So you’re thinking about taking the leap. Cutting the cords and throwing wind to your sails. But why? Yes, everyone should experience the benefits and personal learnings of international travel, but understanding your purpose and the outcome you want to have will help you make the most of your experience no matter what or where it is. In this section we outline some of the psychological, practical, personal and impactful reasons that should motivate your desires to travel and see the world while changing it for good.
Form a new world view
Most of us have grown up experiencing the same cultural norms our entire lives. Sure, people move, they travel for vacation; maybe you have even experienced extended travel through someone’s job being moved to a new uncharted area. But generally speaking, our cultural day-to-day surroundings have remained the same. We believe certain things to be true, to be right, and to be normal. But all cultures are not alike. They change in extraordinary ways, from language, to motivations, actions, diets, aspirations, and beliefs about the way the world should work. Traveling abroad gives you a window into different worlds, and when looking with an open mind one can start to understand and manage the differences between people.
Here’s an example. A simple grasshopper is considered a pest in the U.S., a pet in China, and an appetizer in Northern Thailand. If there is this much variation just over a grasshopper’s role in our lives, can we even imagine how larger differences like human actions, gestures, and speech influence our perceptions of other people whom we are trying to understand? So when we see something on the news about a different country’s policies or meet a new expatriate down the street from Vietnam, how can we connect with them without bringing our own world view and judgments with us that say they are wrong or different for doing things a different way. If you travel, you begin to build cultural intelligence just by meeting people and talking to them. By living in their culture you can understand why they act the way they do, and better understand what part of your thinking is the cultural lens you’ve grown up with, and what is really universal to all people. Once you can separate things you know to be true as just one culture’s lens from your way of thinking, you can open yourself to thinking about different countries and people in new ways. You can begin to understand them and be more accepting and open-minded. Be a fish out of water. When you don’t have your own culture and society to back your beliefs you learn that there are multiple ways of thinking, and all of them can be right. It is being able to think in multiple dimensions, considering where other people came from; that you can really change the way you think and therefore understand the world you live in.
Gain greater empathy for other people
Travel has a strong connection to the heart. If you’re naturally inclined to care about people, traveling will be one of the most fulfilling experiences of your life. This reaction is called empathy. It’s seeing and experiencing another way of life for yourself that puts you in another person’s shoes, and allows you to both feel what they go through every day and also compare it to your own experiences. It’s difficult not to feel something when you see homes with three walls in Belize, or children wearing rags in the streets of India. Traveling is the only way to realize first hand what you have compared to those who don’t. It puts the issues in front of your eyes where you can’t change the channel. It forces you to realize real issues in the world and may ignite a fire within your heart to act on those issues. Most people who start businesses with an international development focus started with an experience of extreme disparity, which broke their heart and inspired them to fix the issues they saw. Take the founder of Charity Water. In his 20’s he spent his life as a club promoter in New York City. After a trip abroad, something triggered him to switch career paths and start one of the most well known charities in the world. Whether you become deeply passionate about education, poverty or any social issue is just as important as becoming aware of greater issues in the world. This mindset can not only help you address your own issues, but can also help you to understand different cultures, and maybe even want to help.
Empathy doesn’t have to only be about experiencing people in extreme poverty. Living with a host family gives you an understanding of what is important to them. You may find similarities in your problems, such as finding time to exercise or visiting with relatives.
Gain new skills
Your purpose for international travel can also be a more practical one. Travel provides many opportunities to learn new skills. Take advantage of your trip to learn a language or work on a specific craft like photography. The sky is the limit!
Travel to become a global citizen
Take a look around your classroom or your office space. Chances are you or one of your close friends is working with or interacting with someone from a different country. More and more this is the way the world is heading. Because of technology, affordable travel, and multinational businesses, people are scattered all around the world. International schools are popping up everywhere to educate people from different backgrounds together. Multi-week or month business trips to other countries are replacing long-term assignments. Interacting with diverse people and in diverse environments is the future, and travel is the key to unlocking your potential to navigate the new world. When you travel you meet people from many different places and learn how to communicate with them. You will learn a lot of patience in navigating language barriers and city transit maps. You can’t imagine the pride you will feel in successfully navigating another country’s transportation system with no previous knowledge of the language. Traveling gives you the confidence and the bootstrapping skills to figure things out for yourself, to be comfortable with ambiguity and being lost, and to react to situations calmly and appropriately.
These skills, tolerance, patience, and confidence working in multi-national teams or environments makes you a global citizen. You become an asset by knowing how to navigate challenging and possibly uncomfortable situations. You learn how to communicate effectively with people and understand what methods work best for them even if they seem illogical to someone from your own culture. You can handle any situation, whether it relates to culture or not, because these skills are transferable to all areas of life.
