A few years back, I left my comfortable home and job in the United States for a year of international travel, country-hopping, and experiential learning. I have always considered myself a lifetime-student, and enjoy the experience of learning in a classroom and investing my time in school. Some of my greatest mentors have been school teachers and college professors, and many of the people I met during my formal student years have played major roles in shaping my character and supporting me on my path toward becoming my truest and most authentic self.
After many years of school and classroom-based learning in a top American college of education, I was surprised to discover the seemingly infinite ways that travel as education is a game-changer. From volunteer projects in Central America and the Middle East to learning new languages by living in communities of native speakers, the direct experience of a country— its people, history, culture — has been unparalleled.
So much has happened since my initial take-off — now a few years back — and aside from the countless ideas, projects, ventures and experiences, I have truly learned to live and inhabit my senses in so many new and exciting ways. Life has never been better, or more interesting!
As someone who never thought of travel beyond vacations and short trips organized by travel agents to now living location-independent and making the world my classroom, this is why I believe in the magic and power of travel; as education, as opportunity, as self-discovery, as community and empowerment.
Travel as education: the pillars
1. Cultural immersion
Nothing compares to the experience of being fully immersed in a country and its culture.
International travel should be about more than tourism and site-seeing; a trip abroad is an opportunity to witness and participate in life in another country, to connect with local people and learn about the ways in which they experience the world.
When I travel to a new country or place, I like to give myself time to truly dive into the layers that constitute history, language, belief systems, and everyday life.
Whether visiting the great pyramids and astounding temple complexes of Egypt, strolling the streets of Paris, or adventuring in the Brazilian Amazon, a trip abroad asks you to participate.
It is essential that you make the most of cultural immersion and devote the time and energy to learn a new language, make an effort to communicate, and be humble in a way that allows you to move beyond your limited ideas and stereotypes about a place and actually experience it wholly by engaging with it.
Opportunities for participation are boundless and range from volunteer efforts and work exchanges to language groups and eco programs and home-stays with host families. Participating in a country’s daily rhythm is an educational experience rich in hands-on and active learning, and demands that you step out of your comfort zone and lead with curiosity and an open mind.
When you immerse yourself in a foreign culture and actively participate, you don’t just discover a different way of life, you discover new dimensions to yourself. My time spent volunteering, working and living in other countries has allowed me to discover interests, strengths, skills, and passions that otherwise may have remained hidden.
While traveling tends to be seen for its glamorous side, the reality is often far from. Life on the road has its own challenges and quickly breaks down the superfluous and extravagant to the essential — patience, courage, an open mind, tolerance, resilience. Beyond the discovery of new places and breathtaking sights and monuments is the discovery of self, of the layers and fabric you are made of, and what it means to be true to yourself and live well.
Regardless if you are in your own country or abroad, it’s easy to connect when we focus on the things we share. Every country has something to offer, something to teach you. One of my guiding intentions as a constant international traveler is to give every country a chance. More often than not, this means being a witness to the positivity of misunderstood and negatively perceived places, and finding a way to learn and connect with people in spite of dissimilar beliefs or attitudes.
Differences exist in lifestyle and etiquettes across cultures, and part of the experience of traveling is finding the commonalities and being humble enough to acknowledge and appreciate the differences as much as the similarities.
Connecting with people in different places around the globe provides you with a whole new perspective and insight about a culture or way of life that previously may have seemed too foreign or alien to understand.
Nothing beats the feeling of breaking a preconceived stereotype or seeing past the influence and bias of media and connecting with a country and its people in real time.
Travel not only teaches you about the world as it is today, but also about the history behind the current complexities of social, political, and economic structures. Everyone studies history in school, but traveling brings history to life. In addition to seeing some of the world’s greatest monuments and museums, you also feel the energy of the people and countries you visit.
What was once a standard school history lesson becomes an ongoing process of experiential learning; you become absorbed by the play of life happening in front of and all around you, and begin to understand the underlying reasons and forces behind why societies and cultures are shaped in a particular way and differ from one another.
The more you travel and engage, your understanding of history grows, and your understanding of the world broadens. Ultimately, this understanding extends inward as well; you learn about yourself and your true potential and become better equipped to be proactive about your goals and dreams. You feel that you belong to many places, and your sense of “home” expands.
From cultural immersion to participation to discovery to connection to understanding, travel builds and strengthens community. Whether you go somewhere as part of a University exchange program via student travel or join a volunteer effort, whether you travel solo or go on a weekend trip and end up bonding with a local over shared cuisine or an activity, your idea of community grows.
I used to think of my community as exclusive to my home, or the place I physically inhabit, but my understanding has evolved to include my global community, the people and efforts that exist beyond my own borders. Community is greater than something physical, something tangible; it is created and sustained and amplified by intention, energy, engagement, dedication, love.
Seeing yourself as part of the global community is essential to remembering that we are all connected, we are all in so many ways more similar than we are different. The mark of a global citizen is acceptance, tolerance and appreciation, and above all, an awareness of the ways in which countries and people are interconnected and part of an emerging powerful and dynamic world community.
The more you travel and expand your worldview, the more you are empowered to embody your authentic self and take action that supports sustainable global development and a collaborative world community.
You become more independent, and cultivate a propensity for self-study and self-improvement. The skills gained through travel experiences are more than worth the effort, and have an impact that reaches beyond life and community as you once knew it
You gain a deeper and more nuanced understanding of history, and you rethink everything you once knew about how to study and understand the world today. By putting yourself in unfamiliar territory, you learn how to adapt to new environments, and in the process, discover more about yourself.
My travel experiences have been integral in shaping who I am — a brave, forward-thinking world citizen. When I began my journey, leaving home for my first long trip meant letting go of everything I spent my entire life trying to gain. And while I closed the door on my perceived stability and comfort, I opened another to so many incredible opportunities, all of which would have been impossible to foresee.
The world seems fragile and scary during these complicated times of hatred, radicalization, and conflict — I know. But people are so exceptionally kind. And there is so much beauty to see.
So, to anyone who is dreaming of travel, I dare you to go for it. It will never seem like the “right” time or the “right” amount of savings, it will never be simple, or easy. But, if you are dreaming of taking that leap of faith, as terrifying as it may seem: take it. You won’t regret it.