Cultural Experience | Resources

Hostelling International USA breaks down the benefits of hostelling for students

How Hostelling can maximize the cultural exposure and immersion for students and why it matters. #GenerationStudyAbroad

1. Tell us about Hostelling International USA’s mission and how it relates to students learning about the world through travel?

It’s HI USA’s nonprofit mission to inspire a greater understanding of people, places, and cultures to create a more tolerant world. Our more than 50 hostels nationwide have a keen focus on facilitating interaction amongst people from diverse backgrounds. By making it easy for our community of travelers to get to know one another, they are discovering their similarities and their differences, expanding their world views as they build friendships.

Staying at an HI USA hostel is a lot like freshman year in the dorms. The rooms are filled with strangers who quickly become friends, and you spend hours talking about life back home and world issues you didn’t know you had such a strong opinion about. The big difference is that travelers at our hostels are from more than 100 countries, and there’s no homework to interfere with socializing and going out on the town!

Our hostels are a community of travelers who want to share their knowledge and inside secrets about everywhere they’ve been and learn from you, too. It doesn’t take long before you’re inspired to see a new destination you never knew existed.

2. As community plays a very big role in hostelling, can you tell us more about the ‘Community Walls Program’ and how that educational outreach impacts on students’ cultural understanding?
Community Walls is one of several programs HI USA offers to connect travelers to the local community and to inspire the local community to get out and see the world. This program invites students in under-served areas to look at their communities from a position of pride. They take a deep look into the positive traits that define their community, which they then translate into art. The art is featured in various hostels, which allows guests to have a window into local life that they might not otherwise get to see. In doing this project, Community Walls participants also get to visit a hostel and learn about our diverse community of travelers.
Another program HI USA offers is Cultural Kitchen, where K-12 school students study a country of their choice for a week. At the end of the week, they present what they’ve learned to hostelers and cook them an authentic meal. This is a particularly impactful program, because often times a guest will be from the country being presented and can provide a whole new level of engagement and understanding. And like Community Walls, it helps guests see the place they’re visiting through the eyes of a local.

3. Can you speak to the international flavor present in the communal living spaces within any given hostel and the benefit of this exposure to students?
Across more than 50 HI USA hostels nationwide, about 65% of guests (on average) are international, hailing from more than 100 countries. Since our hostels are strategically designed to naturally foster interaction, you never know who you might meet. You could be sharing a room with a Chinese law student, cooking dinner with a Brazilian guitarist, or playing pool with a Moroccan engineer. Then you all might meet up for a hostel-led outing to hear a local, live band that evening. While you’re socializing and having fun, you’re having conversations about school, dating, food, parents, independence, and anything else that comes to mind. You’re sharing your culture and learning about someone else’s, which is how HI USA’s mission to create a more tolerant world comes to life. You may have just traveled to one place, which may very well be in your own country, but you’ve broadened your world views in a way you just have to experience for yourself.

4. In regard to the personal growth that comes through travel and study abroad, do you find that students experience similar personal gains through volunteering and giving back while traveling such as the HI USA Great Hostel Give Back Program?
Volunteering allows you to see a different side to the community you’re visiting. It’s a side that’s often hidden from tourists, but it reveals a lot about the character of the local people and culture. Just by being let into this world, you are becoming a better informed global citizen and you can’t help but reflect on your own community, values, and priorities. And the inner joy of knowing that you made a difference lasts a lifetime.
At HI USA, we encourage this type of immersive experience. Each January and February, HI USA hosts the Great Hostel Give Back where groups of 10 more receive a free overnight for each day they volunteer locally. We’ve had great feedback from participants. One group leader who took a group to HI New York City said, “The work we did was very meaningful. We worked with hunger and homelessness issues in 4 of the 5 boroughs. Our team was very impacted by the work we did, the people we met, and what we learned about these issues.” The beauty of this program is that it marries the benefits of volunteering with the benefits of hosteling with HI USA, creating a truly transformative experience.

5. What tips can you give students who might be considering volunteering in the local community while traveling?
The first thing is to just go for it and don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone! The next step is to do your research and look for organizations that share your interests or could utilize your talents. For those traveling solo, look for a project that brings a group together. If you know someone who lives in the area you’re visiting, it’s always helpful to bounce ideas off of them. HI USA hostel staff is always happy to connect guests with local organizations, so they’re a great resource as well. In fact, several of our hostels arrange service projects throughout the year, so if you have a destination in mind, you can always check with the hostel and see if they have anything planned or an ongoing partnership.
Once you’ve decided on a project, get in touch with the organizer and find out any special clothing or materials you’ll need to bring – there may be things you hadn’t thought of. Also be mindful that volunteering is just one piece of your overall travel experience. Make sure you leave enough time for exploring and that you have a basic understanding of where your project is in relation to the other things you want to do.

6. Does HI USA offer any other programs that may be of interest to students who are looking to expand on their cultural education?
We are currently accepting applications for our signature program, IOU Respect, a 2-week cultural exchange program happening in Paris, France, July 25-August 8. It brings together 18-23 year olds from Egypt, France, Germany, Lebanon, Tunisia, and the US to discover their unique cultural differences and appreciate their undeniable similarities. During the program, participants engage in facilitated dialogue sessions about politics, culture, beliefs, and other hot button topics, as well as bond over group meals, outings, and activities. All program costs are covered for participants, including accommodations in Paris. There’s no cost to participate, and costs are covered while in Paris.

Four individuals from each country will be selected to participate, and past participants simply describe their experience as “life changing.” The deadline to apply is May 15, and more information can be found about the program here.

See Why Hostels are the Best for more.


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