In the hierarchy of acquaintances, there is family, friends, and enemies. Thinner exceptions ladder amidst all three dockings for our tacit e-friends, the creepers that we lurk on so we don’t run into happenstance, the ex that is way closer than sensible, and the barbed loved and bad influence of all that blood-kin that know all the chapters of your book, especially the unpublished ones.
A much purer distillation of association is the binary classification of the people you travel with and the people you don’t. My earliest forays abroad were in labor in the Navy. Witnessing fist-fights aboard ship over seating places in the enlisted galleys (a mix between the cell block and junior high) or pier-side brawls between lieutenants (officers and gentleman), I’ve learned the gospel of becoming a good traveler as well as discerning those that I go with to avoid bad company poisoning the experience. This past May, not by design, I found myself honing this skill in others.
Back to the Navy – just as I was turning 20 – in the monotony of being at sea, on a boat, in the middle of the Pacific with nothing but work and writing letters (yup! It was still the 1990s) to keep one busy, I found that I loved to read. My brother had given me a copy of The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Guevara before I left and by chance our boat was performing anti-narcotics operations off the Latin American coastline. My attention was focused on all that he and his friend, Alberto Granado, were seeing in the 1950’s in the same countries and at the same age as I was seeing them then. Nothing had changed. Poverty, inequality, racism, communism, dictatorships, corruption, violence, classicism, colonialism, nationalism; it was still the same story. The book coupled with the Navy were essentially my own bootstrapped study abroad trip. That trip, that book, changed my world and led me to study economics when I finally made my way to the university. It also showed me how friends travel and how it matters to be open to the waves of experience that lap over you when traveling.
Now, to May 2018 and our multiple program, faculty-led Study Abroad London-Dublin trip: I hate to sound overly poetic, but witnessing the students’ wonder and excitement was one of the most validating experiences I’ve had as an educator. The clichés fit of horizons actually broadened and minds actually opened. From the banal chores of exchanging money to the overwhelming scrum of London, the misplaced bank cards, the long days and their late nights, their excitement never waned. They even made the purgatory of stumbling through enormous airport corridors, jet lagged, enduring hours of security checks and the customs’ circuses almost passable (the Gatwick exchange was straight out of Dante!).
In reflection, I helped my students experience what I did at their same age. Seriously, I saw the “click” of connecting theory to reality as well as seeing them behold what could only be imagined before. On my own revelations of the once cerebral, we had the fortune to visit Belfast. As Catholic kid growing up in the 1980s, my thoughts of Belfast were of incredible violence and fear during “The Troubles.” We had an Irish priest in my home parish, and I remembered the constant prayers for Ireland. I was honestly nervous about going (I think I gave myself a migraine about it, too). But the students didn’t have that stain on their memories and their interest and energy soothed me. It was then that I noticed that they’d become good travelers. They knew how to roll from their interesting late nights, no sleep, muggy rooms, crazy food, hot weather (London was in the 90s!), allergies, missed stops, cold rain (Dublin was cold), all with alacrity. Never comparable to the barbarians of my Navy days; but they still transformed into interesting, fun people that everyone wants to be around. They became people-you-travel-with.
I know that there are a lot of fluffy outcomes to a college education – critical thought, deportment, citizenship, public speaking, numeracy, literacy, conformism, team work – but the returns to global travel are underrated or missed. I am happy to say that it isn’t so for our 27 students. I know that they will have a more interesting life without fear of exploring the unknown.