​Getting Beyond the Comfort Zone

Jun 22, 2017

I likely never would have met my spouse if I had not consistently and intentionally pushed myself outside my comfort zone while studying abroad. ​

While spending my junior year of college in Sevilla, Spain, I had what you might call a mantra. I regularly reminded myself of a favorite Eleanor Roosevelt quote: “Do one thing that scares you every day.”

​For example, when I stood at the edge of the cafeteria in the residence where I lived one day and surveyed the room, these words rang in my head and inspired me not to sit with the other students from my program, but to instead approach two good-looking guys I had never seen before (go big or go home, right?) in order to make local friends and practice my Spanish. So I introduced myself (in Spanish) and asked if I could join them. They smiled at me and responded in English, with a strong, unfamiliar accent, “We don’t speak much Spanish, but you’re welcome to sit with us if you’d like.”

What might initially appear to be an epic fail, however, turned out to be just the opposite when I befriended these two New Zealanders and they introduced me to their teammates on the Spanish rugby team for which they’d been recruited. Many of the players on that team became close friends of mine; I’ve now been married to one of them for fifteen years.

Reminding myself regularly to “do one thing that scares you every day” shaped my experience abroad in countless ways. It also inspired me to approach a student at the local university wearing a water polo t-shirt to ask how I might join a team, to call the telephone number she gave me despite my dread of speaking Spanish on the phone, and to regularly make the trek into and across the city to meet my new carpool buddies so that I could play water polo with a group of Spanish women.

Not only would I not be married to my spouse (admittedly not the goal of study abroad), I also would not have learned and grown nearly as much from my experience in Spain if not for this strong drive to get outside my comfort zone. Despite the fact that I was participating in a relatively immersive study abroad program—abroad for an entire academic year, living in a residence with Spanish students, and enrolled in half of my courses at the local university—getting outside my comfort zone was not easy or automatic. During my own time abroad and my years working in international education, I have witnessed many students with very good intentions slip into and stay in the comfort zone.

Getting outside of our comfort zone is very important if we want an experience to lead to deep, transformational learning. As short-term, faculty-led study abroad proliferates, this is increasingly challenging. These days, 63% of students studying abroad attend programs of eight weeks or less, and only 3% study abroad for an entire academic year (according to IIE Open Doors 2014/15).

I don’t mean to disparage short-term study abroad. I appreciate that it increases access and participation, and that it can serve as an impetus for other intercultural experiences. But I think the increase in short-term programs makes it all the more important for students and educators to intentionally consider how to make the most of these experiences.

As an intercultural educator, one of my favorite theories is Nevitt Sanford’s (1966) challenge and support hypothesis, which states that educators need to balance the level of challenge that learners face with the amount of support they receive in order to keep them engaged in the learning process. To promote student development, Sanford says, educators must “present [learners] with strong challenges, appraise accurately [their] ability to cope with these challenges, and offer support when they become overwhelming” (p. 46). There are many other theories that support this idea (for example, Kegan, 1994; Senninger, 2000; the Yerkes-Dodson Law).

The image below depicts a simple way to think about this. At the center is the comfort zone, which is unique to each individual. While this is a comfortable place to be, not much deep learning occurs here. When we stretch beyond our comfort zone, we enter the learning zone, where optimal learning and development occur. However, when we are overly challenged or pushed outside our comfort zone for too long, we may enter a panic zone, where we are so uncomfortable that we can’t learn effectively either.

What’s needed is really a delicate dance—a movement between these zones. Get outside the comfort zone, but when you feel yourself approaching the panic zone, do what’s needed to get back into your comfort zone to gain the energy needed to again stretch into the learning zone.

There are two common mistakes I regularly see educators making that could be remedied by understanding and applying these ideas:

  • Not thinking about how to effectively challenge participants. Leading an intercultural or experiential program requires a lot of planning. I’ve noticed that when educators develop programs, logistics often take precedence over designing the program around the learning objectives. Sometimes we can get so focused on doing and seeing as much as possible in the time allotted, that we end up shuttling participants around in a large group without considering whether it’s truly the best way to help them learn and grow. If we backward design our programs around the learning objectives, we are more likely to program in elements that will push students outside their comfort zone (as well as to balance that challenge with appropriate support).


  • ​​​Focusing too heavily on challenge. Sometimes we want so badly for students to get outside their “bubble” that we fail to provide the necessary support to make that possible. A participant in one of my faculty trainings once, after learning about the challenge and support hypothesis (and doing the activity mentioned below), shared a revelation. She said she had recently taken a group of students to India and after a site visit where they were visibly shaken by the poverty they witnessed, the students kept asking to go to McDonald’s. This faculty member said she and her co-leader were initially appalled at the request, but eventually gave in. They went to McDonald’s and, over the meal, had a very hard but good conversation about what students had witnessed and how they were feeling. What she realized in retrospect is that her students had gotten into the panic zone, and their request to go to McDonald’s demonstrated their need to regain some sense of comfort. Once they were more comfortable, they were able to engage in a difficult conversation that they weren’t ready to engage in immediately after the visit. This is a great example of how these educators balanced challenge with support, and the positive impact it had on students’ learning. It is supported by recent research, which found that when critical incidents occur during study abroad, it’s crucial for program leaders or instructors to help students process the tensions occurring before continuing with content learning (Anderson et al., 2016).


As educators, we need to help students understand what these zones look like for them, and to help them get into the learning zone as much as possible by providing the necessary challenge or support. However, we also need to recognize the value of the comfort zone and honor students’ need to go there from time to time (yet not stay there permanently).

I would also highly suggest that you think about your own comfort, learning, and panic zones as an educator in the various contexts in which you operate. How do these affect your work? How might you find the right balance of challenge and support that you need, especially when leading intercultural or experiential programs, but also when working across cultural differences on your home campus?

Please share your insights about balancing challenge and support (for your learners or yourself) in the comments below.

References & Relevant Resources

Anderson, C.L., Lorenz, K., & White, M. (2016). Instructor influence on student intercultural gains and learning during instructor-led, short-term study abroad. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, XXVIII, 1-23.

Bennett, J.M. (2003). Turning frogs into interculturalists: A student-centered developmental approach to teaching intercultural competence. In N. A. Boyacigiller, R. A. Goodman & M. E. Phillips (Eds.), Crossing cultures: Insights from master teachers (pp. 157-170). New York: Routledge.

Bennett, J.M. (2009). Transformative training: Designing programs for culture learning. In M. A. Moodian (Ed.), Contemporary leadership and intercultural competence: Exploring the cross-cultural dynamics within organizations (pp. 95-110). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Citron, J. L., & Kline, R. (2001). From experience to experiential education: Taking study abroad outside the comfort zone. International Educator, 10(4), 18-26.

Harvey, T.A. (2013). Facilitating intercultural development during study abroad: A case study of CIEE’s Seminar on Living and Learning Abroad. Unpublished dissertation, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN.

Harvey, T.A. (2017). Design and pedagogy for transformative intercultural learning. In B. Kappler Mikk & I. Steglitz (Eds.), Learning across cultures: Locally and globally (3rd ed.). Washington, D.C.: Stylus/NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

Sanford, N. (1966). Self and society: Social change and individual development. New York: Atherton Press.

Vande Berg, M., Connor-Linton, J., & Paige, R. M. (2009). The Georgetown Consortium Project: Interventions for student learning abroad. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, XVIII, 1-75.

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