How Teens Can Develop Cultural Sensitivity During High School Travel Programs
All Articles

How Teens Can Develop Cultural Sensitivity During High School Travel Programs

There are so many reasons to get teens traveling early (and without their parents), but exposing them to new cultures, cultural norms, and people from different backgrounds is one of the most important.

Visiting a new country and experiencing many aspects of a different culture often happens for the first time in high school travel programs. Teens should be taught how to respectfully observe and react to the different cultures, traditions, beliefs, and values they encounter.

What is Cultural Sensitivity?

Cultural sensitivity means the ability to recognize, understand, and respect the cultural differences and cultural practices of others. It involves being aware of one’s own culture and background while remaining open-minded and empathetic towards the cultural perspectives and practices of others.

According to American sociologist Milton Bennett, people often experience and react to cultural difference in a continuum of increasing sensitivity.

The Bennett Scale outlines the stages people go through in developing their cultural competence and sensitivity.

  1. Denial Stage – being unaware of cultural differences and believing their own culture is superior.
  2. Defense Stage – perceiving cultural differences as a threat.
  3. Minimization Stage – acknowledging cultural differences but downplaying their significance.
  4. Acceptance Stage – appreciating cultural diversity and seeking to understand other cultures.
  5. Adaption Stage – completely embracing cultural diversity and being able to navigate cultural differences with ease.

Reacting in a Culturally Appropriate Manner

Consider this potential scenario: A group of teens heads out to explore an open market and stops at a vendor selling an unfamiliar food. Many of them haven’t been to an open market, or have any idea what the vendor is cooking over an open fire. Perhaps it’s something they normally wouldn’t consider eating back home.

The vendor offers the group a sample and the teens are faced with a decision:

  • Deny the unfamiliar food because it’s “gross” or “strange”
  • Ask questions to learn more about it and how it’s prepared before trying it
  • Accept the vendor’s offer without hesitation

It is okay to not understand or be familiar with something. However not understanding is different from assigning it a negative value because of their assumptions, knowledge or past experiences. The less they try to define another culture’s practices within the constructs of their own biases and belief systems, the more open-minded they’ll become by trying new things and experiencing different cultures.

In our programs, your teen is encouraged to practice acceptance and to ask questions about different cultures.

In the open market example, they could ask why certain foods are eaten, what they’re made from, and how they’re prepared before deciding whether to try them. We ask them to avoid making negative declarations like “ew” or “yuck.” We also recommend not using closed body language like avoiding eye contact and crossed arms.

Practicing Cultural Sensitivity

Rustic’s high school travel programs allow teens to practice cultural sensitivity. They’ll be exposed to new places, different cultural backgrounds, unique cultural beliefs or traditions, different styles of clothing, and unfamiliar foods to name a few.

Asking teens to be culturally sensitive doesn’t mean they’ll be expected to become experts in each culture’s values and customs. Instead, they’ll be encouraged to ask questions, seek to understand, and demonstrate empathy rather than making assumptions and judging those around them.

Benefits of Cultural Competence

Your teen will walk away from their Rustic experience with a new set of essential skills around cultural awareness. These skills will help them be more aware, reflect on the global world around them, and navigate an increasingly multicultural society.

These are the non-cognitive skills that make up the  Student Learning Outcomes at the heart of every program:

  1. Openness to New Ideas and Experiences
  2. Sense of Wonderment
  3. A Belief That All People are Connected by a Shared Humanity
  4. A Desire to Positively Impact the Lives of Others
  5. Empathy
  6. Self-awareness
  7. Humility
  8. Grit
  9. Independence
  10. Intercultural Competence

Of the 10 learning outcomes that we’ve identified, three of them—openness to new ideas and experiences, empathy, and intercultural competence—are directly connected to cultural sensitivity.

A better understanding of global cultural practices leads to greater acceptance of others and heightened cultural sensitivity. The more we embrace our differences, the more we knock down intercultural barriers that create conflict in our world.


Want to expose your teen to another culture? Give the gift of travel this year. To learn more, request a call from one of our global travel experts. 

About the Author

Emily Greiff

Website Coordinator

Originally from a small town in Massachusetts, Emily realized her dreams of living in the mountains when she moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming in the fall of 2014. Prior to that, Emily lived and worked in NYC after graduating from Colgate University with a dual degree in Spanish and Environmental Studies. This is Emily’s first experience working with Rustic Pathways but has done a number of service and travel programs in the past including trips to the Dominican Republic, Spain, and Romania. Emily is passionate about playing in the mountains, yoga, cooking, and art.