While survival icon Bear Grylls went to the fanciest school in the UK, namely Eton, he is not above drinking yaks’ blood, swimming naked across Arctic rivers and sleeping in camel carcasses.
But you don’t have to go to these extremes to nurture the personal growth that comes with stepping outside your comfort zone.
This year, a group of 16 King’s College students between the ages of 14 and 17 have embarked on a World Challenge expedition to Malaysia and are effectively in charge of their own destinies for three whole weeks.
Though two members of King’s College teaching staff are accompanying the group, the responsibility for the success of the trip is largely in the students’ hands. Working as a team, with rotating roles allocated amongst themselves, they are expected to start organizing itineraries, transport and accommodation, supplies and budgets even before their feet hit the ground in Kuala Lumpur. They are also expected to support each other through the three most demanding phases of the venture – acclimatisation, challenge and project.
It sounds like a pretty tall order for a bunch of teenagers – a demographic that gets plenty of bad press when it comes to organizational skills and dealing with frustration. But part of the magic of the World Challenge expeditions is the element of positive psychology: if there is a general expectation that students will cope, in the style of a self-fulfilling prophecy, they will cope.
“The students very much lead the expedition,” says Ian Robertson, Head of the Art Department at King’s College Madrid, who introduced the school to the adventures four years ago. “The idea is to develop independence, confidence and leadership skills. They also need to work as a team and consider others as well as what they personally want to get out of it.”
The for-profit World Challenge company, which hooks up with community projects in various parts of the world to give students a taste of volunteering during the project phase of the adventure, emphasises that their programs have little to do with what we generally understand as “a holiday”. The activities are intense and the level of challenge should not be underestimated.
This year, students are volunteering for several days at The Bubbles Dive Centre’s Turtle and Reef Conservation project, undertaking chores such as painting, construction as well as the maintenance and protection of local habitats of some Malaysia’s indigenous species. The team is expected to have worked out how their individual skills can be best exploited in advance so that everybody gains from the exchange.
But the most physically challenging phase in Malaysia involves trekking in Tasik Chini wetlands, a veritable jungle where Bear Grylls-style survival skills would come in handy! Of course students are not expected to wrestle with wild animals but they are advised to listen to the tips their guides will be passing on to them as they encounter some of the jungle’s exotic residents en route.
No matter where in the world the students are heading with their World Challenge expedition, the program is designed to keep them on their toes. Set up after a young army captain took a group of soldiers to the remote Hindu Kush mountain range in Pakistan, it is the challenge of facing harsh conditions as a group that can be life changing. The young captain, for example, realised that the personal development his soldiers underwent as they trained together in the wilds of Asia would forever change the dynamic of his team.
While it is tempting to coast along with familiar people in a predictable environment, all of us can benefit from a spell outside of our comfort zone. Not only does the experience of being immersed in an entirely different culture help students exercise empathy and gain perspective on their own lives, but dealing with unfamiliar and testing conditions engenders the kind of self-belief that can set us free.
As 18th century German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe famously said, “As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.”