Grace Lower | Sep 6, 2017
So, full disclosure: I graduated from college in May. At this point, it doesn’t take much for me to feel nostalgic about my time as a student. And while I couldn’t be more grateful for my four years of undergrad, some of the most valuable lessons I learned during college came from outside of the classroom.
Throughout my undergraduate career, I had the chance to travel abroad for internships, classes, and leisure. Traveling challenged me in ways that I never thought possible, and it helped me understand my significance — and laughable insignificance — in relation to the rest of the world.
Travel blogs are often saturated with breezy platitudes like, “travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer,” and “we only regret the chances we didn’t take.” But many of the lessons I learned from travel forced me to grapple with messy, often uncomfortable realities. Here are five of my favorites.
As a student, I was a textbook overachiever. I happily embraced my inner Hermione Granger — taking as many courses as I possibly could while balancing leadership positions, a handful of student organizations, and two on-campus jobs. In my mind, my packed schedule and perpetual exhaustion were signs that I was “doing college right.”
Of course, that all changed when I decided to participate in a semester-long study abroad program in southern Spain. I was suddenly flung into a culture where daily naps were the norm and lunch breaks could span an entire afternoon. One of the first Spanish sayings I learned was la prisa mata — “rushing kills you.”
In Spain, I found myself surrounded by people who valued play over work and relationships over revenue. This shift in perspective helped me realize that my stress levels were not a measure of my importance, and that relaxation is a necessary part of a well-ordered life.
Most students will agree that admitting uncertainty can be uncomfortable, especially if you’re in a lecture hall with 200 of your peers. But when you travel, it’s nothing short of strategy — asking the right questions can save you time, money, and sanity.
Whether you’re confused by public transportation, hesitant about ordering food, or uncertain about etiquette, it always helps to speak up. No matter where you are, you can almost always find someone to help you make sense of your surroundings.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a planner. I thrive on color-coded notes, meticulous to-do lists, and carefully constructed schedules. These (admittedly obsessive) traits were a huge asset when I was a student. I went to class feeling prepared and ended each evening by creating a detailed plan for the following day. And yes, I was a lot of fun at parties.
It didn’t me take long to discover that travel seldom goes according to plan. From cancelled flights to lost baggage, there are dozens of details that can throw off even the most carefully crafted schedule. But as with any challenge in life, you have two choices when you travel: you can let frustration define your experience or you can roll with the obstacles as they come. While I can’t say I’ve abandoned my Type-A tendencies, I’ve learned to embrace the unexpected as a part of the journey.
When you’re a college student, it can be easy to live your life in a “campus bubble.” Regardless of how large or diverse your university may be, it’s normal to feel drawn to people who share your interests, speak your language, and hold the same values as you. And if you spend enough time with people like you, it’s tempting to believe that your lifestyle and beliefs are the norm.
But when you travel, you make a deliberate decision to remove yourself from that bubble. Along the way, you’re exposed to new cultural attitudes, new religious beliefs, new ideas, and new economic realities. Moreover, travel can be a powerful reminder of privilege. Although you may very well be a “broke college student,” if you have enough money to travel, you are wealthier than the majority of the world’s population. When you meet people who live differently than you, it quickly puts things into perspective.
On my first night in Paris, I was nearly pickpocketed. Admittedly, I should have known better than to wear a backpack in the Paris metro — especially so late at night. But thankfully, a businessman spotted the thief unzipping my backpack, and quietly confronted him in French. It was only when the pick-pocket hurried off the metro that I realized what had almost occurred. I was horrified. I thanked the businessman graciously in broken French and held my backpack tightly to my chest for the rest of the ride.
Although I was embarrassed about my careless mistake, I was touched by the businessman’s willingness to stand up for a wide-eyed tourist like me. While the world might seem cold and unfriendly, travel gives you glimpses of kindness and joy that make things seem a little bit brighter.
Travel doesn’t always come with life-changing revelations — sometimes it’s valuable enough to break free from your routine and explore a new place. But if you keep an open mind and a spirit of curiosity, you’ll be likely to notice something you’ve never once considered. All it takes is a change in perspective.
Grace Lower is a recent college graduate with a love for writing and an incurable case of wanderlust. When she's not exploring new places, Grace enjoys teaching English as a Second Language, making terrible puns, and running incredibly long distances at incredibly slow speeds.