during time spent abroad. 

Nevertheless, personal growth can often only occur through confronting the unknown, the strange and the unfamiliar. Learning how to conquer fears and to overcome anxiety-provoking situations is a big part of any overseas trip for students, and something that educators must carefully manage both prior to, during, and then after the big event. 

Here we examine some of the key strategies used by two Australian schools to successfully mitigate students’ feelings of alienation, anxiety and culture shock, to allow them to truly spread their wings far from home turf. 

Case Study One: India World Challenge, Frankston High School, Victoria

Keen to give motivated Year 10 and 11 students an utterly eye-opening cultural experience, late last year Frankston High School ran a month-long ‘World Challenge’ in India. The expedition required the Victorian students to ‘pay their own way’, and involved months of intense fundraising efforts and part-time work commitments before their departure. 

Visual arts coordinator Deb Child, who coordinated the trip, says having this lengthy preparation phase was crucial in ensuring that students left feeling confident in their ability to work through any testing challeneges that may arise. 

“There was a range of activities that took place over an extensive period of time because there was an 18-month build up,” Child begins.

“We met frequently, we got them to just anonymously [write] down things that they were most concerned with,  and we would address those within those meetings or brainstorm ways that we could address those sort of concerns.  

“We had the student wellbeing people that came in and spoke to the group to give them strategies of how to deal with situations whilst they were away. Some of it was just purely about being on expedition and being away from their families for a month, for those worried about homesickness.”

Throughout these group rendezvous, Child says the students really began to open up and share their personal fears about the impending trip. Addressing these concerns in a team environment proved to be an excellent strategy, not only in terms of the team bonding that ensued, but also as it allowed for all potential risks to be flagged and practical management strategies to be discussed, before they might become a reality. 

“Some of them were really acutely concerned about getting ill in a country like that and how they would manage and cope,” she recalls. 

“Some of them were excited but also anxious about various stages, like the trekking stage and whether they would be able manage it, and if they were struggling how they would cope with it, so a whole raft of concerns,” Child says. 

A special weekend camp was also run to break down any social barriers within the student group and to provide a digestible taster of what would be required of them overseas. 

“That is like a mini expedition, so they get a real insight into the role that they will take, they’re camping so we can check out their gear and if it’s going to be adequate … and we can also flag any people that have some fitness problems at that time as well. It’s very proactive in trying to address issues before they manifest into huge problems,” Child notes. 

One of the great balancing acts for those educators along for the ride on any overseas trip is setting the right boundaries – those strict enough to keep students safe and grounded, but loose enough to allow them to gain a sense of independence and the freedom to explore unchartered territory.  However, Child says there is a relatively simple method that staff can apply to all rule-setting on foreign soil.

“As the expedition goes on they get more freedom, so at the beginning it’s giving them tighter boundaries and seeing how they cope with that. You might be at a marketplace, so you allow 15-20 minutes for them to explore this independently ... and if they all meet those deadlines and everything went smoothly, then the next time they might be allowed to go out for a little bit longer.”

Case Study Two: Chinese exchange trip, Reservoir High School, Victoria

When the 26 students from Reservoir High School jet off on a much anticipated exchange trip to their Chinese sister-school Tianjin Muzhai Middle School this April, they may not be fluent in their hosts’ language – or perhaps they haven’t ventured far from the comfort of Australian shores before – but they will certainly have the confidence to plough into their cultural immersion without a hint of hesitation or fear. 

Identifying language barriers, unknown cultural differences and homesickness as three key obstacles that the students would be up against, principal Mark Jessup says the school was forward-thinking in their preparation from the get-go. 

“I think going anywhere is a challenge, no matter what country you are taking kids to, and the work you put in before you go, you’ll reap the benefits of whilst you are there,” Jessup says. 

“They need to feel comfortable about going ... you want to minimise all the risks that you possibly can and you need to comply with the department’s guidelines in relation to that, which we’ve done,” he adds. 

Given the Victorian school does not offer Chinese language classes, Jessup says they have made sure the group feels well-versed in the basics.  This has been achieved via specialist conversation classes with a Mandarin-speaking aide, which were established well before the departure date loomed. 

“She’s been teaching us very basic Mandarin, questions and greetings and ‘where’s the toilets?’ and ‘this is too much’ and ‘this is not enough’ and that sort of thing, and we began that last year,” Jessup notes. 

“We’ve had a lot of discussions about the different cultural expectations, the differences between Australian family life and Chinese family life, as the students are going on a two-night home stay, so we have been preparing them for that.” 

A rather flavoursome outing to an authentic Chinese restaurant (not ‘Australian-Chinese food’ Jessup notes) was a fabulous way to introduce students to appropriate Chinese dining etiquette, whilst getting them more acquainted with some of the more unusual edible delights their tastebuds might have to adapt to overseas. 

“We all went out for a meal with our Chinese speaking aid, and the purpose was to show them some of the foods they might get in China ... and we had lessons in how to use chopsticks and all that sort of stuff, which is completely different to Australia. It was just a nice opportunity to immerse them in a little bit of Chinese culture before they’re actually flown into it,” Jessup says.

And while clear communication with students with regards to expectations, goals and foreseeable challenges while overseas is essential, the principal  believes  it is of equal importance that a school’s communication channels with parents are open from the outset. After all, a strong parent-staff relationship will help to ensure a smoother trip for all, the educator asserts. 

“They have been brought along on the journey as well, as they are trusting us to take their children a long way away from home into a culture that many of them don’t have an awareness of.

“We’ve talked about homesickness with their families here and made suggestions that perhaps the parents don’t have to ring everyday, an email or text is probably sufficient. And if a child is homesick, probably ringing frequently just makes it worse”, Jessup says.

“They have to feel comfortable that we’ve done all we can to support their child that and that we’ve got everything in hand, and that’s certainly the impression that they are giving us at the moment.”

And when students return, armed with souvenirs, new friendships and memories to last them a lifetime, the opportunity to learn and grow from the experience need not be cut short. Jessup says that easing the children back into normality will be made easier with a host of reflection-driven follow-up activities. 

“There will be a creation of a book of the trip and we want those kids to talk about their experiences so that we can prepare for the next trip, because we want our kids to go to China every second year,” Jessup shares. 

“The word of mouth from kids will travel a lot faster than the world of mouth from teachers, and they will become the ‘meeters and the greeters’ of the Chinese kids when they come to Australia.” 

So whether you have your sights set on the heart of Tokyo, the rugged coastline of South Africa or the sleepy beaches of Vanuatu for your schools’ next overseas trip, it is the duty of educators to prepare their students and their carers for all the challenges, wonders and new experiences that lurk just a plane trip away.