It’s very important to note that this is a faculty-led study abroad program, which means that you will be among a GROUP of students. While your professors will give you the tools to succeed, it will be up to the group to use those tools to your advantage, rather than your detriment. If you have never traveled as a group before, it can be both very rewarding, and very challenging. Here are some of my thoughts on how to successfully travel as a group.
First, let me say that you will never have a group as amazing as mine. I am sure that many former participants would tell you the same, and I would put my group up against any of them. Were we perfect? No. Were we perfect for each other? I think so.
I hope that all participants, past and future, feel the same way about their groups.
Heading to our first orientation meeting as a group, long before we ever boarded our flight for El Salvador, I was eager to see who I would be traveling with. I imagined that meeting would go something like the first episode of a season of MTV’s “The Real World”.
Nine strangers, picked to live in a house Casa Oasis, work travel and study together, and have their lives taped monitored by faculty members, to find out what happens when people stop being polite indifferent, and start getting real. The Real Study Abroad, El Salvador.
I wondered how we would get along. Who would form cliques with each other and who would avoid each other like the plague? I wondered how all of these different personalities could possibly share the same experience for two weeks without a few blow-ups along the way. We were made up of different genders, different races, different backgrounds, different ages, and different majors. And luckily for all of us, group problems were minimal. Here’s how we did it:
Accept your group members for who they are, not who you want them to be.
-This is an important first step. You may have ideas of what your fellow travelers will be like. Throw those ideas out the window. You can’t control who is in your group, you can only control how you choose to treat the people that you do end up sharing this experience with.
Understand when you are having problems.
-Our group discussed group dynamics in orientation, specifically Tuckman’s model of forming, storming, norming, and performing. After that, whenever two people even started to hint at the possibility of arguing, other group members would yell out “STORMING!” and make sure that everyone heard. Many times, this turned into a joke. A few times, storming was really happening. But at least by saying it, we made it clear that this was just part of what happens with groups. I think that took a bit of the edge off of a few arguments. Not all arguments are personal, and you should not take them that way. Arguments may just be lessons that a group learns on their way to more advanced stages. Remember that.
When you journal alone, do it together.
-Read that again. No, it’s not a typo. Yes, I mean it. Your journals are your own personal thoughts and you do not need to share them with anyone. That being said, your thoughts are very much enhanced by the discussions that you have with those around you. I found it very helpful to journal out on the balcony at Casa Oasis, with other group members around. At times, it would be completely silent, with each of us writing, too entrenched in our own pages to think about what was going on around us. At other times, someone (usually Ken) would ask if they could read a bit of their journal, to see what everyone thought. I really appreciated that, as it showed a willingness to open up to each other. And at other times still, we would start discussions based on the topics that we were journaling about, only to find that while we all wrote about different topics, they each tied together to form a story more beautiful than the sum of its parts. Let those around you enhance your thoughts in the same way that my group enhanced mine.
-This seems both simple and difficult at the same time. You cannot force laughter, but if you leave yourself open to it, you will enjoy the experience that much more. We laughed A LOT. When you make a mistake, rather than be embarrassed, laugh. When you realize that you forgot to pack that one item that you really need, do not worry, laugh. When you walk 45 minutes to get to a restaurant, only to find that you do not meet the dress code, and then wander around aimlessly unable to agree on a place to go, until you finally end up eating in a Chinese restaurant in El Salvador where they continually mess up orders as eight very hungry (and ornery) people wait to eat, arguing with each other out of pure frustration, laugh. Yes, that happened. And yes, I still laugh when I think about it.