5 Fantastic Tips for Leading International Trips that Elevate Beyond the Tourist Experience

IMG_0760.JPGLee University is a great place to work for several reasons! One of them is that the university places a high value on international travel. I have been lucky enough to go to Ukraine, Poland, Australia and this summer to New Zealand as well. Of course, when I travel, I have 10 to 40 students in tow!

Over the years I have come up with a few principles for trip success. What I mean by success might not be what others mean though – I don’t just want the trip to be a tour; I want the trip to mean something. This post doesn’t deal with logistics, but rather deals with elevating your international trip beyond the tourist experience so that it can have a lasting impact on your students or team. Here are a few elements I’ve distilled (through success and failure!) after leading several international trips:

  1. Make a Narrative Experience

The first tip for trip success is this: make the trip a narrative experience. I could get into the theory on this (go Fish(er)!), but the idea is simple: be sure that your trip has a distinct beginning, middle and end.

My trips are usually three weeks long and they usually have three segments. Usually, the segments are not one week each, as usually, we focus at one location a bit longer than the others, but they always have a distinct progression.

Scene 1: When we were in Australia last, we traveled to Sydney. In Sydney, we first toured and got settled in, then we collaborated with Hillsong College regarding organizational communication and then we toured Sydney and the region more and allowed students to explore on their own a bit (in groups). “Scene one” allowed us to acclimate to the nation (and time difference!) and introduced the main characters, setting and plot of the narrative.

In Ukraine, we started in Kiev, acclimated, toured and introduced the students to Mohyla School of Journalism.  Our students also began working on a joint project with the amazing students from Mohyla (which we will discuss more later in the article).

You might even break it down like this (though I’ll just use this for the first scene for the sake of space!):

Australia: Scene 1

Characters: Leaders and students at Hillsong College

Setting: Sydney

Plot: Journey to new people and perspectives/work with Hillsong on their upcoming conference/discover the adventurer within.

Scene 2:

In Australia, we flew from Sydney to Cairns to experience the Great Barrier Reef, crocodiles and the like. This was the most “touristy” part of this particular trip, with the most free time. During this shorter segment, the students had time to interview locals and experience Aboriginal culture to a degree. This part served as the pause before the storm – even though it was a critical part of the narrative progression.

In Ukraine we travelled to L’viv. In L’viv we not only toured and experienced a new historic setting, we also were able to partner with a non-profit that served street children, and then later worked at a home for the disabled. This allowed us to do humanitarian work and see a side of the nation that would never be seen on a tourist trip. In this progression, the students were brought to a deeper place of intimacy with the nation through service.

Scene 3:

And finally, we returned to Sydney for the Hillsong Conference. Though we were back in Sydney, the conference created a culminating event. Our students participated in the conference as volunteers, and were also able to experience the conference in the evenings. This work, especially the co-laboring with local college students, was missional, relational and experiential. The work, combined with the massive 20,000 plus person conference, created a fantastic culmination to the narrative.

For the Ukraine trip scene three took place in Poland. This was largely the same as scene two in the Australia trip – serving as a bit of an anticlimax after the heartwarming and heart-wrenching interactions in L’viv. But the unexpected came into play: travel to and from Poland was a special experience that we will discuss later in the article!

So, while the narrative did not follow a hero cycle or even traditional arc, there was an arc – and more importantly, there was a distinct progression with purpose in every step. Ultimately, the progression and the purpose are the most important aspects of the narrative experience.

Here is a video that one of my students, Tanner Gwaltney, put together that reflects the narrative of the Australia trip pretty well:

  1. Create Connection to Nationals

The second thing I do to make sure that a trip is successful is I ensure that there is some connection with the people who live in the nation. The first student trip that I led was to Ukraine. I inherited the trip from a good friend, Dr. Michael Sturgeon. He was able to set up “home-stays” with locals through a university in Poltava. The students truly bonded with the homestay families. His format allowed for a deeply embedded cultural experience that was highly intimate.

Unfortunately, I have not had success with such depth since that first trip (though I think it is an excellent means to this end). I have been more successful creating relationships with international colleges. In Australia, we partnered with Hillsong College. On my first trip to Ukraine, we partnered with two universities in Poltava. During my second trip, we were able to partner with Mohyla School of Journalism.

