The human factor
Backpacking around the world is a typical adventure these days for graduates in the UK who have left college and are trying to put off getting a real job for a while. An aim of their gap year is to see the world and learn about other people and other cultures but some backpackers end up in a British house share in Sydney doing an office job and sampling the exotic nightlife down under, not dissimilar to that which they left behind in the UK. I was musing about how one can make the most of an experience overseas and I realised that memorable travelling moments come about as a result of interacting with people.
The Angkor temples in Cambodia are truly magnificent, but remembering visiting this world wonder without remembering being taught to count to ten in Khmer by the children selling maps and offering to be my guide (“English, German, Japanese?”) seems, somehow, two-dimensional to me. The next best thing to interacting with locals is meeting other travellers. A lot of the appeal of backpacking, in my experience, is swapping stories, tales and experiences with others.
The language travel students surveyed in this issue asserted that they wanted to be in a class of mixed nationalities that would enable them to meet people from different countries and explore their location with new-found international friends. One Swede complained of being in a class with too many other Swedes while a Brazilian was pleased her agency had sent her to a school with few of her compatriots (pages 18-20). Attention to such details as class nationality mix in partner schools will mark out the best agencies.
I was impressed to note that over half of the students reported that their agencies had checked up on them since they had gone overseas. It is difficult to measure, always, a critical level of care from an agency, which is why word-of-mouth recommendation is so important. But a new European standard does prove that an agency reaches a certain level of expectation, and a Swiss agency has become the first company to fulfil these requirements (page 10).
Our school commentator, Timothy Blake, wonders this month if quality schemes reduce language schools to mundane tick boxes and ignore the spark that makes a school unique (page 10). Quality assurance is important in this industry, of course, but it is true to say that it is difficult to quanitify the human factor that is so important in any study abroad experience.