Studying abroad is certainly a “trendy” thing to do right now. My generation has been fortunate enough to spend time in Europe for a few months at a time, traversing through places like Paris, Rome and London. While these are absolutely beautiful cities, I’d like to make the argument that we should get further outside our comfort zones by traveling to truly different places. Places where people’s views are different than our own, who speak different languages, who eat different food.
And here’s why.
Open your mind. In the United States, we have been blessed with freedom of speech and freedom of the press. So, we think that the news we consume is unbiased and factual. There is, however, a gray area. When the news is reported, it is shared in a way that can slowly mold our minds.
For example, what is your first reaction when you hear the word “Islam”? Very likely, you imagine images of the extremist groups that have been committing horrendous crimes around the world. Unfortunately, that is what we are exposed to by the media. By traveling the world, though, you could see what I, along with many others, see. Gorgeous places of worship with passionate, welcoming people. People who have amazing beliefs, dreams and goals – like the rest of us.
Truly experiencing new places will help break this stereotype, along with many others.
Meet amazing people. This refers to both locals and tourists in your destinations. In your hostels, on the train and in the bar, you’ll meet amazingly interesting travelers. Hear their stories, ask them questions. These wanderers share your curiosity about the world. Even better, they have very likely been many places that you have not yet visited… and vice-versa.
Perhaps more importantly, seek out locals wherever you go. This is the single most effective way to learn about, and experience, a new culture. Be polite, but inquisitive. Open-minded and curious. Ask about their beliefs and culture, their daily routine and lifestyle. Find out what their favorite restaurants are, and where they like to shop.
Learn about yourself. This can mean many things. Maybe, you will travel alone and gain self-confidence and independence. Maybe, you will learn about your family heritage by traveling to the hometowns of your ancestors. Or maybe, you just need to get away from your normal routine and have time to really think about your dreams, goals and priorities.
Regardless of your personal plans, traveling somewhere extraordinary will be an amazing learning experience.
Get perspective. When we are stuck in our normal routine, it is easy to get caught up in things that, in the bigger scale, don’t quite matter. The fact that my highlights are already growing out, that I can never seem to find matching socks and that my nails have been so thin lately… well, that all seems really silly while I’m standing on the top of a mountain breathing in incredibly fresh air.
I toured a desert village in Morocco, and it was life changing. I saw these incredibly happy, welcoming people. They move with the seasons, never having access to electricity, running water or a place to call “home.” And they are happier than most because they are in touch with the things that really matter – family and friends.
Break stereotypes when you come home. While abroad, you will learn things and your perspective will surely shift. Coming home may be difficult because you’ll realize how skewed perspectives can be – how skewed your own perspective may have been. Make it your mission to open others’ eyes when you return. Do not be forceful or accusatory; just share the truth and it will spread.