Supportive Immersion: The Use of Transformative Cross-Cultural Experiential Learning to Address Social Trends in the 21st Century
Abstract: In an era of globalization and rapidly evolving cultural changes, traditional support structures are struggling to equip our youth with the necessary competencies for a successful transition into adulthood. A thematic analysis was performed on interviews of participants of a therapeutic gap program providing what is known as “Supportive Immersion,” an approach to experiential transformative learning where facilitators and learners co-create experiences of learning.
Findings show two main points:
1) participants’ articulation of their perceived personal growth and skill development supported the positive impact of their cross-cultural supportive gap experience, and
2) the five themes identified (PROPS) described characteristics and skill sets of an “integrative learner,” which directly relate to preparing young adults for recent changes in societal trends.
This study demonstrated the outcomes and effectiveness of guided, supported crosscultural immersion experiences. Keywords: Cross-Cultural, Emerging Adults, Supportive Immersion, GapYear, Transitions
Cite this article: Youngberg, K., Recio, D., & Tracy, H. (2020). Supportive Immersion: The Use of Transformative Cross-Cultural Experiential Learning to Address Social Trends in the 21st Century. Journal of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, XII, 117–138. doi: 10.19157/JTSP.issue.12.01.07
Have you stopped to think how much of what you appreciate and desire depends on your perspective?
Last year, during The Bridge’s 2-week project in South Africa, we were hiking in the beautiful mountains around Cape Town. Arnold, the program director of a friend organization, Usiko, and I were walking together. They work with at-risk youth from underprivileged suburban areas of Cape Town.
I stopped for a moment to take in the view, and asked him if he brought his students often to this area. He said yes, and I told him how important it is to expose people to beauty. He agreed, but proceeded to tell me something that has stuck with me. He said that many of his students could not perceive the beauty; they could see it, but couldn’t really appreciate it. This made me think that appreciation requires education, or else it is not exercised. Every single day, almost all the time, we presence marvelous events. Wonderful feats of human creativity, such as buildings and cars. Incredible skies and natural beauty. People with unique perspectives to delve into and connect with. But it seems like unless we create a container to take it in and appreciate it, it flows right past us like water in a stream.
Educating ourselves and others in the valuable practice of appreciation is not complicated. It just needs practice. You don’t need college degrees, money or higher levels of consciousness. By taking a moment and asking ourselves: what is unique in what I’m experiencing? What would this experience be if the sky was just gray as opposed to blue? What would life be if there was no diversity in perspectives and cultures? What am I taking for granted now that I would miss if it wasn’t here?
And just like appreciation requires education, what we desire is a product of such education, and often goes unnoticed as well. Of course we have basic needs, like food, shelter and belonging; and meeting those needs are part of our desires. However, a simple hut and a mansion are both shelter, just like we can find belonging by being part of a sports team or by posting lots of pictures on social media. Being thoughtful of what we desire is essential, as many people around us want us to desire something they have, like their products, substances, or their acceptance. If we are not intentional and mindful of what we desire we can end spending a lot of energy and time (in some cases a lifetime) pursuing a desire that doesn’t fulfill us or maybe isn’t our desire to begin with. Huts, mansions, sports teams and social media are all fine if they are truly satisfying our deeper needs; otherwise they may become a distraction or an obstacle, and ultimately lead to frustration and disappointment.
A few simple skills really help educate our appreciation and desire:
1. Awareness: keeping our senses awake to subtleties we might not typically realize. Is there beauty around me I have been taking in? What need am I trying to fulfill by binge-watching Netflix?
2. Flexibility: we shift our perspective, acknowledge the needs we are trying to fulfill, and find alternative ways to meet them. This way, we disentangle our expectations from what the situation actually offers. Instead of waiting for my friends to call, could I just sit back and hang out with my siblings for the night?
3. Ordinariness: more often than not, reality is plenty fine, and contains enough to appreciate and to meet our needs.
It’s important to reclaim our own ability to shift the way we perceive what we need and appreciate. It’s not easy, it requires a lot practice, education and more often than not, re-education. But it’s completely possible! And what’s more, we can influence, and therefore educate other people as well, just by sharing our perspectives on what we appreciate and realize we truly need.