My optimal trip includes my American students working with national students to create something of value. While the Hillsong conference was a phenomenal cooperative project/experience, this last year’s Ukrainian project might be the best cooperative project I’ve been able to facilitate. In Ukraine, we created content to shed light on the problem of internally displaced people in the nation by starting what we called “The Uprooted Project“.

Ukraine has a simmering civil war that gets little international attention. Educating the students on the trip and their networks (and beyond through digital publication) not only had humanitarian value, it really allowed the nationals and my students to see each other on a new level. This type connection allows for a depth of experience that cannot be understood from the distanced perspective of a tourist.

Here is a video that my students created about the situation:

But what really lent this project significance in terms of its significance to the trip was the opportunity the American students had to co-labor with the Ukrainian students. Mohyla allowed us to use a space at their university, and assigned several students to work with our team while we were in Ukraine. The Ukrainian student journalists were phenomenal at facilitating the project, and the byproduct of the successful project was significant bonding between the diverse students. The Ukrainian and American students labored together, and this led to them socializing and gaining what scholars might call “fellow-feeling” or “fusion of horizons” or some such attempt to verbalize what happens when people connect deeply. This same co-laboring and deep relating happened at the Hillsong conference as well. What fantastic experiences!

The sympathy developed during this time of co-laboring allows students to truly develop a “global perspective” (this is the name of our international trip system at Lee!),  and is an integral part of an impactful trip.

  1. Develop a Common Cause

The Uprooted was possibly my favorite common cause, but every trip needs a cause. Why? Not because we rich Americans need to “help” or something; we need to learn from the people we go to visit! But rather, a common cause allows for greater intimacy. My father is a pastor, and he says that true intimacy can only be found on the other side of difficulty or conflict. When my group experiences a “difficulty” of the local population, they can actually create a more intimate bond with the people of the nation. In Australia, we bonded with the Hillsong College students by working their amazing conference.IMG_1330.JPG

In Ukraine we bonded with the locals through two causes: The Uprooted Project and the humanitarian work in L’viv. We worked with children and the disabled in L’viv. In New Zealand, we plan to bring hope to teens through relationship and potential programming, as the nation has the highest teen suicide rate in the developed world.

In our culture, it is too easy to bail before you get to the good stuff! But “causes” are a workaround to our generational propensity to “unfollow” what ails us. Causes activate the deep compassion of our generation and give students a reason to go down the difficult path to intimacy.  Every nation (especially ours) has causes; connect with them, and you connect with the people.

  1. Plan for Problems

Wait, you want problems? Well, not exactly. However, nothing bonds a group like problems. My most vivid example of a problem was the 13 hour bus ride from L’viv, Ukraine to Warsaw, Poland.

IMG_1481.JPGThis memory is still so vivid! I remember standing with my group of Americans, with our American sized luggage, waiting for the bus on a dark night in, basically, a random parking lot. I then remember being sat at the back of the bus because I didn’t know to bribe the driver!

The bus itself, which the person who sold me the tickets guaranteed was of “Western standards” and had “air conditioning”, was really at least 20 years old, and had intermittent slightly cooler air that the driver would turn off and on at his whim. And then there was the border!

The border.

First, our bus sat in line to get to the border for several hours – so long that for extended periods you could exit the sweltering bus and either relax, pee in the bushes, or smoke (for those not in my group!). Then, after this halting, excruciatingly long trudge to what we thought was our destination (the border), and after passport checks and uniformed workers coming on and off the bus, we entered another cue in the no-man’s land between Ukraine and Poland.

This cue was slightly shorter, but was punctuated with a long trip through a check-point, where we had to take all of our luggage through a terminal, have it scanned, be interviewed by a border agent who asked us if we were bringing drugs into the nation (as, if we were, we, of course, would have told them?!? We weren’t of course!), and then load back onto the bus. Oh yes, this was at something like 4 a.m.

And then, finally, blessedly, we soldiered onto a train terminal in Warsaw, and transferred to our hotel. At least two students wept during the bus trip, one threw up, and at least three students were sick the next day. All universally reviewed the bus ride as the worst travel experience of their lives! With that said, we made it through the gauntlet – together!

