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The Benefits of Culture Shock

Sometimes a trip can transform a life.

Kristine Porter,

Kathryn BarnesSometimes a trip can transform a life.
"It's been a complete pivotal experience," said Kathryn Barnes, a project manager for College Summit in Washington, D.C.

Almost a year ago, Barnes took a leap into the unknown - for the most part. Sure, she had been preparing for a two-month-long sabbatical to teach in Africa, studying French, and getting her immunizations, passport and a variety of other things together. But on the day of her departure, behind the smile for the camera, was sheer terror.

"Psychologically, it was a big hurdle," she told Donna Acerra's Intercultural Communications class.

Acerra invited Barnes to speak to the class so students could apply the concepts of culture shock to a real world experience, so they could see how travel changes people, and to encourage them to think about the possibility of traveling in the future.

Barnes' trek began as a desire to immerse herself in a culture and to reacquaint herself with the French language that she had studied in college. This time, she wanted to become fluent in it, so she made arrangements to teach with Volunteering in Africa. Her first stop would be Rabat, Morocco, where she would live with a host family for a month, then on to Saint-Louis, Senegal and another host family for a month.

In Morocco, Barnes taught French to low income women for International Volunteer HQ. French is the language of business, she said. If a person cannot speak French, then he or she cannot complete a job application or interview for a job. The women were so enthusiastic to learn that it increased Barnes' own thirst for knowledge.

"It's amazing how in four weeks you feel like you belong with the people," she said.

A variety of emotions arise when traveling. Barnes told the NCC students that often it begins with a honeymoon phase of excitement for the new adventure, but also has lows of homesickness. Surprisingly though, there may also be difficulty in readjusting to life back home.

In Morocco, Barnes definitely experienced the honeymoon, but not when she arrived in Senegal.

She read the NCC students a couple of emails she sent to her family and friends at that low point. In them, she described the dusty, dirt roads and skinny cows and included pictures of severe poverty.

"I don't know if I can look at another dusty child following me with upturned hands," she wrote to a friend.

There were also lighter lows like the time she encountered a really big bug in her shower.

One morning when Barnes went to get the cold-only shower, a large bug with long antennae crawled out of the drain. It proceeded up the wall to a shelf where it sat and watched as she showered.

"I was beginning to think I might not be cut out for this," Barnes told the class.

She persevered and continued her work teaching business math, French and English to teenage street boys for Project Abroad, an organization that strives to give teens the skills they need to start their own businesses.

In time Barnes grew to love Senegal. Barnes said she enjoyed the peaceful, ambling pace, the sense of community, and feeling like she was part of her host's family both there and in Morocco.

"I miss Africa terribly," Barnes said. "You never saw a happier people."

Barnes' trip led to a desire to continue to make a difference in people's lives. That is why she got involved with BuildOn to help build a school for 150 to 200 children in Burkina Faso, Africa. The ground breaking will take place early next year.  Barnes hopes to be there.

BuildOn requires the community not only to help with the construction of the school, but also to sign an oath that an even number of boys and girls will be educated there. Currently, only 58 percent of the children attend a primary school. For those that do, the children often have to walk about five miles one way to get there. The school is sometimes just a hut structure or a building with so little space that too many children crowd into a couple classrooms, Barnes said.

Burkina Faso is the fifth economically poorest country in the world, she said. Only 28.7 percent of the population is literate.

To learn more about Barnes project, go to or for more information about BuildOn, go to