Over 280,000 American students studied abroad two years ago, according to Pew Research Center, a number that has tripled in the past 20 years.
The four most popular places to study? The United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and France.
It’s an impressive list, but one that is more homogenous than it might seem. All developed and stable countries, different than the United States in language and in location, but in many ways the same. So why are we going abroad? To learn more about ourselves? To have a new experience? Or just to take a break?
If we’re in higher education to learn, what better way to do it than to broaden our horizons and venture to an unknown land? Not as a tourist, or as an American student plopped in a country whose language one does not speak or whose culture one does not understand, but as a participant in that community.
I went abroad twice this summer. Once for a six-week New Zealand backpacking trip with my older brother and once for a 10-day Northwestern Birthright trip.
In New Zealand we lived in a small camper van and split our time between WWOOFing, treacherous flooded river crossings, ice hiking and backpacking. I could tell you of the burning rubber smell near the natural hot springs of Rotorua or of the cascading mountains hitting the clear water at Milford Sound, but all the adventure and challenges were ones that we had created. The nature was authentic, the struggle was authentic, but was the travel?
I learned a lot about myself in New Zealand, but I learned a lot about a country and its people in Israel.
In New Zealand, I sought out adventure. In Israel, it fell in my lap and helped me understand the danger of being a tourist. A tourist travels quickly-packing in as much information as possible in a short period of time. But a traveler, a traveler travels slowly, absorbing all there is to learn.
We were visitors in an exotic land, armed with cameras, bug spray and never-ending questions for "our Israelis.” These Israelis were active soldiers who traveled with us. They were our age, so through their experience we hoped to gain an insight into their lifestyle.
Then, on August 20, our Birthright trip was rafting down the Jordan River when several rockets were fired into northern Israel. Most rafts were off the water by the time the sirens hit, but some of us were there and heard the rockets go off.
When the sirens started, the soldiers exchanged knowing glances and debated if we should get out of the water. There was no shelter that we could make it to. If the trajectory of the rockets happened to be where we were, there was nothing we could do.
The sirens aren’t ones that could be mistaken for a fire alarm or an earthquake drill. They are piercing and deafening sirens. I looked around to register my surroundings and saw the other Israelis on the water acting like our soldiers-aware but unconcerned. No one wanted to be the one to freak out, and so herd mentality of resignation reigned.
The experience lasted less than five minutes. It was something we would tell our parents about, thankful that they did not know it was happening until after the fact. For us, this was an “authentic” Israeli experience, but for them it was just life. The Israelis probably had no intention of telling their family members.
Through this experience and their endless stories, these young Israelis helped us make the jump from tourist to traveler. The challenge with traveling is to appreciate a society by meeting and experiencing peers as people with lives, fears and aspirations similar to our own.
I find Israel to be an exciting, young, technologically-advanced democracy struggling with big issues. As young Jews, we were grappling with how to understand this country and make it “our own.”
I’d be lying if I said the rocket attack didn’t make my experience more interesting. It’s something I tell people when they ask me how Israel was. I’m armed with a real story, one that sheds light on how people live in Israel. We tell these stories to give meaning to our adventure and warrant the journey.
The New Zealand part of me reached out for adventure and found it. The Israel part of me expected to be a tourist, but I was drawn closer through adventure I did not seek. As we consider semesters abroad, we should be travelers, soaking in the culture, learning the language, immersing ourselves with those who welcome us. We should be creating our own stories as opposed to simply reading someone else’s.
Rocket attacks are not Israel, visiting Notre Dame is not Paris, and WWOOFing on a blueberry farm is not New Zealand. But we – the "traveler/tourists" – package them all up and take them home, eager to make a foreign place our own.