Travel Makes You Stronger

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Middle Schoolers prepare well for travel to Martinique--and come back changed
 
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”—Marcel Proust
 
“Traveling outside the country has made me so brave. If I didn’t travel to Martinique, I don’t think I would have grown so much with my French skills. Also, now I will be able to travel to more places and be more confident.” —Student traveler
 
March 2012 will mark the third trip for Catlin Gabel’s 7th and 8th grade French students to Sainte-Marie, a town on the Caribbean island of Martinique. Similarly, middle schoolers from Le Collège Emmanuel Saldès of Sainte-Marie have come to Portland twice. What our young travelers learn as guests in the home of their famille d’accueil (host family) serves them well when it is their turn to host the following year. The experience gives more meaning to the word “empathy” and fosters serious reflection on being on both the receiving and giving end of an exchange.
 
“In the beginning a lot of the things that I feared would happen did happen, although in the long run none of those things mattered: Not liking a meal, or not falling asleep at night. None compares to the things I gained and the great memories.” —Student traveler
 
Our students are asked to think about the differences between experiencing a place abroad as a traveler, as opposed to as a tourist. They quickly become aware that, unlike a vacation where one seeks to satisfy one’s yearning for pleasure and relaxation, the guiding principles of our exchange are openness, collaboration, and a readiness to have one’s comfort zones stretched.
 
“Going to Martinique with the idea of pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone really made the trip so much better than if we had just made it a vacation for relaxation.” —Student traveler
 

A brief historical perspective

 Martinique was a French colony until 1946. In 2003, it was named a French Région d’outre-mer (overseas region). Slavery was abolished in Martinique in 1846, but discriminatory practices lingered until 1946. The scars, though fading, are still part of the collective memory of the majority, the Martiniquans of color. French is the official language, but créole, the language spoken by all Martiniquans of color, is given the proper consideration as a legitimate language. The small white minority continues to control nearly all of the island’s economy. When visiting Martinique, my students become aware of how this Caribbean culture was shaped, that the grandparents of their host brother or sister grew up in a very different Martinique, and that this past has had an effect on the family they are visiting.
 

Pre-trip, on-site, and post-trip work

Before we leave, we hold several meetings where we not only discuss logistics, but also touch on the history and some of the cultural traits and experiences the students might encounter during their two-week stay there. I ask the students to consider certain questions in writing before their departure, including: What are your goals during this time away, what are you nervous or excited about, what impressions or expectations do you have of the host country, and what does it mean to you to be a citizen from your native country or culture? During the trip, reflections continue: what similarities do you see, what differences, what has surprised you the most, what do you miss the most from home, how is your language-learning going, how does the host culture seem to view American culture? Finally, at the end of the year, the students evaluate the trip and write about the challenges and successes they experienced.
 
“No matter where I went in Martinique, there was something different from the life I live. It was about discovering past the vanishing point of my experience.” —Student traveler
 
We also address the bigger question of what the term citizen of the world means to these students. We go through a list of resiliency tools that each one of us can find within ourselves at various times. For example, everyone can relate to the meaning of patience, assertiveness, honesty, kindness, respect, humor, courage, detachment, consideration, flexibility, and gentleness. We may not be able to practice each one all the time, nor all at once, but if we can remind ourselves that we do have the option (or the opportunity!) to use one of these tools at various times of need, we will most likely end up feeling empowered, less stuck, and able to move on. We talk about possible testy situations that might come up during the stay and then consider which tools would be most helpful to get through these.
 
“The things that went wrong turned out to be moments of laughter and memories.” —Student traveler
 
Values can manifest themselves differently within a culture, but there most likely will be an even sharper distinction between cultures. At home, we have the benefit of knowing what it takes to makes us feel secure, satisfied, fulfilled. There are handy “feel-good” points of reference to resort to and, as we grow within a culture, we learn which points of reference to turn to in times of need. Abroad, the more the culture is different from ours, the more we need to turn to our sense of resourcefulness and observation for a sense of stability and orientation. We need not feel like we’re lost, or fragile, or vulnerable.
 
“Everything I experienced, good and bad, was helpful to my understanding and learning.” —Student traveler
 
As we observe people doing things differently from us, we can remember that we need not feel threatened or destabilized, but can simply let others be who they are. Being gentle with ourselves allows us to be gentle with others and not be afraid. We can simply observe the differences and allow enough space to connect, get closer, and navigate our way with greater ease.
 
“I understand so much more now about my culture, other cultures, my classmates, and myself. . . . I saw what everything really was instead of what everything was supposed to be.” —Student traveler
 
We recently visited Mercy Corps to prepare for our trip with various activities. When we had to relate an important event in our life without using words, it led us to brainstorm about the meaning of communication. To our big surprise, the one word that was not mentioned until the very end was “language.” Then when we looked at what we understood culture to be, we recognized the strong interconnection between culture and language. It was encouraging for those who would like to be a little more fluent in French as they are heading to Martinique to see that a great deal of communication can still occur without the use of language. We considered behaviors and beliefs that we as a group have in common, and realized that we were actually talking about culture. This led us to see how culture shapes how we see the world, and how we see ourselves and others. We become much more in tune with how much we are shaped by our culture when we go abroad.
 
“You don’t really know what life is like in a new place until you live it, and staying with a family teaches you a lot.” —Student traveler
 
Another pre-trip activity had to do decision-making styles: Am I a compromiser, avoider, joint problem-solver, accommodator, or controller? Once we had analyzed our style, we read about its advantages and drawbacks in different situations. Then we thought about how we might use a different decision-making style in different scenarios. Some of us switched our styles to match the situation, while others tended to stay the same for most situations.
 
“The trip teaches us skills that will be very helpful to know later on, such as speaking up for ourselves, trying new things, and being completely open to new experiences.” —Student traveler
 
Finally, we talked about how easy it is for us to assume what is coming next in a situation and to guess at meaning before we know enough about it. But withholding judgment and taking in details of a situation before we interpret it must occur before we can evaluate it. This important practice will prepare the traveler to work towards win-win interactions.
 
“There were times that I knew I was supposed to be there . . . and there were also times when I felt left out, bored, or angry. But there wasn’t a single time that I wished I wasn’t there.” —Student traveler
 
It would be unfair to expect resiliency from our traveling students if we did not prepare them well for their adventure abroad. We would be remiss to let them think that the only challenges they will face abroad might be a language barrier and being far from home and their familiar lifestyle. The journey of getting in touch with ourselves individually and as a group has started. It has sensitized us to the necessity of an open mind as we prepare for Martiniquan families to welcome us into their homes.
 
“While I was there, I thought the best times were just hanging out with my American friends doing something fun, or watching something beautiful. But now that I look back on it, I think that the best times really were just being dorky with my home stay and really connecting with her family. When we were able to connect, we could really understand each other despite the language barrier.” —Student traveler
 
Monique Bessette was raised in Québec City. She came to Catlin Gabel in 1997 after having taught at Valley Catholic High School. She has taught in Upper School and is now the Middle School French teacher. Aside from the Martinique trip, she has led six other international trips with students to France and Québec.