You can’t get there from here: The importance of travel

TL;DR: Traveling and study abroad is a life changing experience. 

My freshman roommate and I were not that different, on the surface. Both white males from suburban school districts (he Chicago-land, I DC Metro) and living in a typical first year residence. I quickly realized we had little in common in terms of social lives and mores. I spent my summers coaching swimming and managing a pool while he followed the Grateful Dead around the country. A “good guy” by everyone’s account, it wasn’t a situation I was happy with and moved rooms over the winter break.

In my new suite I met people who were again quite different. One student, a Navy ROTC cadet, was taking Swahili, believed that he was an African in a prior life, and became the first white man to pledge the African American fraternity Omega Psi Phi. Another was a Chinese-born man from New York City. He and his wife remain two of my closest friends to this day. Through Kai, I encountered worlds and traditions that I never would have experienced otherwise.

These are the sorts of experiences we talk about when we say that college will help expand a student’s “world view.” Even without leaving their home state, they can get a glimpse of the world through another person’s eyes and experience. That is always enlightening but it takes intentionality; we need to reflect on those encounters and relationships in order to learn from them. 

Taking ourselves abroad kicks that reflection into high gear. We almost cannot help but think about how different we are from those around us when all the signs are in an alphabet that we do not recognize. When we have to resort to pantomime to find a restroom, we begin to realize that not all of the world has the same vocabulary and set of assumptions. I was fortunate enough to study abroad between my first and second years in college.

I took a full year off to consider my future goals, work a bit (in a hotel), and then study for 10 weeks at a language school in Germany.  It was nothing short of life changing for me. From learning what jet lag was (sadly, well after I had come through it, no one bothered to explain it to me!), to experiencing the different perspectives of Poles, Japanese, French, Swiss, and Brazilians all in one class speaking only in German, to having to be the translator for my grandmother when she came to visit our German cousins who spoke no English. (Oh, and the little, wonderful, experience of spending several days in East Germany. For our students:  East Germany was a different country in those days… very different.) My world, which, thanks to growing up outside of our nation’s capital and a year in college, was already fairly broad now became far more rich and textured.

Eventually I went to graduate school, met my wife, and we moved to England for the first four years of our marriage and my doctoral studies at Oxford. (Unsolicited marital tip: If you move 3,000+ miles away from both sets of parents, you will know that the success/failure of your relationship is all on you two.) Even where we spoke more or less the same language, there were a number of subtle, but powerful, differences to be navigated. Many lessons still to be learned.

And I am fortunate that this continues in my life. I travel quite a bit for the university, most recently to Russia. Two weeks ago I was in Moscow for four days. I was actually in the room when Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that he believed the US and the EU were trying to bring about another “color revolution.” Being in a conference at the university primarily responsible for training Russian Foreign Intelligence Service workers for the last 70 years was an experience upon which I am still reflecting.

These are the sorts of experiences we want for our students. We want them to “build a global perspective” not so that they can have a few more stamps in their passport (or get their first passport! and, to be honest, it is cool to get those stamps), but to have the experience of being outside… outside of their comfort zone, outside of their country, and even outside of their discipline. Meeting people with similar interests, for example, but with a far different background informing their view can help us look at problems in a completely different light.

Mr. Schreyer experienced this when he graduated from Penn State and went into the Army, to be stationed in post-war Germany. It stayed with him so firmly that when he was CEO of Merrill Lynch (ML) he cited that experience as part of his motivation to move ML into China and other emerging markets for the first time in the company’s history. And that is why, in 1997 when he and Mrs. Schreyer endowed the college, they insisted that a “global perspective” would be a core part of the mission of the college that bears his name.

Every Schreyer Scholar, whether they enter in their first year or through our Gateway, is entitled to the Schreyer Ambassador Travel Grants. But the funds are limited, so we have launched a crowd funding campaign. If you have read this far then you understand how important it is that we help our students have such life-changing experiences.

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