I didn’t realize it until I had my high school diploma, but I had a lot of fun in school. I like learning things a lot—but I also know that school’s function isn’t to teach you everything. If done right, your academic education should teach you how to learn instead. If you need a crash course on “indie learning,” you’d better book your plane tickets now, because here’s a short list of things you’re bound to discover on the road:
Pictures seldom do anything justice. Having graduated from college with a degree in art, I took my fair share of art history courses and saw a lot of artwork…on the slide projector. Spending an hour with Picasso’s Guernica and Michelangelo’s David, however, renders their photographs trite. And seeing pictures of the beaches at D-Day in a history book are one thing, but standing on Pointe du Hoc and Omaha Beach (Easy Red Sector) and envisioning the chaos was a humbling, life-altering experience.
You’re more resourceful—and stronger—than you think. When you show up somewhere new and just don’t know, throwing in the towel isn’t an option. You learn to rely on your wits and trust your instincts for getting around, who to talk to, and where to go from there. There’s no test to study for—usually it’s just one huge pop quiz with “LIFE!” written in big, bold letters on top. Don’t worry though, most people pass with flying colors.
The media is polarized. Granted, we already know this. But witnessing how wrong the media is first-hand removes the block in your mind that prevents you from hearing the other side of the story. México is filled with wonderful people, despite what one might hear about the dangerous drug cartels. Islamic & Christian Bosnians co-exist peacefully in a revitalized country. Rick Steves tells a story of visiting Iran and being stuck in traffic: “People in the neighboring car saw me sitting patiently…and rolled down their window and hand [my driver] a bouquet of flowers with instructions to give it to the visitor.” (source:
Not having a “real job” and traveling instead can be a golden ticket on a résumé. “Oh, so you didn’t take a boring-ass cubicle job for your first year after college and instead traveled the world, connecting with people in other countries, learning about their food and culture and language, and probably picked up a few things for yourself, like confidence, street smarts, and lateral thinking abilities? Great, we need some fresh air around here. When can you start?” Granted, I didn’t take the “year off” approach, but the extent of my travels has come up—and worked for me, not against—in more than one job interview.
How to live richly. For me, college was a very enriching experience, but I know that people run the gamut in terms of enrichment. Most colleges/universities are structured around everyone’s long-term goal: how to make a living, and how to keep it. Unfortunately, rare are the schools that, in their curriculum vitae, offer any sort of insight or education in preparing their students how to live well. Plenty of my contemporaries (the sub-30 group) are are already making twice the median wage in America, but few of them are truly happy. Travel, on the other hand, teaches us how to “grow happiness at our feet,” so says the sage. For more on this, check out Alan Watts’ discourse on
“Traveling through the world produces a marvelous clarity in the judgment of men. We are all of us confined and enclosed within ourselves, and see no farther than the end of our nose. This great world is a mirror where we must see ourselves in order to know ourselves. There are so many different tempers, so many different points of view, judgments, opinions, laws and customs to teach us to judge wisely on our own, and to teach our judgment to recognize its imperfection and natural weakness.” —Michel de Montaigne
Have you ever participated in a study abroad program? What aspects of learning are amplified by travel?