Each month, the Student Journeys Series features a guest blog post by a former student of Vicki’s. They write about how their lives have been shaped through their global education experiences. This week’s Student Journey post is written by Zoe Schuler. Zoe recently moved from Los Angeles back to her hometown of Seattle, Washington, where she is applying to local nonprofits that serve the community’s most vulnerable populations.
I am emphatically grateful that travel has played a profound role in my life, and cannot overestimate its impact on the evolution of my character. My parental units have always been upfront about their investment in education — education both in the classroom, and experiential education in the world at large. Thus my first departures from the country happened before I learned to ride a bike.
In the late 1990’s, my dad was invited to a conference in Milan, and we decided to make it a family affair. We visited the capital, Stockholm, and Umeå, a small town in Northern Sweden. There, we stayed with friends we had made the previous year when they had spent time in Seattle. To this day, I consider these Swedes an extension of my American family. I remember falling in love with Europe’s stately old buildings and picturesque fountains. I even remember getting canker sores from the candy I was given in exchange for my equanimity on the long flight. I remember these things decades later in more detail than I remember eating my breakfast this morning. Travel intensifies everything, because you are jolted into the reality of being alive by being firmly removed from your routine. From the new scents, to new sights to new sounds, your senses struggle to function concurrently: The eyes competing with the nose, with the hands and the ears. It is overwhelming, and it is glorious.
I knew I was infected with the so-called travel bug, and the virus wouldn’t lie dormant for long. By middle school I was itching to go away again. When I learned about the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica for a short language immersion program through my school, I was desperate to go. My parents understood the impact such an experience would have on me at age 14, and made the sacrifice to accommodate my journey. I had been to sleepaway camp, but never away from my parents and country at same time. Costa Rica was not an altogether easy trip for me — marked by, among other misfortunes, an acute case of sun poisoning that left me sicker than I’d ever been in my life. My strength returned enough for me to zip line through the jungle a few days later, and by the time I returned to American soil, I wore a mantle of newfound independence which still defines my person some decade and a half later. This experience impelled me to travel more, to travel further, to travel longer; it impelled me and it prepared me.
When I traveled to India at age seventeen, it was my first understanding of something more akin to actually living abroad rather than traveling abroad. I spent a month there, volunteering for a Grassroots Cooperative that promoted economic self-sufficiency in rural Ranikhet. It was part of my high school’s Global Service Learning Program that would send small groups of students to countries all around the globe, where we had the pleasure of staying with local families and working with local organizations. We got to know our families, developed relationships replete with inside jokes and playful swatting. My Indian grandmother liked to see how close she could get to piercing my nose before her son would realize her intention and intervene, waving his hands wildly for her to stop. She would also spank me good-naturedly if she saw me around the homestead without my kurta. We did not speak even one word of the other’s language, but our interactions expressed a comfortable intimacy based on a mutual pluckiness. Even now, I can’t write about her without my lips instinctively stretching into a grin.
I got close to my fellow student travelers as well. The foreignness of it all bonded us, and we had daily check-ins to openly discuss the current state of our bowels and bowel movements. We ate dal for nearly every meal, and slept in shared rooms, in cots that felt small and hard compared to the plush beds that most of us had back home. We took showers in darkness, pouring buckets of cold water over our naked shivering bodies, scrubbing with a single bar of Dial soap. We saw poverty in forms darker than we could have imagined, and had to grapple with the recognition of our privilege and simultaneous present-moment powerlessness. Our volunteer work consisted mainly of helping the cooperative develop a website that featured their handmade clothing; we spent some time grinding spices and planting trees, but the true work was getting us to think bigger than ourselves, and think differently, less rigidly. Part of the work, I think, was to get us to understand just how much we don’t know about the world, and to transfer that realization to our everyday lives. How much do we really know about the struggles of our classmates, our neighbors, the refugees we see at the grocery store? What common interests or similar dreams might we share? Queries such as these tend to incite curiosity, and empathy, and a desire to connect more deeply to more people.
Traveling forces you to ask questions about everything, including yourself, to dig deeper, to become a more self-sufficient human being—even when that means asking for help. Global education speaks to the importance of collaboration with people from other backgrounds, helps you learn how to reach creative solutions even in the face of unfamiliar, sometimes uncomfortable situations. I believe I am a more capable, kind, and dynamic human being because of my global travel experiences.
I always had the feeling that there was a big world out there, but my India exchange was my first realization that the rest of the world might be truly accessible to me, and I to it. Travel was not simply an exhilarating tear into the unknown, but a representation of how I would lead my life. Not only would I go on to spend a month in China, to write travel blogs in multiple European countries and study abroad in Rome, but I would forge my own ever-evolving, unfurling path according to my own moral compass. For me, this wasn’t so much a profound shift as it was a profound cementation of who I was.
Since entering the workforce, I have been working people-centric jobs, ones that require deep empathy, innovative thinking, and a commitment to societal change. I have taken risks, moved to new cities, said yes to opportunities that intimidated me. And yes, I am daydreaming about my next big trip abroad.