Today I am in New York City attending the prestigious Travel Blogger Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citizenship — a sequel to the acclaimed White House event held in 2014. Co-hosted by Hostelling International USA (HI USA) and Partners of the Americas, this event touches on my personal passion for the transformative power of travel, and the belief that travel is and should be for everyone. The goal the conference is to inspire a new generation to study abroad and experience the transformational power of travel. I have been asked to share my own personal story and here it is. Feel free to follow the summit online and read other stories using the hashtag #studyabroadbecause.
“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.” – Anais Nin
The first time I ever left the country was at the tender age of six. I was tiny, timid and loved playing with my dolls. My family rented a station wagon and we drove south of the border of Texas, along the coast and then west into the mountainous, tropical mystery of Cuidad Valles, Mexico. On the drive, we passed people living in deplorable conditions; in homes of hand-made shacks and tarps alongside the road. I stared out the window at this strange landscape, wide-eyed with wonder.
When we arrived at our hotel, we were surrounded by the local children who came to meet the new guests. There I stood, painfully shy and in pig-tails while the children danced around me shouting, “Niña rubia, niña rubia… Quiero tocar tu cabello” (Blond girl, blond girl, I want to touch your hair). They were fascinated by my shiny white blond hair, blue eyes and nordic pale skin. They had never seen it before. This was the mid-70s a time when not many foreigners came to visit a small town in the middle of Mexico. I was equally spellbound by them. Their dark black hair, sparkling brown eyes and skin. The playful rapid-fire Spanish coming out of their mouths. It was a moment in time I will never forget, and began my life long love of travel and culture.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” – Mark Twain
The first time I went overseas, I was 13 years old. Young, awkward, impressionable and ready to find my place in the world. I had the experience of years of family travel back home under my belt. Yet going to Europe for the first time was a new kind of adventure. It was 1984 and none of my friends had ever been to Europe. It felt exotic. I was filled with a rush of anticipation of what I would discover.
The moment I road up the escalator from the Paris metro and stepped out onto the streets to see the awe and wonder of Paris for the very first time, I was mesmerized. Paris blew me away. I made my decision right then and there, looking down the magnificent Champs-Élysées, that I would someday live in Paris and spend a semester studying abroad there. I returned home, enrolled in my first french class and continued to study french in college to prepare me for the day I’d live in France. My junior year of college, I applied to a study abroad program in Paris at the Sorbonne and was accepted. My dream had come true.
In January 1993, my mother and I boarded a plane with two large suitcases, a backpack and all my belongings for my life in Paris. We went a week early to travel by train to Spain and then my mother brought me to the campus in the 14th arrondissement at the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris, 17 Boulevard Jourdan, where I’d be living. When I saw the international campus for the first time, I felt like a little kid in a candy shop. There I was surrounded by students from all over the world speaking every language imaginable. There was the Maison du Japon, the Collège d’ Espagne, and the Maison de l’Inde. Over 40 dormitories each with its own culture and architectural design. I was placed in the Collège Franco-Britannique and was relieved not to be in the residence for Americans. Over the next six months, my life would change in unimaginable ways. “The world is your oyster” my father always said and he was right.
“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” – Andre Gide
My time in Paris was a time of significant growth and transformation. My immense curiosity for understanding the world and where I fit in inspired me every single step of the way. It was a time before the internet so my contact with my family and the news back home was minimal. Instead, I sent hand-written letters, called once a month and read Le Monde and the International Herald Tribune for my news. I immersed myself in French life and culture and for the first time in my life I felt like a global citizen more than an American.
My first month living abroad was filled with ups and downs. Things as simple and easy as going to the grocery store was a huge challenge. Learning how to order everything in French and to make sure I remembered how to properly conjugated my verbs and disguise my American accent was difficult. My classes were all in french and there were so many words I didn’t know or understand. The teaching system was strange and different. I was struggling to meet new friends and oftentimes didn’t feel like they understood my “American-ness”. I was homesick and missed the easy things about life that I took for granted. I missed peanut butter, frozen yogurt, watching TV and my moms cooking. I cried when I got my first paper back and the teacher told me I wrote at a sixth grade level. Yet these challenging moments were shadowed in comparison to the multitude of awe-inspiring moments of an American girl living in Paris.
Every day was an adventure. Every day I learned and saw something new. Life in Paris was exhilarating, romantic, adventurous and a thrill. Mastering how to order my coffee in french and how to use the metro gave me confidence that I could do it. Wondering the painfully romantic streets, exploring the endless museums, and testing out new french and ethnic restaurants, thrilled me. It was all so exciting! I felt like I was on top of the world.
Then there was the travel. My friend and I bought a Eurail pass and traveled every weekend we could to a new destination with our Lonely Planets in hand. We called the Lonely Planet our bible as it opened our world to new places, cultures, and people. We went to Italy, Spain, Germany, Greece, Norway, Belgium, Austria, Hungary, England and of course all over France. The more I traveled, the more I wanted to see. My appetite for travel was never satiated.
By the end of the semester I was not ready to go back. I was finally dreaming in french and I loved my life there. I found a summer position as a fille au pair for a family and stayed in rural France until August. With a heavy heart, I boarded the plane with the same two large suitcases and worn out backpack from before, but as an entirely new young woman. A woman who understood her place in the big world and felt connected to it like never before. Little did I know that my study abroad program would start a life-long love and passion of traveling and exploring the world that I continue to do this day.
Over the past two decades since I lived in France, I have traveled around the world more than I ever dreamed possible. I have visited every continent except Antarctica and have truly become a global citizen through my advocacy work, and travel and social good blogging. I have climbed to the top of Kilimanjaro to raise funding for solar energy in Sub-Saharan Africa, visited the smallest rural communities in rural Ethiopia to report on newborn and maternal health, and have climbed the peaks of Nepal, Bolivia, France, Chile, Argentina and Peru. I have spent a week living with a family in Honduras and Guatemala, traveled solo to Cuba, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. I never once hesitated or had any fear. It never felt exotic or out of my comfort zone. It also felt like an extension of me.
I have no idea who I would be without travel. Travel has transformed my life and has made me who I am today, and I am so absolutely blessed to have the opportunity to see the world.
I will close with my personal reasons why I believe the future generation of students need to get out of their comfort zones and study abroad if they can.
It opens your mind.
It transforms you.
It opens your heart to differences.
It fuels your curiosity and passion for other cultures and places.
It helps you understand the world.
It puts your identity in perspective.
It fuels your desire to become a global citizen and lifelong explorer