Just four months ago, I stood scooping beans into canvas sacks in Kenya to hand out to hungry families. My skirt swept the dusty ground; my sandals were stained Kenyan-earth-red.
Now, I stride around in blouses and heels and business attire - a chameleon shifting to match a strikingly different world: the U.S. government. Despite the change, dealing with U.S. Embassy projects has reinforced what I suspected already: an educated worldview, especially one gained by actually traveling to see the world, is priceless.
What does it say about American society that we can Google Earth the far corners of the world in a second, but we tend to stick to our own neighborhoods and social circles - not to mention our own language? Only 30% of U.S. citizens have passports, according to a CNN report; even fewer are bilingual.
Here’s why I go abroad, and why you should be part of that 30% - and the even smaller percentage that catch the travel bug for life:
1. To understand what drives cultural practices – why human beings, ourselves and others, live the way we do.
2. To see yourself through the eyes of the rest of the world, gaining perspective on your own culture.
3. To discover beauty in all its facets and faces.
4. To draw inspiration from the artistic expressions of other cultures. Human capacity for art and creativity is endless.
5. To enrich your life with friendships stretching all across the globe. (Not to mention that from a networking perspective, it never hurts to have contacts in many different countries.)
6. To contribute meaningfully to today’s global society. Many of my friends in Kenya are a click away on Facebook, so it seems easy to say we’re linked to the rest of the world. But after seeing the struggles of many Kenyans trapped in poverty (starvation, AIDS, malaria, stigmatization of disabilities, etc.) with my own eyes, I can now better explain and advocate for help from Americans at home. I have proof – photographs, quotes I wrote down, people I can call on as sources. I can also better interpret and analyze our own media: what stories are told and what is left out; whether political spin is slanting world stories and reports; what is considered important “news” elsewhere in the world versus here in America.
7. To collect stories to tell. As a result of my many trips abroad, I never run out – whether it’s getting washed down a waterfall in Australia, building a house out of mud in Kenya, or losing myself in the streets of Rome for a day.
8. To shatter stereotypes – either those you’ve unconsciously held against others, or those others have assumed of you. For me, I want to prove not all Americans are insensitive, uncultured, self-absorbed, rich, bland. The truth is: we have our failings as a society, but we are diverse, ungroupable; a collection of differences. We come from everywhere, our skins shaded every color. Some of us don’t care about the world – but many of us do. Just the other week, my Congolese friend told me something that I’ll never forget. We were discussing world problems – the turmoil of Arab Spring, the villages I visited in Kenya struggling to survive without food, business monopolies keeping down the poorest of the poor, and the filmy coat of corruption greasing much of U.S. politics. He argued that changing the way we run elections in the U.S .(such as banning private endorsements to candidates) could go a long way towards changing how things are run in the country as a whole – i.e. many of the issues scrawled across the posters of “Occupy” protestors – and could even change the world. “I think Americans are actually good people,” he said. “I think regular Americans are like you – trying to help people, traveling to other countries, hoping to make a difference. But those are not the Americans that get elected.” Those are not the Americans that the world sees. But we can change that.
From every trip I return with new ideas, new inspiration, and new friendships. Immersion in the world is just as valuable an education as the one you gain in college.
Next trip for me? Maybe a program through GoAbroad for improving French and volunteering in Cameroon; or maybe I’ll return to Kenya to work with HEART once again. The opportunities are endless, if you take the time to look.