There are approximately 21 million college students in the U.S. The vast majority of these future leaders went straight from high school to college. A lot of them will go on to immediately apply to graduate school, or go into full-time employment, once they graduate. Society reminds them how college is an obvious investment. Parents accept skyrocketing tuition payments while many students enter college uncertain of what they want to major in, or do with their lives after college. Even so, their paths have been clear from before high school: do well so that you can get into a good college, graduate, then go straight to work. Once you are in the workforce, avoid having any gaps in your résumé.
So what is wrong with this picture? Well, I believe it has massive shortcomings. Gaps should not be feared. Positive gaps should be encouraged. Travel is one such gap. I fundamentally believe that travel broadens the mind. Students should take every opportunity to travel and learn lessons that are not taught in classrooms.
We have historically failed to promote travel as an important component of a world-class education in the U.S. Less than 10 percent of U.S. graduates study abroad. The White House recognizes that we have to do better. Last December they formed the Bureau of Educational + Cultural Affairs to encourage more students to study abroad, provide information about the grants that are available and encourage travel to new destinations, including Southeast Asia, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Some travel is exponentially more powerful than the travel most Americans are doing. International travel, experiencing new cultures, languages and cuisines, while going outside of your comfort zone is the kind of travel that changes lives and builds respect across borders.
Scandinavian and Australian students (to name just a few) travel internationally on shoestring budgets and it is generally not seen as an activity of the privileged. British youth are very familiar with the “gap year travel” concept and work months to save up the funds to travel around the world.
So why not more Americans? Where do these cultural differences come from? Travel unfortunately does not seem to be a priority for Americans, when compared with people in other parts of the world. The majority of Americans, an alarming 62% , do not even hold a passport. And, Americans forfeited 169 million vacation days in 2014 (a 40 year high), amounting to $52.4 billion in lost benefits. Do we then live in a practical, hardworking society where the examples set in our work culture trickle down to our youth who are afraid to veer off the path that society has planned for them for fear of missing out on what they “should be doing?”
I believe this not only should, but needs to change. We live in times when deregulation, new technologies and improved infrastructure make it possible to take advantage of what felt nearly impossible and unattainable to previous generations. To explore the world is easier and more affordable than ever. I do not believe this is a “Champagne problem,” but rather an important one with significant political and economic long-term ramifications. Americans must meet the world and I can think of no better way to spark change than to encourage our youth to go further. Go to Spain if you study Spanish. Backpack around Asia to understand the newspaper headlines better. Visit your grandparents’ hometown in Ireland. Volunteer for a year. Teach English and build schools. Travel further, ask questions and come back enlightened.
To claim that international travel is for everyone, would clearly show that you are removed from the economic reality of a large percentage of the U.S. population. Unfortunately, college is already prohibitively expensive for a lot of families. Adding the idea of required or frequent international travel seems ludicrous and elitist to many. But I would argue that, for millions, this is not an economic issue but one of prioritization, a cultural bias.
Before someone rushes off to college or work, we should ask “can it wait?” Think about it – what makes for an interesting person and professional? Seeing the world is an investment worth making. I have yet to meet anyone that traveled the world only to regret it, and to the cynic in you, employers take notice of applicants that have had meaningful world experiences. According to a MetLife survey, more than sixty percent of Fortune 1000 executives identified global awareness as ‘very important’ or ‘essential’ in order to be ready for a career. I would argue that travel, not just studying abroad, will enhance your resume, when done right.
To argue that “we are living in increasingly globalized economies” and that “students who want to work in our interconnected global world should study abroad” is certainly nothing new, nor is it controversial to most people. But study abroad cannot remain the sole focus of such an important discussion. This goes back to the “no gaps allowed” mantra. Granted, most international students will find the time to explore more than books during their time abroad, but we are reaching only a fraction of the total addressable audience. Our goal should be to enable all young people to travel beyond their borders.
The American stereotype often seen abroad of ignorant and disconnected citizens must die. The way to kill it is to turn American youth into global citizens.
Do not think of world travel as a detour. For students, college will be there next year. Let us dare to invest in ourselves before embarking on the most expensive journey of a lifetime; college.