In the fall of 2008, I received a letter from an international organization inviting me to spend two weeks in Europe. Before my early summer departure, I prepared for my adventure and met periodically throughout the year with some of the other teens I’d be traveling with. I had no idea how the experience would change my life.
During those two weeks, I traveled with about forty others to the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and England. We toured museums, snapped pictures in front of famous landmarks, and ate interesting foods. Despite doing mostly tourist things, the trip exposed me to unfamiliar places and the European way of life. I returned home with a greater understanding of the world and historical events. I wanted to go back.
The next summer, my family traveled to Italy. Although we still went sightseeing, we succeeded in ditching the swarms of other tourists by traveling off the beaten path. Our journey led us to a small mountain town in the Abruzzo region and a costal town in the L’Aquila province. We saw how real Italians lived, and I loved it.
My parents gave me something more valuable than any gift or gadget; they gave me international experiences. Before embarking on my first trip to Europe, I knew very little about the world outside America: Canada is to the north, in Europe they speak dozens of languages, Africa has some wild animals, and China might be communist. That was basically it. After these two experiences, however, my entire perspective on the world has changed. I’m inspired to learn dozens of other languages, study different governments, and see dangerous animals in their natural environments. I now realize there is a world outside of America, and it is mine to explore.
So I encourage you to give your teen an international experience. No, a trip to a Vietnamese beach resort or an American hotel in Cancun doesn’t cut it. For the most part, places like those seek to make tourists feel comfortable and at home in a foreign land. They deny travelers authentic experiences, chances to mingle with the culture. Instead, take a look at what your teen is interested in. Is he taking French in school? Talk about a journey to France or other Francophone countries around the world. How about marine life? Think about a trip to the Great Barrier Reef or other exotic places. Whatever it may be, don’t forget to meet the locals, eat authentic food, stumble over the language, and learn about the religion—avoid exclusively doing touristy things.
Although I’ve traveled only to other parts of the Western world, I’ve learned so much. I want to change the world and see it for how it is and not from a sheltered point of view. I want to learn about different cultures, live abroad, and explore foreign lands. I am forever grateful for these experiences, and they have had a lasting impact on me. How much your teen will take away from your international experience is uncertain, but I promise if you do it right, your teen will gain so much. I promise.
Photo Credit: my own photo.