What Students Learn from Travel

OWU professors weigh in on the benefits of beyond-the-classroom experiences

OWU students working with children on the streets of Kolkata, India. (Photo by Perrie Bonner ’11)

It’s axiomatic that “travel is broadening,” but as Ohio Wesleyan increases its international opportunities beyond standard semesters overseas, professors who lead such experiences see both academic and personal growth in most students who make travel a part of in-depth learning.

Economics Professor Barbara MacLeod recently led a study trip with several students to examine the business climate in Nicaragua. She observes that travel-learning “benefits students in two significant ways: it challenges their assumptions about their own culture, and it helps them think about issues in more complex ways.”

Sociology/Anthropology professor Mary Howard, who, with Adjunct Professor of Zoology Sally Waterhouse and Emeritus Professor of Zoology Denny Radebaugh, guided a multidisciplinary group of students through a study of the intersections of ecology and economics in three areas of Bolivia, agrees and continues, “If [students] haven’t discovered the gray in life by the time they take off, they will return with more questions than answers, with an appreciation of having to tolerate contradictions and with less certainty about their own convictions. Most societies we travel to today are pluralistic and so one learns to stay clear of totalizing generalizations, including assumptions about who the good and bad guys are. Reality is usually not so simple.”

Professor of Economics Bob Gitter, leader of “The Mexican Migration Experience” Sagan Fellows class, which examined migration from a variety of American and Mexican perspectives, adds, “Frankly, there is a large element of serendipity. Students will see something as they go for the morning coffee that might shed new light on something they have been doing their entire lives. I guarantee they will never see things back home the same way after that.”

Students may indeed become more sophisticated thinkers, but Professor of Zoology Jed Burtt, whose students often study off-campus in self-designed research projects, sees another value as well: independence. “It’s true that they see different people and cultures abroad and in other parts of the United States, but in the best programs, they also have to plan and organize a project on their own,” Burtt says.

“Some students, once they’re on the ground, have to function in a new culture and … sometimes in a foreign language. This requires that students … adapt to the many new situations they encounter. The learning that occurs at that point cannot be replicated in the classroom.

“We can teach them about the culture,” Burtt continues. “We can teach them about the environment and the science … but until they are on their own, the students do not have to put it all together and make their own decisions. That is the immense value of study off-campus, especially if not part of a traveling group.”

Students also learn that other cultures have great ideas, Gitter says. “Students pursuing a career in marketing can see how simple ideas—juice packs, sushi, bubble tea, and others from other nations—can be adopted in the U.S. Students interested in healthcare see the difference midwives can make in medically underserved communities. Students wanting to go into manufacturing are well-served by seeing … the greater use of apprenticeship training.”

Beyond the practical, travel-learning helps students develop a sensitivity to other peoples and cultures.

“Given the migration of people from around the world to the U.S, [these experiences] help our students convey attitudes of openness and interest in international co-workers,” Howard says. “If they acquire positions of power and decision making, then they will be less likely to seek dominion over others or project a sense of superiority. That simply doesn’t work in the rest of the world. Humans need to be respected and honored, and if these sentiments are genuine, they will be returned.”

Immersion in a culture other than one’s own can be daunting, however. “Effects of study-travel experiences depend on length of travel, number of cross-cultural experiences, openness and attitude of student, magnitude of the cultural difference, preparation to experience differences, and type of experience,” MacLeod says. “A large cultural difference is not necessarily better, especially as a first experience. I have seen people become overwhelmed in these circumstances and revert to the safety of their home culture—essentially destroying the opportunity to grow and learn from the travel.”

Generally, however, the pluses far outweigh the minuses. “I think students come home with a better sense of who they are,” Howard says. “After all, they are out of their routines and begin to turn inward with questions: Who am I? Where am I headed? What is important to me? With a group, these explorations are sometimes shared and real change can happen. I sometimes see students change majors and reevaluate their goals in life.”

“Travel adds a new dimension to textbook study,” Gitter says, summing up. “As one of my Mexico trip students said, ‘How can I go back to learning in a regular classroom?’”

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