Spring Break of my junior year wasn’t filled with beachballs and suntan lotion on the coast. Instead, my parents and I were touring colleges. I took in an immense amount of information during that week-long expedition; I listened to statistics on university gender ratios, club and activity options for students, participation rates of students involved in Greek life, average class sizes and most memorably, opportunities offered for studying abroad. After the trip, I had one thing left on my mind – travel.
It wasn’t long before I started noticing articles on Facebook from publications like The New York Times and The Huffington Post which preached a variety of benefits to be reaped by college students from traveling across the globe. I had been subjected to the glamorous rhetoric surrounding student travel, and, like many others, I was hooked. I wanted that once in a lifetime experience to explore my identity and immerse myself in a culture different from any I'd ever experienced before. Little did I know, I would be traveling abroad sooner than expected.
I am very fortunate and grateful to have been given the opportunity to travel to Europe this summer for a month; after backpacking through France, the Czech Republic, Germany and the Netherlands with my brother and sister, I’ve had time to reflect on my experience and examine the value that travel holds for me.
Gaining a new perspective, immersing yourself in unique cultures, taking a bold step toward gaining independence, learning about who you are and who you want to be - these are just a few of the purported benefits of travelling during college. The frequency with which these ideals regarding travel come to surface in popular media, whether it be via online publications, books, television shows or movies, calls for a more careful examination of travel’s true merits.
First, let’s bring to light a few realities of travel:
Travel costs money. Travel is a privilege, and requires privilege. Travel is not essential. One thing that was consistently omitted from many, if not all, of the articles I have come across is any recognition of the fact that traveling is simply not an option for everyone. With this in mind, I couldn't help but feel that the articles praising study abroad as the holy grail of higher education (which is also an immense privilege) were neglecting to acknowledge the very real barriers that many college students face.
Attending a university in the United States is often very, very expensive. According to The Institute for College Access and Success, 69% of college seniors in 2014 graduated with an average of $28,950 in student loan debt. Since then, the average debt for college graduates has only risen. Even with an endless supply of advice from countless travel blogs on how to save and scrimp in unexpected places and how to stretch a penny as far as humanly possible, it simply isn’t reasonable to call travel a necessity for students when many of its benefits can be reaped elsewhere through far less costly experiences. The reality is that travel is disproportionately available to students from affluent families, and emphasizing the importance of an opportunity that is more commonly afforded to students from wealthier families only widens the class divide (especially when that importance is not only an opinion of the public, but one that is becoming more and more commonly held by employers).
The inequitable access to study abroad opportunities does not stop with class. In a recent study, the Institute of International Education reported the racial distribution of students studying abroad; about 75% of study abroad participants are white, seconded by Hispanic/Latino(a) students who make up only 8.3%. While I certainly am not an expert on racial privilege, nor on the intersection of race and class, this statistics speaks for itself in revealing an instance of less than equal opportunity within American universities. This highlights from another angle the fact that the rising treatment of travel as a necessary aspect of higher education does not serve all people equally.
Other studies have shown that studying abroad in college can help students find work once they graduate; one particular study by The Emarus Student Network found that “employers who considered experience abroad to be important for employability also nearly doubled between 2006 and 2013 from 37% to 64%.” This growing importance of travel in the job market is not inherently problematic, but it becomes so when considered alongside the fact that travel opportunities are not equally accessible to all people (whether you divide by race, class, ability, etc.).
It is clear that employers value the purported benefits of travel, seeking out employees whose educations have broadened their horizons and granted them a “global perspective." According to a report sourced by the IIE, however, the four most common destinations for American students studying abroad are the Italy, United Kingdom, Spain and France. In fact, over 50% of American study abroad destinations are in Europe. Travel supposedly opens the eyes of the traveler, granting them special insight into new cultures that is marketable to employers in an increasingly global business environment. What eye opening experiences or truly unique perspectives can be gained from travelling from one western country to another, where you immerse yourself in a culture not so drastically different from your own?
Furthermore, travel is by no means the sole way to immerse yourself in a new culture, to see the world through a new perspective, or to gain skills in independence, as it is portrayed in the media.
Looking for ways to gain perspective? Volunteer in your neighborhood distributing essential materials to people experiencing homelessness or spend time with organizations like food banks and homeless shelters that work to minimize the negative impacts of poverty.
Want exposure to new cultures? Participate in intercultural clubs on campus to expose yourself to the variety of unique ethnic heritages of other students or spend time with the family of a friend whose cultural background varies from yours.
As far as learning to be independent, a student could, oh, I don't know, leave their families for four years to attend a university and stay in dorms and apartments without the people they've grown up with and been supported by for 17 years?
I’m not trying to dispute that travel is valuable. I agree that travelling can expose a person to new perspectives and cultures while giving them an opportunity to grow as a human being. I do, however, have a hard time buying into the overarching socially accepted maxim that travel is a necessity for all college students and that it is the duty of children of our generation to travel as a prerequisite to becoming a global citizen.
So, instead of buying into the illusion of the essential college travel experience, look at study abroad as what it truly is: a chance to go somewhere new where you can learn to interact with new kinds of people in an unfamiliar cultural climate while continuing your education. A person’s ability to travel does not make them any more or less inherently qualified than someone who is not in a position to be traveling abroad.
Global citizenship is about mentally engaging in international issues and acting on that engagement in your everyday life, not about the social statement of physically moving your body over 3,000 miles of water from one developed country to another for less than a year, and I’m tired of hearing otherwise.
Lead Image Credit: Pixabay