It was when I stood in the Korean Demilitarized Zone and looked through binoculars into North Korea that I realized how significantly travel changed my life.
From wandering through Pompeii to riding a motorcycle through Taiwan, this realization occurred again and again.
In these moments, part of what I feel is gratitude, but another part is a desire for others to share the same experience.
Most universities offer study abroad opportunities to their students, yet fewer than 2% of U.S. students study abroad each year.
That means only an extremely small minority of students are exposed to an experience of a lifetime — a new country, culture and people during a pivotal time in their young adult lives.
During my final year of college, I took a study abroad trip to Italy. Overseas, my entire post-grad vista (and life) changed; I caught the travel bug and made plans to live abroad after college.
After I graduated, I moved to Hong Kong. For nearly two years I traveled throughout Southeast Asia, visiting dozens of countries and expanding my understanding of people and cultures.
I learned firsthand how the U.S. news cycle is only one of many. Americans especially are prone to believing that the U.S. is the center of the world. Spending a few minutes with people who do not speak English as a first language handily disproves that theory.
When I was in South Korea, I learned that former President Trump was widely celebrated there for his diplomacy with North Korea. Many locals I spoke to told me that he has made more forward progress in the Korean peninsula than any previous U.S. president.
In Thailand, I read a story in the newspaper about the prevalence of rigged democratic elections, and how this made many of the citizens feel voiceless.
I never saw either of these storylines emerge from a U.S. media outlet.
Studying abroad — and traveling in general — is not about putting something glossy on your resume, nor is it about building an international network.
It is also not about booking $7.00 hostel stays, playing with elephants in mud pits or staying in a club until dawn with expats from nine different countries.
The above are undeniably romantic, thrilling perks of studying abroad and travel, but they do not comprise “the point” of it all.
Going abroad is about perspective.
Gaining new insights and shedding old ones. Reevaluating your America-centric assumptions with a global worldview that includes a broader diversity of thought, people and place.
Studying in a foreign country should be prioritized and advocated for in American universities. College students comprise the next generation of leaders and thinkers; schools should be doing everything they can to instill these students with a global sense of responsibility and community.
Building a better world happens when leaders can transcend borders and communicate across cultures.
With travel comes both sensitivity and toughness: the sensitivity to understand others and the toughness to understand that cultural differences aren’t meant to be a slight or offense. Studying abroad forces us to recognize the world is far broader than our assumptions.
Vagabonding puts you face to face with diversity — people of all nationalities and ethnicities, speaking different languages and exchanging points of view. Alongside these experiences comes challenge, growth and adaptation.
In 2021, these skills have never been more important.
While making study abroad mandatory could be extreme — some students face disproportionate financial limitations, or families and jobs that cannot be left unattended — schools should allocate greater funding to study abroad departments to spread awareness about their programs.
One reason students may not study abroad could be because they were not fully aware of the international opportunities their school offered. Providing more resources for students could increase the number of students who go overseas.
In 2008, the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management successfully made study abroad mandatory for students. A primary driver of this was greater involvement between students and the admissions, financial aid and international offices.
Administrators advised their students early and often, and the mindset on travel for the entire school changed from “if” to “when.”
Universities all over must adopt this same mindset to bear more worldly and diverse students.
Studying abroad isn’t about building your resume or partying overseas or accruing frequent flyer miles.
It’s about perspective.
This story was reported and written through a journalism course on opinion writing and edited by USC Annenberg Associate Professor Alan Mittelstaedt. Annenberg Media student editors reviewed the story and published it per newsroom guidelines.
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