How Setting a S.M.A.R.T Goal Can Help You Get Intentional About Your Travels Abroad

Greenheart Travel SMART Goals featured image.

Are you getting ready for a life-changing travel experience, but not sure how to prepare? Don’t worry, the excitement and confusion at this stage of your planning is absolutely, 100% normal. Every person who goes abroad feels this way to a certain degree, because preparing for such a big adventure is a big deal!

Your time abroad is sure to be a pivotal experience, one that will leave you and your perspective on the world forever changed. A meaningful travel experience will help you:

  • Develop meaningful cross-cultural connections with others
  • Recognize that people and cultures are shaped by their environment
  • Grow your personal and professional leadership skills

To make the most of your travel experience requires going beyond just researching cultural etiquette, brushing up on a second language or looking up must-see historical sites. Along with packing and researching, it is critical to take some time to reflect on your expectations and intentions for your travels.

A group of students hold up Japanese writing.

Students learning Japanese in Japan.

First Step: Outline Your Personal and Professional Goals

In order to help you begin this path of personal reflection and professional development, you should start setting a few measurable, personal goals for yourself before you leave home. It is important to think hard about your motivations for going abroad, and turn those motivations into specific, trackable goals. After all, you are investing your time and money in this experience; wouldn’t you want to get the most out of it?

Ask yourself a few big questions:

  • “Why am I going abroad?”
  • “Is this a career break or something more?”
  • “Am I seeking adventure or full cultural immersion experience?”
  • “Am I hoping to build my resume for an eventual job search, or am I looking to explore the world and find my place in it?”

Although your specific reason may vary, it is reasonable to assume that one of the motivators for traveling is because you want to grow, change and challenge yourself in some way.

While it is inevitable you will experience change during your time abroad, YOU are the only person who can determine what you get out of this experience.

The goal in this stage of your goal setting is to establish your own personal goals in order to create benchmarks and a space of reflection before, during, and after your experience abroad.

Volunteers holding up part of a cage in Costa Rica.

A group from Gary Comer College Prep volunteering at an animal rescue center in Costa Rica.

Why Setting Goals is Important

It’s easy to say “Teaching/studying/volunteering abroad was amazing and I have changed a lot.” But, will you be able to articulate how you have changed? Will you be able to demonstrate the skills you have learned, and how you have grown as a person during your time abroad?

If you bring it up in a job interview or graduate school application, how are you going to meaningfully talk about your experience? It is important to be able to recognize and articulate the impact your experience is having on you if you hope to use it in your future.

It can be a challenge to come up with meaningful ways to talk about a powerful travel experience, and often we resort to the “It was great!” answer. It’s simple, but it does you and your experience a disservice, because it simplifies a complex experience into something mundane. Basic even.

By setting goals and intentions before your trip and monitoring the progress along the way, you can more effectively measure the impact that your program is having on you. That way, when people ask you, “How was your time abroad?” you can be prepared to answer with more than just, “Awesome.” You’ll be able to look back at your responses, reflections, and experiences and share how your life goals may have changed, how your assumptions and stereotypes shifted, how you dealt with challenges, and how you developed your skills as a global leader.

While setting goals makes sense, outlining them might be a bit more daunting. Luckily, there is a simple guideline to help you get started.

A teacher in Thailand running with students.

A teacher in Thailand runs with his students at school.

Getting Started: Creating S.M.A.R.T. Goals for Yourself

We understand that it can be challenging to set a goal for your experience abroad, so it can be a helpful exercise to put a bit of structure behind it. To say “I want my time in XXX country to be personally transformative” is an admiral goal, but it is not specific enough. It is a little too vague to say whether or not you have reached it at the end of your program.

SMART is a method of setting and defining specific goals. Following the SMART methodology, a goal-setting process created by Peter Drucker, can help you put together meaningful, measurable, and tangible targets for yourself. There are a few different versions of what SMART stands for, but here’s a useful approach:

S = Specific

  • Making your goals specific will set out the what, why, and how of your objectives.
  • Is your goal specific enough? Consider if it is addressing those famous “W” questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? Then, check if it is written simply enough to clearly define what you want to do, and how you will do it.

Here is an example of an unspecific goal: “I want develop professionally abroad so I can get a job when I go back home.” There is a little bit of what in that statement, but a little lacking on the how and why.

Try this instead: “I want to learn how I can apply my experience managing a classroom in XXX country to managing projects in my future career. This will help me differentiate myself against other candidates for my dream job at the UN. I will learn through self-reflection and talking with my peers.”

The first statement is the what, the second statement is the why, and the last is the how.

M = Meaningful

  • Whatever your reasons for traveling abroad, take the time to sit down and think about what would be the most personally important and meaningful outcomes for you when you return home.
  • We want to make sure that the goals you set for yourself matter, and they are important to you personally.

