Today, I’m featuring guest blogger Emily Sussell from Fly Away World. She is a recent college graduate who is pursuing her dreams of travel and blogging. In February 2012, during her college years, she began studying abroad in Australia. Afterwards she wandered around Australia and Thailand for four months. Through these experiences, her love for travel grew. Today she’s here to discuss how you, as a student, can find ways to travel that fit in with your educational and personal goals!
The college years are easily both the best and worst time in a person’s life to travel. It was my senior year of college that I realized discovering myself and discovering the world was such a delicious combination. Meanwhile, I know well that college students are on tight schedules and even tighter budgets. As someone who graduated from four years of liberal arts college only to realize that my main ambition in life is to travel the world, I feel a sense of responsibility to share my story with undergraduates, inspire them to travel extensively, and to support them in figuring out how.
It’s unfortunate, but in my experience I find that most young people in the United States have a distorted understanding of the word “travel.” In our mainstream culture we are raised to understand “travel” as four day long all-inclusive vacations on gated resorts or luxury cruise ships. We know nothing about other countries compared to what they know about ours. A lot of my friends in the U.S. don’t even have passports. We also see that most working adults in our country only get about ten days vacation a year. When it comes to living abroad, college students are socialized to view the world in terms of resume-building potential, and only value living abroad if it would somehow enhance their graduate school or job applications, like internships abroad or outrageously expensive volunteer service trips (I’ll never understand why anyone would pay to volunteer.)
After doing a lot of traveling myself and connecting with people from other countries I want nothing more than to redefine the culture of travel in the United States. Travel does not have to be expensive. Travel is about immersing yourself in local communities, not exploiting their beaches as locals wait your tables. Travel is about learning the language and culture. Traveling long-term is absolutely possible, even without having a lot of money. Furthermore, you do not need an excuse to travel. You may travel simply because you’d like to. You may go on a one-way ticket. You may take a “gap year,” but you needn’t limit travel to one year before a lifetime of school and work. If you dare, live a “gap life,” of constant travel and nomadism. It is possible to sustain yourself from anywhere in the world.
My biggest piece of advice to undergraduates who want to travel is to start with a semester abroad. The planning involved might seem daunting, but I (and millions of students that have done it) know that it’s worth it. Fall semester of my senior year, in addition to writing papers and studying for exams, I researched study abroad, applied for a program and about a dozen scholarships. It was one of those intense semesters in which I spent way more time in the library than the bar. But the reward of finding out I was going to study abroad in Melbourne, Australia and receive $6,000 in scholarships made it worth every minute.
You won’t have to go through the planning process alone as there’s plenty of support on a college campus. When else in your life than college are you going to have a whole team of advisors and network of other students to support you through the process of planning a few months abroad? The study abroad office at my college was really organized and helpful when it came to application support. If it’s not the same at your institution, then you will have to take more personal responsibility, but at least there are always other students who have done it to connect with.
Study abroad is an ideal, foolproof way to master the logistics of planning travel. It’s essentially impossible to mess up your plans, because the program will require that you prove you’ve done things like purchased visas and heath insurance. They’ll probably provide you with useful checklists, so you don’t even have to make your own.
A semester abroad is a great way to ease into the experience of living abroad and becoming a traveler. Your program will most likely offer accommodation with other students beginning on arrival day. You’ll waste no time making friends, many of which will probably be from other countries, creating more opportunities for travel in the future. Once you’re abroad, you get to experience living like a local in another country. I found a few months was plenty of time for me to fully experience life in Melbourne. Before I went, I knew nothing about Australia. By the time I left, I felt so comfortable there I now often considering moving there permanently. You can also use the weekends and holiday breaks to travel outside your host city or even to other countries. I’ll admit that in my semester abroad I didn’t purchase a single textbook, and instead put my funds towards train and plane tickets (which can shockingly be of similar value!)
I come from a lower-middle income family where the general attitude towards summer was that it was exclusively for getting a job. I was also led to believe by family and peers that the best thing to do after college graduation was head directly into either graduate school or a full-time job. Economic background aside, I’ve found that this professionally focused path is the general attitude towards life in the United States. Study. Work. Study. Work. Is that all we do? What about fun? What about exploration? Discovery? Adventure? I urge college students to use three-month long summer breaks and time after graduation to travel overseas.
I studied abroad my final semester of college. When classes ended and my friends back home were walking across the stage at graduation, I realized my own graduation ceremony would be to explore the world. I still had funds leftover from financial aid I’d received and I had no obligations to return to at home. I’d never backpacked for longer than a couple days or set foot in a hostel, but many of my European friends were talking about traveling this way.
It was my worried, fearful nature to attempt to plan out every detail of my travels, but I quickly realized that study-abroad had changed me, and my new nature was more spontaneous and trusting. So I put on a backpack, bought a one-way train ticket, and set off on an adventure with no itinerary or end-date in sight. I originally imagined I’d go for four weeks, but I ended up traveling for four months. I discovered the culture of work-exchange travel with the help of websites like Helpx.net and WorkAway.info. I volunteered work in exchange for food and accommodation at an ashram, an aboriginal cultural center, and two eco-villages. I discovered Couchsurfing.org and stayed for free with empowerment coaches, permaculture activists, artists and freelancers. I took advantage of classified ads and found road-trip buddies. When the money and my visa were running empty, I got on a one-way flight to Thailand.
I can genuinely say that I learned more in four months of traveling than four years of college. I learned about gardening, permaculture, and meditation. I learned to speak the basics of Thai language. I learned to drive a motorbike. I learned how to travel light and how little I really need. I learned to live presently, enjoy life, and not worry about the future. Above all, I learned that the world is a safe place and I can explore it without fear. People are kind, welcoming, and willing to offer you something, even when they have very little.
We are led to believe that college is “the best years of our lives.” When I reflect on college, I do in fact recall a lot of fun, friendship, and learning. However, I also remember engaging in so many conversations with peers that were grounded in stress and fear for the future. Everyone was enjoying themselves but dreading graduation day. How will we get jobs with our useless liberal arts degrees?’ we all wondered. An energy of ‘What next?’ lingered in our Solo cups. My message to those of you still in college is to stop asking this question and instead ask yourself ‘What now?’ What is important to you in this moment? What do you love to do? How would you fill your days if money were no object? If you’re struggling to answer these questions, spend some time living or traveling abroad, and you’ll be amazed how clear it all becomes.