Thursday 21 Jan, 2016

Why We Travel: Kathy W

Kathy is the Executive Director of Global Education at EF Education First and has been an educator for over 30 years. She grew up in a small town in Missouri and didn’t leave North America until she was 30, when she traveled to Austria and Germany. She’ll now tell you that she’s making up for lost time by traveling every chance she gets.

Why do we travel? What is it about traveling that we fall in love with? What is it that makes us think, “I have to go there?”

I was recently asked this, and it’s a topic I always enjoy discussing, because there isn’t just one answer. Everyone is driven by their own individual passions, and as a result has their own personal reasons for wanting to travel the world and experience new people, places and cultures. That said, no matter who you speak to, and what their individual reasons may be, I strongly believe that every justification and explanation, no matter how personal, fervent and inimitable, boils down to two very specific reasons: to fulfill a dream, and to learn. It sounds insanely simple, but let me explain.

For most of us, before our passport has been inked by even one stamp, we travel because we have a dream. We dream of standing atop the world, exploring ancient Incan ruins in South America or strolling along the River Thames, looking up at London’s beautifully lit Clock Tower in the night sky and hearing Big Ben ring throughout the city. We travel because we’re motivated by a vision: a vision of breaking free from what we consider the “norm,” and experiencing the exceptional. We travel to fulfill a pre-established dream. For me, the dream was connected to my passion for music. I dreamt of seeing Mozart’s home in Salzburg and listening to Bach or Beethoven in Germany.Germany_Neuschwanstein CastleBut then something extraordinary happens. As soon as we take that leap, and set foot in a new place for the first time, we’re immediately introduced to sights, smells, sounds and tastes that we’ve never before experienced. Our minds are pushed to consider the world in a completely new way; to look at old ideas through new lenses, to consider our cultural differences and similarities, and to question everything that, up until that very moment, we thought we knew. We find ourselves aware of everything we don’t know, and everything more there is to learn. And all of a sudden, the bar is raised. It’s no longer enough to simply see and do what we’ve always wanted to see and do; we find ourselves questioning all of that, and thinking about things we never in our wildest dreams thought we’d think about. And this is reason number two for why we travel: to learn, about ourselves and, ultimately, our place in the world.

We travel to experience what we can’t experience at home, in a book or on the internet, and to not only fulfill a dream, but to gain the confidence to dream even further. And as educators, we lead travel to change kids’ lives, for the very same reasons….and to help them strengthen their focus.

This has all been fairly philosophical, so let me ground this conversation a little with an example. One of the most meaningful trips that I’ve ever had was when I traveled to China. As callous as it sounds, seeing China had never been a dream of mine. It was never on my “list.” But the opportunity to travel there presented itself, and I, somewhat reluctantly, took it. Since then, I’ve been there three times. I unexpectedly connected with the country and its culture, and it was the first trip that really pushed me to dig deeper, to get outside of my comfort zone, to explore and to learn more about the country and the people that live there.China_Great Wall of China SunsetSomeone once told me that if you force yourself to eat something you hate seven times in a row, then you’ll like it. Well, I hate olives, and so I tried eating seven olives in a row. And guess what? I am still not a fan. But I tried them and actually found one kind I like – the Castelvetrano olive. I let myself have that experience, and now I can tell you definitively and honestly how I feel about olives. See, you can’t say whether you really like something or not until you’ve allowed yourself to try it. And travelling gives us the opportunity to taste hundreds of olives – new cultures, people, foods, sites, apparel, languages, smells – at once, to really figure out who we are. What we like. What we don’t like. What drives us. What troubles us. What interests us. And sometimes, like with my trip to China, it surprises us, and ignites within us a passion we didn’t even know we had.

I firmly believe that every single human being is curious, and that as educators it’s our job to find and feed that curiosity in our students. Discovering our curiosities and understanding them is an ongoing process, and if it seems like a student isn’t curious it’s up to us to find new ways to pique their interest and spark that self-discovery. Traveling the world can help do that, which is why you see so many students come home transformed. It connects them with a new perspective on what we teach in a classroom. But it can sometimes provide even more than that. Seeing and experiencing something completely new, half away across the world, 100% out of their comfort zone, helps them take on different roles in a different situation. That juxtaposition of space and place can help students uncover new interests and shine in ways that they never knew they could.

While at times, understanding our place in the world can seem confusing, experiencing it first-hand shows us that we’re all connected through it, and no matter how big it is or how different some places may feel, each one of us is a citizen of the world. It’s that exact feeling that fuels the discovery process and helps us uncover new curiosities and interests. It pushes us to look at everything as if it’s under a new light, and to try different things. It pushes us to eat seven metaphorical olives on a quest to find out who we are. It opens us up to new ideas and experiences that we never considered.

Traveling isn’t the end of a dream; it’s the beginning of a much bigger one.