My first trip abroad was as a 23-year-old foreign exchange student. I was still pretty young, and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. After searching for a career after graduating college and coming up short, I signed up for a one-year MFA program in Melbourne, Australia. I did this on a whim. Little did I know that this decision, which led to my first youth travel experience, would change my life forever.
Where I come from, people don’t travel abroad.
I grew up in a small town in Illinois, and when I say “small” I mean tiny! We had four stoplights, a few gas stations, Dollar General, McDonald’s, Wal-mart, etc. There’s wasn’t a whole lot of culture present in my childhood town. 99.9% of the population was white, blue-collar, and spoke only English. Most of my neighbors had never been out of the midwest, let alone the country. They didn’t see the point.
Even as a child I knew that I lived inside a bubble. How easy it would have been for me to live inside the safety of that bubble forever…
I’m telling you my background so that you understand how scared I was to travel abroad when I was young, and how important it was that I did.
Do something new, even if it scares you.
In many countries around the world, the youth are encouraged to travel abroad after college or even high school, but it’s unfortunately not part of our culture in the United States. Americans place a very high value on our labor force and creating a “strong work ethic” in the next generation. This mentality is why we’ve succeeded in many areas, but it has its faults – the overworked, miserable adult nation. Most jobs in the US don’t allow more than two weeks of paid vacation. Taking an unpaid vacation is a dirty word! What are you, crazy? Your employer is likely to fire you for even thinking about it, and we Americans will gladly miss our Grandmother’s funeral if it means avoiding a scornful look from our boss.
Is that a strong work-ethic or just bad ethics?
At just 18 years old, we are encouraged to immediately go to college or get a job. Two choices, but get out of the house and fend for yourself. Become a responsible member of society or be dubbed an ungrateful “millennial” (a term some ‘boomers like to use in the place of “bum”).
Youth travel should be a priority, but it isn’t.
Society says our life priorities should be to 1). get a career 2). settle down with a spouse 3). buy a house with a 30-year mortgage 4). work for forty years, and 5). finally, retire. Then what? At that point, you could travel aboard. Most people don’t. It’s too scary of a proposition when you’re a senior. And besides, you’re tired.
Youth travel is important for so many reasons, and we should put a higher value on it in the United States. First of all, I believe you NEED to be young to travel in many situations. At some point, our bodies decide they can’t sleep in a freezing cold tent on the Inca Trail or scuba dive with giant manta rays. Even sitting on a plane for 14 hours may be too painful!
The excuses build and build as we get older until they eventually create a wall around us. We can’t break down that wall, so instead, we stay safe inside of our bubble.
Why not travel when your ONLY excuse is money?
When you’re young, the most common excuse to not travel is always related to money. I understand that, trust me. I took out a hefty loan to travel to Australia and it took me 8 years to pay it off. The truth is, money is almost always going to be an excuse not to travel. It just morphs.
When you’re young, money is a problem because you don’t have very much of it. When you’re older, your money is tied up in a mortgage or saving for your kids. When your debts are finally paid, it will be too overwhelming to withdraw a large sum from your bank account (something you worked so hard for) for an experience that doesn’t have tangibility. What if you buy something instead… like a new car, a big television, or a boat? This materialistic mentality is another culturalism that is so. very. American.
Don’t forget, youth travel is cheap!
Why not travel before you develop a possessive relationship with your bank account? After all, when you’re young, you can be thrifty! I once slept in a cold campervan in Edinburgh, Scotland, just so that I didn’t have to shell out $300 for a hotel room. My body has tossed and turned in rickety youth travel beds all over the world. I’ve eaten strange things at night markets that cost only $1 per meal. With youth comes resilience and a positive attitude, and that is worth something.
My Youth Travel Experiences Have Taught Me Life-Long Lessons
Perhaps the most important reason to travel while you’re young is so that you can learn about other cultures. Australia really isn’t that different than the United States, but also, it is.
During my year in Australia, I learned that my childhood education was heavily influenced by my location. I didn’t know much about world history, but I could quote the US declaration of independence. What was that worth?
Often I felt stupid, and then a little angry, whenever I was caught in a political conversation with my Australian and international peers. Why didn’t I know this stuff? Sure, we were tested on maps and major world history events at my elementary school, but it ended there. Our High School debates were about American topics, our television shows were about American life, and the news was about US politics.
Whenever I did try to join the conversion in Melbourne, I often embarrassed myself. Therefore, I felt like I embarrassed my country. My friends would laugh or blame my ignorance on me being “American.” Which made me feel like a foreigner, an experience I had never fully grasped before.
I learned what it meant to be an “American” to someone who wasn’t.
Things people think about America:
Guns. Everyone has one. Famous people are everywhere. Big cars. Greasy fast food. So many fat people. All Americans have straight teeth, speak really loud, and are overly-privileged. Americans think they are better than everyone else. They eat steak for every meal and have 50 types of maple syrup to choose from at the grocery store.
Admittedly, some of the above stereotypes aren’t total bullshit. Conversations about my country with foreigners have often made me chuckle, feel proud or sad, and they also made me become a better American.
I learned how to represent my country the best way I could.
I’m more patient when abroad, as foreigners often need to be. Dinner in France can take hours and hours. I try to adapt to foreign customs or manners that seem odd to me; like personal space in China or carefully, almost delicately, shutting doors in Costa Rica. When criticized, I listen and craft responses without becoming too emotional.
Some of the conversations I’ve had abroad have opened my eyes to something I never knew about my own country. Like, why is the USA one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t offer paternity leave? Other times I have gotten into debates, determined to turn opinions, even a little.
I’m not ashamed of being American, and I enjoy educating people on which stereotypes are true and which are false. Mostly, though, I enjoy learning how I am different or the same as other people around the world, and why. This type of education is priceless and it was an important one to get while I was forming my personal belief systems.
10 years have passed since my year in Australia, my first youth travel trip, and I haven’t stopped traveling and learning. I’ve now visited 35 new countries and returned several times to some of my favorites. I’ve had many enlightening conversations with people who come from bubbles very different than my bubble.
Every time I travel, I grow.
The seed was planted on my first trip, to Australia, but it is now rooted deep in my soul.
*All photos in this article were taken in Australia from 2009-2010
Good article. As a student in my early 20s I travelled around Europe on an interrail pass and I also spent a summer working (at a children’s summer camp) and travelling in the United States. I’m very very glad I did. As you said you can learn a lot about your own country when u see it through the eyes of a foreigner. Plus you get to meet fellow travellers from around the world too -in youth hostels and sitting up on overnight trains. ( the latter is not a form of travel I’d want to do now so I’m glad I did it when I was young!)
Whole heartedly agree. Travel broadens the mind, deepens the soul and brings new perspective otherwise unobtained. I first traveled at 18 to Germany (from NZ) and absolutely loved it!! Could not wait to get back- took me 13 years but I did! I think sometimes it’s small minds, I have friends who can’t grasp the idea of going over seas “why would you want to do that?” But the experience is phenomenal. Though to be fair I’m not a hostel person 🙂 so I spend more but that’s me. And the coffee is generally good in most places :).