Travel and Culture: The Road Trip of Exchange and Study Abroad

When I’m out and about, whether it be at a single day event or traveling for a weekend or a week, I think of all the things I like to share with students about our country and our life. A road trip, such as the one we did just a few weeks ago, brings that home.

Our trip took us from Portland, Oregon, through eastern Oregon, into Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and finally Colorado. We saw major changes even on the first day. In the space of a few hours, we left our bustling metropolitan area of more than two million people, drove through the beauty and dramatic scenery of the Columbia River Gorge, and watched the countryside change from lush green to arid rangeland — without ever leaving the state of Oregon.

Jumping Off the Cliff . . . Into an Exchange

In Twin Falls, Idaho, we watched for a while as people parachuted off the famous Perrine Bridge into the Snake River Canyon. Perrine Bridge is one of the few locations where BASE jumping (the term for this kind of parachute jumping from a fixed object such as a bridge) is permitted year-round. I thought of our students as we watched the jumpers on an incredibly clear sunny day. Our students are as prepared as they can be with their packs of knowledge and pre-arrival preparation. They can see ahead, as the jumpers can see the canyon and the river bank below them. They think they have a clear view of what will come next. They have an idea of the terrain.

BASE jumping Perrine Bridge
Photo credit: Chris McNaught, Twin Falls, Idaho. Perrine Bridge BASE Jumping, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5533192

Yet that’s all it is — an idea. Even though they can see what lies ahead, they don’t really know what kind of landing they will have. Smooth and easy, gliding straight to the desirable flat grassy area? A bit hard on the knees due to misjudgment? A water landing?

Some will give up after a bad landing (a difficult initial adjustment or tough problems at school). Some will pick themselves up and jump again, learning from their mistakes. Some will find it all exhilarating. Some will argue that a water landing is awful (a tough time in a big city when you’re used to a small town, perhaps). Some will argue, as did some of the jumpers we met, that a water landing isn’t bad. It’s just a different experience.

The Same . . . But Different

As we drove through eastern Oregon, western Idaho, a short zig in and out of Utah, northern Wyoming, and finally western Colorado, I thought of friends and colleagues who live in these places. We’re connected by common language and culture, and our students from Europe and Asia think of all of us — whether we’re from Oregon, Idaho, Utah, or anywhere else in the U.S. — as being the same. Yet we’re not — or, perhaps, more accurately we’re all the same and yet we’re all different. We are separated by different twists in the English language and different local cultural norms, resulting from different local upbringings and totally different landscapes. A day’s drive may result in our never leaving the state in which we live, and so we are still in familiar territory. But we have reached a different world and so we’re in an unfamiliar land.

Wyoming
Green River, Wyoming

It’s hard to get used to different cultural expectations and a world that does not look anything like the world you are used to seeing outside your family home. I have to honestly ask myself if I could live in the wide open spaces of Wyoming for a year, when most of my life has been with an ocean within reach. Yet we ask our students to do exactly this, and more.

We know our students sometimes have a hard time adjusting to their host family and host community. Teens from large cities don’t know what to do when they arrive in a small town. Students from small towns are often bewildered when their host family lives in an urban area. Students who grew up with multiple siblings have some difficulty living in families with no children in the home. Students with no siblings have to learn how to share space when they’ve never done that before.

We “get it” perhaps more than they know. We hope we can show them how to navigate through it and enjoy their extended “road trip.” We hope, certainly, that we can help show them something of the vastness of the world we live in — not just the size and diversity of the United States as a place, but also the differences even within a place that many characterize as a single culture. If we can teach them that it’s more complex than that, and that the same is true of people and places everywhere, we’ll have succeeded. That’s what makes travel so exhilarating and exploration of other places so much fun.

RV at wooded campsite
Home for a week . . . Golden, Colorado

 

Photos Copyright 2016 Laura Kosloff, except as noted

 

Road Trip Part Two and New Beginnings

We recently went on a road trip with our two 75 lb German Shepherds and Jan, our 16-yr-old German exchange student. We adults had business meetings in San Diego and San Francisco; the exchange student had California on his “bucket list.”

Morning along a Skyline Wilderness Park hiking trail, Napa, CA

Jan had a bit of a setback halfway through our two-week trip when he discovered that his phone had fallen out of his pocket in the car and the display screen had broken. He was understandably frustrated, but showed a surprising ability to accept that life is what it is — surprising, that is, for a teen. But after almost a year in this country adapting to life in a completely different environment, living with people he had never met before who he was expected to consider family from Day One, and learning how to survive in a school system nothing like his school back home – well, maybe it’s not that surprising that he can now deal with many things in life in a more balanced way than we usually expect of teenagers.

