What else we can talk about when we talk about travel

My post earlier today about Nick Kristof’s column on travel was mostly critique, and because it bugs me when people critique stuff without offering solutions, I thought I’d offer a few.

One, I’d like to see people (not just Kristof) acknowledge other, less sexy ways of promoting global citizens and multiculturalism, especially alongside their writing about the virtues of travel. Perhaps I’m jaded from all the study abroad program marketing I was subjected to as a student, but I think you can do a lot in the U.S. to foster some of the same goals on a community, not an individual, level.

He’s right that learning Spanish is a hugely important thing, so let’s get more elementary school students in Spanish immersion programs (or Chinese, or Arabic, or really any other language) and stop treating foreign language courses as optional electives to be started in middle school or later (or not at all). Let’s have conversations about sustaining diverse neighborhoods in major American cities and creating community events and spaces where people from different racial, ethnic and religious background will interact regularly.

I’m willing to concede that travel brings a certain perspective and immediateness to a lot of things that aren’t possible in another context, but I think we can all agree that not everyone is going to study abroad or take a gap year. If we’re serious about an aware and engaged citizenry, I don’t think individual choices to see the world aren’t enough to get us there. I also don’t think people unable to travel for whatever reason should be left out of those benefits when they’re attainable in other ways.

And for those who do want to travel but don’t feel they’re quite able to? A lot of the issues I brought up, like the racism, sexual harassment or fear of violence some people might face while traveling isn’t really a problem one individual (even someone as big as Nick Kristof) can solve, especially not overnight. But I do think people who feel strongly that everyone should travel can help their case by trying to break down some of those barriers. (I also want to see people talking about these issues when they talk about travel, not as a follow-up or afterthought.) Kristof suggests colleges offering a semester of credit for a gap year, which is a cool idea (though one some of my professors might take some issue with). A lot of other people are going to have better ideas than these ones (and I’d love to hear them), but here are a few of mine:

  • Get creative with ideas to pay for the “little costs” of travel: things like visas and medication that add up. Maybe colleges could collect frequent flier miles from school-sponsored travel and use it to fund tickets for students in need. Maybe campus health centers could bulk-buy malaria meds and hand them out at free or reduced cost for students studying abroad.
  • Wherever possible, highlight no-cost opportunities for travel, not just stuff with free room and board. I’d also love to see people advocating for the creation of more all-inclusive opportunities like that, especially ones that aren’t tied to heavily to U.S. foreign policy objectives and/or long periods of commitment (the Peace Corps is awesome, but not for everyone).
  • Colleges often charge equal tuition to students studying abroad even when their programs cost less than regular tuition would. That seems unfair, but consider that at least some (including my alma mater) do this because they lose money paying out financial aid packages in cash to study abroad programs. There’s no magic bullet for this, but a serious conversation about getting more students to study abroad needs to talk about financial aid and college affordability in general.
  • Don’t pretend everyone can travel in the same ways. Be aware of which countries are especially risky for LGBT people or inaccessible for people with disabilities and highlight resources to help people who want to do so navigate those challenges instead of just telling them to go elsewhere. (This is motivating me to start a resource list, so if you have a suggestion, let me know.)

 

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