Why Culture Shock is Good for Teens

by Danielle DeSimone

Your teenage years are the time that you start figuring out who you are and what you want out of life, which makes it the perfect time to go abroad. Traveling or studying in another country on  teen travel programs often has the side effect of Culture Shock: a feeling of disorientation that occurs when someone is immersed in an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes. Experiencing culture shock as a teenager is a lot like growing pains (but with less awkward body hair or blue makeup phases). It’s a little uncomfortable, but it will ultimately shape you into a much more interesting, well-rounded person, and goal-oriented teen - a perfect recruit for your dream college.

Hiking in Petra, Jordan

A New Everyday Routine

In a culture other than their own, almost anything in your day-to-day life can be different: how often people watch television, what time people wake up in the morning, or how much food is served at each meal. Teen summer and travel abroad programs often arrange for student housing with a host family, which is an incredible opportunity for students to see the everyday life in another country. Although details such as when grocery stores open what hand you should eat with may seem insignificant at first, experiencing diverse cultural norms can open perspectives to a whole new way of life.

High schoolers will learn to adapt quickly to new situations and environments both abroad and when they return home because of how they’ve had to acclimate to the challenges of living abroad. This kind of easy adjustment will set them apart when approaching the world of college or even further into the future, in the workfield, when success is dependent on a student or employee’s ability to adapt to situations dictated by conventions or people different than what they are used to.

Personal Reflection

Teen travel or study abroad programs bring students to appreciate the value in different cultures. When faced with the opinions, beliefs, and lifestyles of another country, teens will be forced to reevaluate their own social, economic, and cultural values. In doing so, they will be able to define what they personally believe in, as well as come to appreciate parts of both their home country and the country they are studying in.

Having a grounded sense of values and beliefs increases self-awareness, which ultimately helps in developing soft skills like conflict resolution and empathy.

Confidence Booster

Faced with an environment that is not their own while apart from family and friends, teenagers will be forced to overcome obstacles and problem-solve on their own. At an age where self-confidence is too often determined by peer-approval, this independently-developed autonomy gives teens a sense of confidence built by personal accomplishments.

Language Learning Op’s Abound

When traveling to another country, you’ll typically find that your native language is not the predominant language spoken in the country you are studying in. High school abroad programs often focus on language immersion. This typically means that classes are taught in the language of the country that the teens are studying in; it also could involve homestay accommodations, with a local family, so that teens can practice their language skills outside of the classroom as well. Programs may also arrange for extracurricular activities with local students of the same age, so that teen travelers and students can participate in sports teams or language buddy programs in order to practice the language with their peers.

By fully immersing themselves in the country’s native language, teens will not only learn a new language, but a new way of thinking and communicating. The cultural shock shock of navigating language barriers teaches teens crucial lessons in communication and cultural sensitivity.

A volunteer with the African kids

Ready for the Resume

Only a very limited amount of teens and high school students travel or study abroad independently and by doing so, you are setting yourself apart from the rest of college and job applicants. The skills and global awareness teens will acquire while abroad will make them far more desirable for future university admissions and future employers. Students who go abroad are not afraid to challenge themselves, to take risks, or to navigate unfamiliar waters successfully, not to mention, they learn to work with people from diverse backgrounds, making them excellent team players and, thus, perfect candidates for undergraduate or graduate schools, as well as employers. 

According to a study conducted by QS Global Employer Survey, approximately 60 percecnt of employers stated that value international experience in a candidate. Meanwhile, studies conducted by IES Abroad showed that 85 percent of study abroad alumni claimed that studying abroad had prepared them with skills necessary in the job market , while 90 percent of those who had studied abroad got into their first or second choice graduate school.

Traveling or studying abroad as a teenager? You’re even already ahead of most college students and job applicants!

College Prep

Going abroad is the perfect test run for high school students to experience life outside their often sheltered and comfortable bubble of home, so they can see what they want and what they are capable of when it is time to go to college. By going so far from home, teens experience much of the same disorienting loneliness and forced independence that freshman in college go through, but on a much larger scale, as the added cultural differences are even greater.

After going abroad in their teens, high school students might find themselves compelled to explore the option of schools farther from home, out of state. Culture shock pushes teens to their limits and teaches them what they’re capable of handling and adapting to, making them far more ready for college in the future. Not to mention, going abroad makes for an incredible application essay topic!

A Whole New World

Disney jokes aside, going on a teen travel program gives students the invaluable realization of how much of a great, big world there is to explore out there. As this grand epiphany usually takes place when older, college students go abroad for the first time (or even adults traveling for the first time), you could almost say that by going abroad as a teen, you’re getting a head start on a lifelong love and passion for travel and general curiosity about the world. 

Incomparable Educational Experiences

Learning abroad is entirely different from learning in a classroom at home, as students learn not only in class, but in their everyday interactions with the world around them. The beauty of studying abroad is that the subjects studied will be intrinsically linked to the world around the students, the city, the country, and the culture teens have adopted during their time abroad.

Many high school abroad and teen travel abroad programs incorporate day trips into their schedules, so that students can actually see the ancient ruins or sea turtle populations they are studying. However, while the subjects that students learn in the classroom are important and crucial to the experience, culture shock is the true educator for students going abroad. Learning is not limited to the classroom. Teens will learn on the streets, in taxi cabs, at the dinner table of their host family; each time they are interacting with a culture that is not their own, they are learning more about this new environment and about themselves.

People looking at a monkey

Passion for Very Real Social Issues

Nothing can make a college app sparkle quite like community service. Volunteer abroad programs for high schoolers thrusts teens into environments that they could have never imagined. As most volunteer work abroad is either community-based, missionary work, or eco-conservation, many of the countries that students travel to are less-developed than their home country, or have drastically different lifestyles than what they are used to (or both).

Volunteering to help the less fortunate can be truly shocking for teens who are used to a comfortable lifestyle, and can bring forth deep reflection on their lives and the lives of others.

This reevaluation of how they live will ultimately help teens grow and make better, more people-oriented choices in the future. There is no better humbling experience nor a better way to build a global community by encouraging young students and teens to spend their time abroad by helping others. These experiences will put teens’ lives in perspective, and give them a greater appreciation for their lives, as well as for the communities they are helping. This can affect everything from how they interact with people on a daily basis, to their choice of study or career in the future.

Whether you decide to do a summer abroad, a teen travel program, or a high school abroad program, you are about to embark on one of the most incredible and challenging experiences of your life.

Culture shock is something that affects almost everyone who travels in a country or culture that is different from his or her own, and its side-effects can definitely leave you spinning and a bit confused. However, the difficult parts of culture shock are what make it so rewarding; without it, there would be no personal growth. As clichéd as it might sound, some of the most important and exhilarating parts of traveling and studying abroad is not seeing historical monuments, but getting to see yourself in relation to the diverse world around you.

Be willing to shock yourself. Go abroad and see where it takes you!