He replaced his dead phone with a relatively inexpensive phone from Target that he could use back home in Germany and we moved on – to his next challenge, losing his wallet. Fortunately, he didn’t have much in the wallet so didn’t lose much of value. And with the gods and goddesses of road trips and exchange students smiling down on him, the wallet did turn up towards the end of our trip, hidden underneath the seat of the car.

One of the more valuable “lessons” of this trip, however, may have been a radical re-shaping for Jan of the size of this country and the nature of the state of California. Intellectually, he knew the U.S. is a big country. But “knowing” and really knowing are two different things, as anyone who has actually driven rather than flown can confirm. Flying to San Francisco or even San Diego takes a couple of hours from Portland; you leave after breakfast and you can be there in time for lunch. Driving brings the point home: 1,100 miles is a long drive.

And then there is California: the state that is the dream of so many exchange students around the world. Each year the exchange programs see hundreds of students pay extra to have their applications only shown to families in California. Students come to Oregon (and elsewhere) complaining that they did not get their first choice of California. Mention California to foreign teens and their eyes light up with excitement. They “know” it’s beautiful and exciting and absolutely the only place an exchange student can really experience America. They learn otherwise as they adapt and get to know their host community, of course, but the mystery, allure, and fantasy remain.

Irrigation in California's Central Valley Summer 2015
Irrigation in California’s Central Valley Summer 2015

Driving through California, we could show Jan first-hand the immense diversity of the state, from literally one end to the other: from the north which still feels like Oregon, through agricultural fields much larger than anything he was used to seeing in Germany, through miles and miles of vineyards, through more agricultural fields, through miles and miles of freeway traffic, all the way to the other end. He saw that much of California, as in Oregon and elsewhere, consists of smaller towns and not big exciting cities. He could see that Los Angeles wasn’t all that pretty a place when you spend hours driving through it. He could see that northern and southern California are dramatically different, and that the north shares many attributes with southern Oregon, leading to not-quite-kidding suggestions for the 51st State of Jefferson. And he could see the impacts of drought and the need for water in a state that has converted thousands of acres to crops that need constant irrigation.

Who knew a road trip could be so full of life lessons?

Jan with duffel
Portland International Airport, July 2015: first New York, then back home to Germany

We returned home to normal life – normal, that is, for the end of an exchange year. Because now that the road trip was over, we were that much closer to the end of this exchange year. Time seemed to rush up to meet us; rather the opposite from when you’re on the road, when things seem to slow down. So we returned, and Jan began to say goodbye to people he has met and become close to during his year in the U.S. Suddenly he felt time was moving too fast. Then he turned 17 the day before he left Oregon, and suddenly . . . he was on his way to New York.

 

 

 

Saying goodbye is the hardest part in life, but knowing that you have people you love all over the world is something unique. I’m truly thankful for this experience. . . . And coming to Oregon and calling it my home, that’s indescribable.

–Klara (from Sweden, in our 2014-2015 Portland area group)

 

*This blog post is linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com.*

Seeing America (or part of it….): Road Trip With Our Exchange Student

I am not a travel blogger and don’t have any intention of trying to be one. And I don’t post many personal stories, except bits and pieces that relate to study abroad. But sometimes the two converge.

Redtail car and pupsWe’re on day three of a road trip from Portland to San Diego, complete with RV, car in tow behind (“toad,” as RV’ers call them), 2 dogs — and exchange student. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, our 16 yr old German exchange student has been living with us since August 2014. Most of the students who have been on exchange this past year have left or are leaving within the next week or so. Jan and two dozen others across the U.S. will stay with their host family or local coordinators until mid-July, at which time they will head to NY for their responsibilities as camp and orientation counselors for hundreds of incoming students.

Jan had originally hoped to spend the two weeks Mark and I are in California with family friends in San Francisco; the idea was we would drop him off on the way down and pick him up a week or so later. But with the news that the family friends were visiting their own home and family in Germany, Jan took the initiative and asked if he could come with us.

Not necessarily a small request, since it’s not a large RV. With two adults and two 75 lb German shepherds it can be a challenge to find space and not step on each other’s toes. Add a teenager and it can be interesting. Since I’m writing this post we obviously decided to do it.

Now, we’ve been to most of the places we are stopping at. We’ve taken the RV to California twice before. We lived in California during law and graduate school, and drove back and forth between northern California and Portland countless times visiting family in Portland. But this is different.

I’m hoping we can look at it anew, from the perspective of our student who has not been to any of these places. We’re doing what host families do — we’re “sharing our America” — and we hope to learn something along the way.