Because this is such a personal journey, it is tough to write a good verses bad example of a meaningful goal. Suffice to say, if you aren’t excited upon reflection and working toward your goal, or it does not represent a profound change, it may be time to dig a little deeper. 

A = Action-Oriented

“I want my experience abroad to change my life” is a passive goal. Someone with this thought process may not take the initiative to make the most of their time abroad. They may be waiting for everything to happen to them, instead of taking action to meet their goals. Having an action-oriented goal gives YOU control of the achievement of your goal.

  • Focus your goals on an action. What action can you personally take to accomplish your goal? What’s your verb?
  • Try rephrasing the above goal to “I am going to journal my thoughts down every night so that I will be able to reflect on how my life has changed from this experience.”
A teacher with nuns at an orphanage in Myanmar.

A Greenheart Travel teacher practices English with young nuns at an orphanage in Myanmar.

R = Realistic

It’s important to design challenging goals, but to also tailor your expectations to make the goal attainable. If you set yourself up for failure, you’re only going to be discouraged. And if you give yourself a softball, you won’t grow.

Are you going to teach the whole country English? Are you going to solve global warming? Is the professional development you gain from your six months abroad going to land you the job as a US Ambassador? Probably not. It is great to have lofty goals for your personal and professional development! But, getting things done takes time.

A few questions to help outline a realistic goal:

  • Ask yourself if your goal is actually something you can achieve in your defined period of time.
  • Maybe you’ll realize that you can’t meet your goal all at once, and you decide to break it into smaller, more easily attainable SMART goals. Or, maybe you need to give yourself a longer period of time to attain that goal.
  • Before you go, it may be hard to know what goals are realistic and what aren’t, but you will have the opportunity to reevaluate yourself throughout your program and adjust as necessary.

T = Trackable

Now that you’ve got your goal defined, how will you know if you’re getting closer to achieving it?

  • You will need to define how your progress will be tracked along the way. For example, if you want to visit 25 cities in a year, you can break it up into smaller goals of venturing to two or three cities per month. Measuring your progress helps keep you on…Wait for it… Track!
  • Trackability helps you celebrate your successes at benchmarks along the way, and motivates you to keep working towards your goal.

This is not to say that your goal needs to be completely quantifiable. Learning a new language can be a goal of yours, but it is tough to say exactly what percentage of the language you know. It is totally fine to use your gut ballpark figure and say “I want to be 75% fluent in Thai after a year here.” Or, maybe your goal is to reach the point where you can have a 10 minute conversation with a stranger, all in Thai!

If you’re learning a language as a beginner, you may be overwhelmed at the get-go. But, as you start to build your vocabulary week to week, you’ll start to recognize some words. You’ll begin talking to cashiers at corner stores, ordering your favorite dishes in the local language, and getting around town a lot easier by asking locals for directions.

Your confidence will begin to grow! Then you may hang out with local friends and start to have conversations about more complex topics like culture or politics, and realize you’re completely lost in conversation again. You’ll think, “Shoot! I thought I was getting good, but I really don’t know ANYTHING.”

This is where the tracking our goal becomes key. It’s important to recognize the small progresses you’re making week to week, and month to month. You’re good with shops and navigation; check that of your language to-do list. Maybe you feel you know 10% of the language. Celebrate that milestone! Now it’s time to focus on the next subject and add another 10% to your fluency.

The words work and travel sketched on a beach in Australia.

Download the SMART Goal-Making Worksheet

So, that’s it! Now it’s time to put it into practice. What’s really important for your personal and professional development is ensuring that you have at least one goal that thoroughly meets the SMART criteria above.

Here is an example of a full SMART goal statement:

“I want to learn how I can apply my experience managing a classroom in Thailand to managing projects in my future career. This will help me differentiate myself against other candidates for my dream job at the UN. I will learn through self-reflection and talking with my peers. I am going to journal my thoughts down every night so that I will be able to reflect on how my life has changed from my experience in Thailand. I will write 50 journal entries during my time there.

Are you ready to give it a try? Download our SMART Goal-Making Worksheet to write your own SMART goal.

Accomplishing goals takes a bit of revisiting and reflection so don’t worry if you don’t get it exactly right at first, and then share it with your family and friends to make your goal feel more real!

Excited about your goal? Share it in the comments below!

3 thoughts on "How Setting a S.M.A.R.T Goal Can Help You Get Intentional About Your Travels Abroad"

  1. Merel says:

    Wow! This is such a great article and totally connects with my idea of creating my Wonderlust Travel Journal. A journal with inspiring questions to bring with you while traveling, so your stay will be even more life changing! Thank you for sharing!


    1. Chase Chisholm says:

      Thanks for taking time to read it, Merel!

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