Travel, particularly international travel, offers teenagers better educational opportunities than any classroom ever could. Experiencing new cultures, visiting famous site, or just chatting with locals and hearing foreign languages vocalized by native speakers is an extremely valuable experience for students who may have never ventured out of their cozy suburban schools. Sadly, though, it seems like many parents are either too afraid to let their kids travel or school sports take over summer vacations.
Fascinated by foreign cultures and seized with a desire to make a difference, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel abroad to do some volunteer work. Looking back, the trip broadened my worldview and taught me so much: compassion, empathy, and — last but certainly not least — the ability to follow a strict budget.
It’s difficult to overstate the value of expanding one’s horizons via international travel. Interacting with people from different backgrounds and geographical locales, sampling unfamiliar cuisines and simply immersing yourself in unfamiliar territory are formative experiences for anyone, and particularly for experienced high school students.
When I discovered the opportunity to volunteer in Thailand one summer, I jumped at the chance. Although this country is a bit outside my comfort zone, I knew I needed to take advantage of this opportunity to experience life in such a radically different part of the world.
After arriving in Thailand, I felt like an alien. I looked, talked and dressed differently from everyone else. Soon, though, I realized that I also shared similarities with my new Thai friends: we all smile, laugh and cry the same. As I travelled around Thailand, I realized how alike we really are. Led by wanderlust to explore unique cities and peoples in the US and abroad, I returned home motivated to learn another language and befriend people from other cultures.
Compassion and empathy
It’s remarkable how quickly being in an exotic location can engender feelings of compassion, empathy and closeness toward the people who live there, especially if you make an effort to immerse yourself in the local culture. By embracing different cultural norms through volunteering or participating in unique events, many travellers return home with a new vision of the world around them.
During my stay in Thailand, I volunteered in an orphanage. As I worked with the kids, I came to feel a real connection with them. The joy I saw on their faces as we played games and worked together as a team changed me — I realised that I was making the world a better place, and that I didn’t want to stop making a difference. Since I’ve arrived back home, I’ve been looking for ways to make positive changes, whether it’s holding the door for someone or tutoring inner-city kids after school. My compassion for others has grown because of my volunteer vacation.
One significant but often-overlooked aspect of travel is that it forces individuals — especially ones who may not have a significant amount of disposable income, such as students — to rapidly develop budgeting skills. Money is a huge consideration when it comes to deciding where to travel and how to spend your days once you get to your destination; financial constraints compel teenagers who may not have much experience sticking to a budget to weigh each purchase carefully and to truly consider the difference between needs and wants.
You might wonder how a typical teenager can afford to travel in the summer. Money’s tight, but the experience makes the financial sacrifices worthwhile. While holding down an after-school job, I also worked as many part-time jobs as I could find. Mowing lawns, lifeguarding and babysitting helped fund the trip, and I saved money by packing light and surviving without the modern conveniences that I can’t live without at home, like hair gel and a closet full of clothes. In fact, I also learned to live without cheeseburgers, a car and other amenities I consider necessities. It’s amazing how travelling can help us learn what’s really important, like how to manage money wisely and to appreciate what we have.
I don’t know what’s in store for me next. Thanks to my travel experiences, I can talk to almost anyone and adjust to new situations. Plus, my resume looks great, and I have lots of material for career applications since I’ve completed college. Even better, I learned lessons I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life as I exercise compassion and appreciate cultures and people from around the world.