Wouldn’t it be nice to change without changing, without effort and uncertainty? It’d be nice, but development usually derives from struggle; it does not come without effort, without having to deal with the unknown. Stories and fables have been created for millennia to teach us many important life lessons, like how to grow from struggle. Joseph Campbell (1972) put together many of those teachings into a comprehensive story line, he called the monomyth. This is the famous and, perhaps trite, Hero’s Journey. But many of us keep on coming back to the monomyth, because there’s so much to learn from it. The hero, whichever story we choose, is our role model. It is our encouragement to take a leap, to do something different, to exert change despite adversity.
I want to focus on the particular moment of the hero’s journey called “the belly of the whale”. The Belly of the Whale represents the moment where the hero, in his journey to a “region of supernatural wonder” (Campbell, 1972, p.30) must “instead of passing outward… goes inward, to be born again” (Campbell, 1972, p.91). In the stories Campbell talks about, the hero has left the comforts of home, and then there’s a crucial moment when he or she is swallowed by something larger than him or her: an elephant, a monster, a wolf, a whale. This period of time inside the “belly of the whale” represents the critical period of incubation of inner change, where the old dies and the new is born. Luke Skywalker goes to meet Yoda in a dark mysterious planet and becomes a Jedi. Gandalf falls into the depths of middle earth and turns from grey to white. These pop culture examples that follow the monomyth, also represent the metamorphosis that goes on in the belly of the whale.
The incubation of inner change is scary. It entails letting go of certainty and embracing uncertainty. It is effortful; it requires resilience, insight and resolve. Kazimierz Dabrowski (2015) called this process “positive disintegrations”. Positive disintegrations are the moments in life where we fall apart, but which allow us to put ourselves together in new and better ways.
Those of us who are facilitating growth for others, whether as a parent, teacher, guide or therapist, are whales or elephants or wolves. We become containers for people to incubate inner change. We provide certain conditions that evoke the struggle of letting go of the old and the development of the new. As such, we must accept the duality of our role, both as vessels that nurture and hold a space, as well as instigators of discomfort, uncertainty and struggle. Accepting ourselves as big or small bellies of a whale and all that the role entails is crucial for the development of those we care about.
Without a hero venturing out into the unknown, and without a belly of the whale, transformation is unlikely, and for that we have numerous myths and about every person’s life journey to prove it.
Campbell, J. (1972). The hero with a thousand faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Dabrowski, K. (2015). Personality-shaping through positive disintegration. California: Red Pill Press.
by Dr. Danny Recio, PhD
The other day I was talking with a student who claims to have not participated much in the completion of his own college applications last year. This is more common than one would think. A high school student feels overwhelmed with the pressures of completing senior year as well as completing the college applications, which both feel like defining factors of young people’s future success. Parents just want to help, and slowly involve themselves and other people more and more to get through the process, so their son or daughter don’t miss out on the opportunity. Parents tend to believe that the lack of proactivity and anxiety might just be momentary, and it’s better to just push through.
When this particular student was explaining the college application process, he basically said that he just took a backseat. I thought the term he used was brilliant, and made me think how often we intend for people to learn new skills but only give them a passive role in the process. If we take this backseat comment, and actually use learning to drive a car as the actual (yet metaphorical) intended skill to acquire, this becomes even clearer. It’s practically impossible for anyone to learn how to drive a car by riding in the back seat.
One reason why I think we are ok with people taking a backseat in a learning process, is because we confuse process with outcome. If the destination we are seeking is the neighboring town (in the metaphor of driving the car) or applying to college (in the actual example), it doesn’t really matter who’s driving, if what matters is the outcome. If the process is what matters, this completely changes.
It is true that the person in the back seat actually got to the neighboring town, but he probably doesn’t know how he got there, how to get back home, or how to get there again on his own. This is very obvious in the case of driving, but in education, psychology and parenting, we tend to be satisfied with getting people to the destination, whether they learned something along the way or not. We eagerly offer insight, solutions and information when the learner could have benefitted from finding such insight, solutions and information himself.
