The World is [Not] Yours

The World Is [Not] Yours
Submitted by Annie Peuquet with Felipe Correa and Seth Leighton of Envoys (www.envoys.com)

Picture Sarah, a high school student who has the opportunity and interest to travel abroad with her school. Sarah is studious, kind-hearted, and active in her school community. She decides to go to Kenya, where she explores the country, meets local children, and makes great friends. She comes home, posts all her photos on social media, writes down the highlights so she can use them on a college application essay later, and then largely settles back in to life as it had always been. 

Stories like Sarah’s are the rule for students who travel abroad today, and they represent a concerning and pervasive bare minimum for what constitutes a successful program or a meaningful educational experience abroad. Sarah is a member of the most itinerant generation in human history, inundated with opportunities to travel abroad, and choices about how she does it. In fact, Millennial travelers today make up over 20% of world travelers, despite their relative lack of resources. The narrative for Sarah and her peers is resoundingly, “The World is Yours!”; beautiful because of this opportunity yet deeply dangerous because of the implicit consequences it entails.

We are cogniscent, and indeed worried, about the lesser-available exception to that rule: experiences abroad grounded in education not tourism; or more explicitly, absorption not consumption. Leading the dominant consumption narrative is the media imagery that sells travel experiences to students, which is often grounded in studies on self: what the traveler gains, what the traveler gets to see and do, what the traveler can buy.These ideas suggest that traveling to foreign places is about taking: taking photos, buying experiences, building your resume, sourcing material for Snapchat stories, and gaining ‘likes’ on social media.

Do a simple Google Images search for student travel and this is readily visible: the messaging young people receive is that going must mean marketing yourself back home as an archetype of a savvy, sophisticated, socially-conscious—and unfortunately, often sexualized—global guru.

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 Google Image Search https://goo.gl/LX6dxp 

But the commodification of the traveler’s experience also commodifies people and their experiences, culture, and perspectives, which are not for sale and cannot be understood through consumption. Much suffers in this process, and often it is too hidden to notice, too messy and too complex to confront for students without the proper preparation and support. Writer Courtney Martin writes about the packaged “save-the-world” experiences that lead to the “reductive seduction of other people’s problems”.

Commodifying the student travel experience by selling it explicitly and implicitly through the lens of what she gains and how she benefits, inevitably diminishes the things that matter most into the things that matter the least—authentic explorations of sacred places; on our planet and through our common humanity. To say it bluntly, the world is not our zoo to look at behind safe boundaries, in structured spaces, and under our terms.

Instead, global education travel must be about absorption and the lifelong pursuit of understanding, grounded in the humility that we may never reach that goal; that maybe the other is not ours to understand. Too much is at stake today. We need our young people to be responsible stewards of the world: students who study the world’s dying languages, who fight for unheard voices drowned out by the powers that be, who not only think about their children’s tomorrow but the tomorrow of seven billion people.

We also need students who confront their ignorance and approach others with positive dispositions and true empathy. We should be guiding students to look up from their phones and at each other, not selling experiences based on how it benefits their two-dimensional identities. It’s true there is massive human suffering and that ‘doing good’ is an incredibly loaded concept, but the mutual pursuit of local community benefit can be done well if from the right intentions and with the right preparation.

To that end, we must provide students with disarming experiences—no, not dangerous, disarming—that spark their very soul and make them feel alive, emotional, raw, and awake. We have all felt this in our lives and we cannot let these moments lose out to selfie sticks or overly litigious travel policies. It is the woman talking about her family’s heritage on her threatened land; the blue, clear, alpine lake at the end of a long hike; the first dinner you shared with others in another language; the first seedlings of a garden planted with a community. These are not experiences to consume and to capture but to humbly appreciate and to draw us further into the web of humanity and of earth. They are sacred and they are disappearing.

But today we are often failing Sarah and her peers. The task is ours as educators and one that should ignite us all to action. Student educational travel experiences must ignite passions and provoke curiosities and inquiry, but also must be appropriately scaffolded to also benefit equally the communities we immerse within. Increasingly, administrators are allocating resources for students to go abroad, which must be celebrated. But as educators, great risk comes with this opportunity: we must demand of ourselves that we act as stewards of the earth and its people and cultures. To do that, school travel programs must be aligned with the school’s mission and tangibly extend the school’s values. Then, we must collectively prepare our students to travel through advance curriculum that presents a multiplicity of perspectives and builds understanding of complex histories. On programs, we should design immersive experiences with communities based on equal exchange, and well off the tourist’s path, that grow global citizenship.

Finally, evaluation matters. We must also rigorously evaluate our programs to ensure we are constantly improving and delivering outcomes for students and for communities. These choices have great consequences as we bring students out of the classroom and into the real world, as messy and beautiful as it is. Because the notion that the world belongs to all of us is not just a sentiment, cheesy as it might be. It’s a quiet reminder that our purpose extends beyond ourselves. 

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Comments on "The World is [Not] Yours"

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Karen Warren - Friday, September 01, 2017
1000706138

Thank you for adding this perspective to the dialogue on student travel.

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