The fact that this type of bus trip was normal for so many was not lost on our American students. That was normal for most everyone on that over-crowded, gear-grinding, tortuous machine. As a result of this trip, we recognized our privilege; we recognized our weakness; we recognized the “other”. What an experience!

Needless to say, we took the train back to Ukraine, and I will never, ever, ever schedule a bus across an Eastern European border again. But this will forever be an example of how the difficulties on a trip can actually be exceptionally valuable. You don’t always plan the difficulty, but if you are ready for it, you can harness its power to connect students with each other and with your host country in an impacting and lasting way.

While this was an unplanned difficulty, I have also planned “difficulties” into trips. On my first trip to Australia, we got a meal in downtown Sydney fairly early in the trip. The students did not yet have their bearings, and weren’t yet savvy to the bus and train systems. Well, at lunch I gave them the opportunity to come back to the YWAM hostel with me, or to explore and get back to the hostel on their own. I made sure that they were in groups, and made sure that each group had a phone (in case of emergencies), but then let them work it out. These “kids” aren’t kids – they are adults! This semi-controlled “difficulty” gave them a chance to problem solve together, to choose what they wanted to do, to own the experience, and to face the unknown and overcome it. I remember the stories when they arrived home of going to the wrong stop on the metro, and of getting stuck in random places, but all arriving safe and sound by the time set for check-in (almost). This planned “difficulty” was great for team-building, and for encouraging a level of ownership in the experience. They made it back, on their own!

Difficulties are something that should be planned for – regardless of whether or not they are formally planned, or unplanned! But more than that, when these difficulties are framed properly, they end up adding to the trip in ways that nothing else can.

  1. Instigate Instagram Moments

IMG_0968.JPGWhile everything above might seem a bit serious, you’ve got to let loose a bit as well – and you need a graphic representation of the international experience. Students these days house their identity in their person, but also in their digital representations. If the trip offers them opportunities to enhance their digital representation and to add something to their identity project, they will feel a higher level of gratification and involvement in the trip. Simple photos are timeless representations of the experience they are having, and they want to share them! This might sound simple (let the students take photos…), but the theory on this one goes deep as well (ala Hailes, McLuhan, Goode, etc. etc.).

Every trip must have the graphic “experience of the nation” – and what that means is different in every nation.

You must have the iconic, and the unusual.

IMG_1452For example, in Sydney you must have the opera house. You must. Australia just isn’t Australia without the opera house, and frankly, many students might not have many other images in their minds when they think about the nation (maybe other than Steve Irwin or The Wiggles). Connect with those iconic realities so that the students have signposts they can point to – they experienced the nation.IMG_0903.JPG

Then, what is something that is out of the way, but still representative of the nation? In Ukraine, it might be the food! Something like eating sala (raw, cured pig fat). A picture of a plate of Sala says, “I am not just experiencing the postcard!” The unusual things give depth to the graphic representation and take the student beyond the mere tourist experience. Now, of course, the experience itself is the most important thing – but thinking in terms of how it will be digitally represented is important.

Lastly, interpersonal pictures are important too. The very real relationships that students create will often persist well beyond the duration of the trip. Photos are an opportunity to move that relationship to the digital realm, where it will likely reside for the foreseeable future.

IMG_1306.JPGYou must have the narrative experience, but then also give the students an opportunity to incorporate the experience into their digital representational self, validating the experience for them and their social constructions.


I am not discussing several key ideas for trips like have times to “unpack” what they are experiencing during the trip, plan free-time, encourage journaling (we require it), or basic trip planning elements like safety, lodging, laundry, and food, etc. Really, with this post, I just wanted to share the things that have seemed to make my trips successful beyond the basics.

With a narrative progression, students have directionality and a thought-out experience; with connection, to nationals, students create relationships and begin to see the “other”; with causes, students have depth and intimacy; with difficulty, students get greater ownership and adventure; and with Instagram moments, students can build their identity projects. Hopefully, this means students will not only have a great experience, but will be impacted in a way that affects them as humans and that broadens their worldview.

Dr. Michael Finch works as a professor and student media adviser at Lee University. He writes about digital media, journalism and the intersection of media and faith. All rights reserved. about.me/michael.finch

professional shot me mike




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s