An effective learning process requires the learner to get in the driver’s seat, and the teacher to sit beside her in the passenger's seat. Very little will be learned in the back seat, and not much in the passenger's seat. In the driver’s seat, the learner can feel the responsibility of the process, and every single action and adjustment that works and doesn’t work. Yes, reaching the outcome might be slightly delayed, as the new driver doesn’t have as much experience, and will probably need to drive slower and change course along the way. But once the outcome is reached, it is likely to be more satisfying, internalized and sustainable.
For this to occur,the teacher in the passenger's seat guides the new driver through gradual and successive challenges, from simple to more difficult ones. The teacher initially directs a lot, explaining what actions to take and where to go, then gradually directs less, and eventually lets the driver drive alone.
Thus, next time we encounter a situation like this, we can ask ourselves: Is the outcome my goal or is the learning process my goal? And if the learning process is your goal… who is in the driver’s seat?
by Dr. Danny Recio, PhD, Program Director of The Bridge
However, in hermit crabs and metaphorical shells, coming out is directly related to feeling safe; as long as there’s a sense of considerable threat out in the environment, there will be no coming out. Thus, coming out of the shell entails both feeling confident in one’s own skills to deal with the world, as well as trusting that the world is not just going to sweep us away.
The equivalent of the metaphorical shell in the nervous system is the vagus nerve, which plays a fundamental role in a process Steven Porges named neuroception. This process allows people to decipher signals from their environment, both from objects as well as detailed cues from people, to help determine whether a situation deserves a threat response (get in the shell) or is safe (come out of the shell and engage). Porges explains that this process can go “out of tune” so that people activate defense systems when it’s actually a safe situation, or exhibit engaging or risk-taking behavior in an unsafe environment.
So, how does one support someone’s desire to come out of the shell and continue to grow? Not by frantically tapping on the shell, which will only reinforce the sense of unsafety in the environment, and not by just feeding the hermit crab so he’s nourished without having to come out of the shell. Why? Because neither of these strategies will help the person fine-tune his neuroception of safety; he will continue to perceive erroneously his capacity to engage the world
At The Bridge and our high school program, New Summit Academy, we believe in a middle-way approach we call supportive immersion. Supportive Immersion is an approach to learning that focuses less on instruction and product, and more on experience and process. It is highly individualized in that it relies heavily on the lived subjective experience of the learner toward what he’s learning, and it keeps at its center the goal of learning how to learn. The facilitator (teacher, therapist, etc.) of this learning process is both hands-off and very involved at the same time; walking with the learner in the process, but not doing the walking for or just shouting instructions from the sidelines. Empathy is a key element, and it’s used to see the task from the worldview of the learner while also using the facilitator’s own knowledge to guide experiences and invite shifts in the learner’s worldview. It’s teaching how to fish, instead of being given a fish type of approach.
This process is very successful for people that are in the shell, because it provides the feeling (neuroception) of safety coming from the support, guidance and processing of the (often out-of-the-comfort-zone) experiences our students are going through and, at the same time, it allows the learner to walk his own path, and feel what it’s like to poke his head out of the shell, and find his own way to gradually make changes that allow the growth they are seeking.
What is the research saying?
The American Gap Association reported from their 2015 alumni survey that students who opted to do a gap program, experienced the greatest impacts related to their personal growth and development.
On average, they had shorter times to college graduation and higher GPA as compared to national norms.
They are also currently experiencing higher levels of job satisfaction and civic participation as compared to national norms.
Harvard published an article listing the benefits of attending a gap experience, one being that prestigious colleges are now looking at these experiences as a desirable experience for their students. https://college.harvard.edu/admissions/preparing-college/should-i-take-time
Yes, we see the wonders that a gap experience can do for the right young man, but what happens and what we can do for those that are not ready to be dropped off in a foreign country to figure things out for themselves?
The Bridge Program for Young Adults offers struggling young men the opportunity to access all the benefits of a gap program, but with a solid structure of therapeutic support and vocational exploration.
