In June of this year, I volunteered for Global Glimpse, a non-profit organization that leads leadership development trips for teenagers to visit developing countries. Global Glimpse aims to “open the eyes of tomorrow’s leaders” by guiding students through travel experiences that help them rethink their perspective on the world around them.

I was a returning leader this summer who had written about the value of these programs in the past. And yet, I still returned surprised by the learning I gained from our trip. After eighteen days leading teenagers around Ecuador, here’s what I didn’t expect:

1. Teenagers from the Silicon Valley area actually don’t mind leaving their smartphones at home.

Global Glimpse makes it clear from the beginning that cell phones are not on the packing list. Students could only call home on free days if they chose to visit an internet cafe or phone cabin. Otherwise, our trip was entirely internet and phone free.

Considering my students all grew up near the Bay, within miles of Facebook and Twitter headquarters, I expected to hear more complaints. But when I asked them midway through the trip how was life without their phones, many said “It’s a huge relief.” One told me she hated the pressure of having to “always be available.” Many also admitted that they wouldn’t have been nearly as friendly with other students on the trip if they had their phone in their pocket to retreat to.

2. Something about being in a foreign country makes students so much more willing to push themselves.

I thought a large part of my role on our trip would be motivating students to embrace the struggles that come with traveling. Yet I was amazed at how easily they took initiative to do this themselves. When we did our high-altitude hike on volcano Chimborazo — a hike that meant walking through intense rain, wind and cold — every single student finished the trail. When we played soccer in the park, kids who had never played joined the team. When we put on a talent show at a local school, one of our students took it upon himself to memorize a poem and recite it in front of the audience. Afterwards, the student wrote in a blog reflection,  “It was definitely scary, but hey, isn’t getting out of our comfort zone what this whole trip was about?”

3. Less than a month away from the United States is more than enough time for students to rethink materialism.

In one of our reflections, a student wrote about her previous perceptions of developing countries: “Before this trip, I felt bad for developing countries and communities. Visiting them made me nervous, because I was expecting a depressed group of people. To me, they were poor and sad and I thought they needed help…help would equal money which would result in happiness.”

Yet just one day interacting with these communities changed her mind. On our trip, we visited a community forced to relocate after a volcano eruption. The eruption had destroyed their homes and everything else they owned.  We visited them in their new home of Penipe where they had rebuilt their lives from scratch.

After our visit, many students expressed their surprise of seeing the people living there looking happy. A student wrote later “When we were visiting this community, it didn’t feel like they were ‘impoverished.’ They were all very connected and supportive of each other. Whereas in America, when we think of poverty we think of people who have nothing and are all alone. It surprised us…how close together they were, like family.”

Many students said this visit proved to them that happiness and money were not necessarily connected, and that their former definition of “poor” was inadequate. The student who previously “felt bad” for developing countries and thought “help would equal money” now thought otherwise. She later wrote “I myself was planning on pursuing a life that would guarantee money over a life that would bring me joy…Because of my experience with Global Glimpse, I have other goals in my life besides financial security.”

4. Their favorite days? Not necessarily the “Fun Days” but instead, the days we worked on a farm.

After we spent the day working on a local farm, I assumed most of their reflections that night would mention their struggles with the tediousness of the work, the physically demanding labor of picking and carrying corn over and over again, the discomfort of a day in the dirt. Instead, the highlight of every single student’s day that night: “We took off our shoes and we planted peas bare feet! The cold dirt felt so good! Best day ever!”

Particularly with today’s tech-savvy teenagers, I assumed that my job as a leader was to make activities more exciting, more stimulating, more engaging for kids who constantly lived on the move. But it turned out what they actually appreciated was far more simple.

5. In the end, teenagers — like every traveler — are just seeking connection, mixed with a little bit of adventure.

During our end-of-the-trip reflections, when I expected to hear students rave about the gorgeous architecture of Quito, the stunning waterfalls in Baños, or the killer hikes on Chimborazo, students instead wanted to talk about the moments they truly engaged with other people’s lives: playing soccer on a mountain top against locals, riding in the back of a pick-up truck through the countryside while helping a farmer transport supplies, listening to a woman’s stories about her life as they washed dishes together in her kitchen. One morning, a local community member accidentally drove their car into a small ditch nearby and got stuck. A group of students joined locals and together, they helped fully lift the car out of the ditch. Many said that incident alone was one of the best of the trip.

Ultimately, my students’ best moments abroad weren’t about Ecuador’s best attractions. Instead they were about Ecuador’s people. I can’t imagine a better travel lesson to learn than that. 

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