Train linguistically and culturally for future jobs
The fastest and most effective way to learn a language is to be immersed in it. If you want to learn Spanish, travel to a Spanish speaking country and live among it. It’s amazing what you will pick up just by listening and forcing yourself not to use English. Learning a language is one of the most valuable assets you can have today. The problem with learning another country’s language in your own country is that it’s been modified. Although your Spanish education may be grammatically sound, you may come to realize the way you were taught is not actually how people speak.The speed of the language may also differ from how it is actually spoken. However, by listening to locals and asking questions you will begin to pick up the language in a way that is much more natural and effective. This is a linguistic education that can only come from traveling outside of your native country.
Traveling to other countries also helps prepare you for situations you may face in a multi-cultural workforce. Maybe your boss will send you to Malaysia where you once took a one-week trip, and you’ll know not to wear yellow or white. You’ll be prepared to experience some difficulties if you’re a woman being sent to India, or a young colleague being sent to Japan. These are cultural differences that can be looked up online of course, but a true understanding of the reasoning behind such strange business actions comes with experiencing the culture through travel. You are now looking at new experiences with a global lens, accepting what is different – and not wrong – in another country. You will still encounter difficulties, but you may be able to handle them more effectively than you would have before.
Learn and grow personally
Traveling abroad is the best way to understand yourself and to understand your place in the world. Whether you know it or not, you are one of over 7 billion people on the Earth. This fact should not make you feel insignificant, but it may make you feel a little smaller. If you do choose to take on the challenges of the world, to see it and experience it, you have the opportunity to make a huge impact. If you are reading this document you at least have access to a computer, an education, and probably many other assumptions about ability and comfort in your life. You’ve won the birth lottery already. One in every five people in the world can’t read. One third of the global population doesn’t have access to the Internet, and over half of the world’s population lives in poverty, on less than $2.50 a day. When you think about your place in the world and what you have relative to the rest of the population, you have a giant opportunity to make a positive impact. When you travel you see these statistics for what they actually are; human faces, hands and feet; their problems now become real, and you realize those faces have names. Traveling shows you just how small you are, but just how large your impact can be. It opens your mind, and may drive new passions domestically or internationally that you never had before. As this guide will talk about later, you don’t have to rescue every orphan or feed every starving child to make a difference. There are positive ways to even take a vacation with positive benefits to the community, but being aware of the opportunity you have is the first step.
Any stage in your life can be a time of discovery. You don’t have to be a college student or twenty-something. Change can be constant and is born out of new experiences. It takes a lot of time to figure yourself out, and the idea of yourself that you have in your head can unravel several times. Maybe it’s the pressure of picking one thing and sticking to it, the need to be consistent with your interests and passions once you become an adult (whatever age that is). Or maybe you truly haven’t experienced enough yet to know exactly who you are. When you put yourself in completely new situations while traveling abroad you realize not only new things that you love, but also the things that you care most about in your life. You learn how comfortable you are blending into new cultures, trying new foods, or creating relationships. The most important thing to remember when traveling is to reflect. Saying you are going off to find yourself with no direction or goal is probably a waste of time and money. But looking for strategic experiences and outcomes, such as studying abroad, interning abroad, working abroad, or volunteering abroad, helps to put travel in a form that is able to truly benefit you in your quest to find yourself. Traveling, though it sounds like a whirlwind of train horns and broken languages, is a great time to explore your own head. You can’t understand what that Turkish man is saying on the phone anyways, so get introspective, reflect on your experiences and the way they make you feel, what you learned from each situation, whether it was retracing your way back into the country after you got onto a bus or that possibly life endangering canyoning trip you took with your friends. We make thousands of decisions a day, but taking time to reflect on the patterns in your decision making and how each outcome made you feel allows you to get better grasp who you are, what you like, and what you want to do. You realize passions and dreams that may have nothing to do with travel, but your creative mind is opened by the stimulation of new environments completely different than those you comfortable with. Even if you have a pretty good sense of who you are, give it a try; take an extended trip to a completely new country. Try new things, and start to see how you and your interests change, it will only affect you for the better.
Travel to be of service to others
The last, and probably most apparent way to travel with a purpose is to use your resources; your time and skills, to positively impact people who face great social issues every day by not being born into the developed world. Many people believe they don’t have anything to give people in other countries. And while specific skills are definitely needed – water engineering, construction knowledge to build homes, and business knowledge to help bring people out of poverty through entrepreneurial activities – you can still make a huge impact by simply giving you time. There are many organizations like Build Abroad who give you the opportunity to help by teaching you the skill sets you need to know. If you are willing to donate your time, these organizations simply need the hands of volunteers to make their impact larger, to build more homes, to feed more people, and to create social impact. If you do have certain skills you would like to use to help other people there are opportunities for that too. If you knit blankets better than anyone else, there are children in Nepal who need warm clothing but can’t afford it. If you know English, you can probably teach it. Teaching English is one of the biggest efforts of American volunteers and volunteer programs. There are many options which will be outlined later in this guide. The point is that in order to help, you must only give yourself the permission to do so, along with the drive to make it happen.