We work with our students to help them learn the skills to become well-rounded citizens by encouraging them to move out of their comfort zone, immersing themselves in a different culture and challenge their own perspectives.
by Dr. Danny Recio, PhD, Program Director of The Bridge
German psychiatrist Fritz Perls said “to mature means to take responsibility for your life!” But for him responsibility was not to be seen as an obligation or burden, but as: response-ability or ability to respond. Thus, responsibility is about being able to respond to what life brings and requires of us, instead of avoiding it, putting the blame on someone else, or reacting unhealthily because we lack the skills or abilities to respond. To be responsible is to own our life, to own our happiness, our sadness, our mistakes, our greatness; being responsible means we take charge of solving problems, we ask for help if we don’t have the answers, we take care of those around us, because they need us, and we need them.
At The Bridge, we believe that exposing students to diverse experiences, challenges, and people, helps them tremendously to improve their responsibility, as they learn to not only be “able to respond” to one or a few perspectives, situations or problems, but they learn to respond to many, and not just in one or a few ways, but in a myriad of ways. This increases their confidence that they can navigate effectively whatever environment they choose to participate in after graduation. Thus, responsibility becomes a mantra or guide for our students, an easy point of reference of how to continue maturing, and an assessment tool for whether a particular behavior or situation was handled in a response-able manner.
Out of this core value, we encourage students to show ability to respond to:
At any age, one likes to feel competent and confident with most daily tasks. But anyone with foreign travel experience will have personal stories about the equalizing / leveling effects of any language or cultural differences. Even the simplest arrangements, such as calling for a cab (in a town that has no formal street addresses) can bring a “mature adult” to their knees in seconds. Heck, just asking my temporary roomie for a script that I could use to order a cab, was humbling… There was no way that I’d let him overhear my butchered Spanish:“Necessito un taxi…”
For some crazy reason I’d committed to direct work with young adults, adopting a fresh program model and philosophy, alongside sincere staff who seemed to be “chill” beyond anything I’d ever known, personally. So, with much trepidation, I stepped out of the taxi and into an impressively engineered rock and wood house that, at that moment, was in standard evening mode. The guys barely flinched upon seeing me. In fact, I questioned whether they even realized I’d walked in to their space.
This was “ah hah moment # 1”: They weren’t being rude or distant… They were totally engaged in conversations, cyberspace, cooking, listening to tunes, watching a hysterical Australian comedian, doing laundry, doing homework, playing ping pong and pool, and unwinding after a long and hectic day.
What was disconcerting or even unnerving, was a phenomenon that I describe as “extreme non-codependence”…quite disconcerting to the more anxious and needy among us, yet SO refreshing. It became clear that their demeanor was “nothing personal” and that it was a sure sign of healthy young adults, exhibiting boundaries and a sense of safety and self-assuredness, even in the presence of strangers.
While it’s quite easy to reward guys in a program for performing like polite chimps for visitors, the seasoned “milieu observer” will be far more impressed by participants who feel entirely comfortable being themselves, “warts and all,” with stuffing hanging out at times… That’s life, and a program that respects “life on life’s terms” for residents is evolved and healthy.
So, to recap: Point 1; Self-assuredness and healthy participant boundaries without expectations for rewards or “cookies” in return is a subtle but clear differentiator for this program, in a sea of “competing” programs. If healthy “separation and individuation” are the primary challenges and goals of adolescence, one would expect and/or want to see signs of success in those developmental milestones in young adult personal growth programs.
Note from Dr. Danny Recio, Program Director
Dreaming big and making dreams happen... together.
Hello S2S community!
We returned last Friday from an incredible Aventura. We followed it up with hosting 5 bribri students for a few days at the bridge house and participating in the Feria Verde (organic farmer’s market in San Jose) to help them sell their goods to raise money to send students to the USA.
It’s all been a huge success--from bringing everyone back healthy and with positive frames of mind, to doing great with the sales at the market, to connecting with people from a unique and amazing culture, and more than anything empowering each other to organize an ambitious project and succeeding together.
The bribri students stayed with us through last Wednesday, and we really hope you can help us help them enjoy the same kind of life-changing cultural exchanges that they have provided our S2S Bridge community. Please donate at the link above. Sa Dor BriBri Wak!!
Dr. Danny Recio