It all began in May of 2011 when I was studying abroad in Florence under a man whose name rings familiar to college students across the world- Pierluca Birindelli. Pierluca approached education with much more freedom than the typical college professor. There was rarely a defined topic on a paper, no page minimum or maximum (or suggestion for that matter) and most astounding of all- papers could be handwritten. In a class of American students accustomed to a strict adherence to the syllabus and detailed study guides, there was a glaring disconnect. Perusing through Pierluca’s blog, I stumbled upon this anxious email from a former student that outlined our collective concerns.
The course I enrolled in with Professor Birindelli was titled Identity and Culture in Italy: A Comparative Approach. The course centered on identity and awareness, specifically during the passage from youth to adulthood. Identity to find purpose in life and awareness to understand how that purpose fit into a global environment. I cannot claim to have understood the entirety of these concepts at just 21 years old, but I never stopped trying.
I had caught the travel bug.
To satisfy my need for adventure, I sought out a career in college admissions. If you haven’t seen the Tina Fey movie, admissions counselors are assigned a territory to recruit prospective students based on a region of states such as the Mid-Atlantic or New England. Fortunately, I was able to land a position with a territory spanning Chicago to Miami, allowing for unlimited travel within my jurisdiction. Nearly five years after my abroad experience I have logged close to 50,000 miles and met people from all over the world, witnessing firsthand how travel can shape both identity and awareness. There are numerous surface reasons why travel is beneficial, however, I have identified three underlying reasons that inspire my wanderlust.
- I want to know.
- I want to perpetually push the limits of my comfort zone.
- I want to be a Global Citizen.
I want to know.
To know, you have to go. Traveling alone, as is commonly the case in admissions, can get lonely. But, there is one HUGE benefit to solo travel. I see every place I go with my own eyes, independent from the influence of social perceptions and stereotypes. There is nothing like experiencing a new city for the first time and forming my own opinions without any outside interference. A basic principle of the law states ignorance is no excuse. It is my belief we should extend this principle to how we view the world. Don’t rely on the opinions of others to shape your perspective- go out and see for yourself! In 2014 I spent four months in New Jersey, a state otherwise known as the “Armpit of America.” I had never cared much for the Garden State but then again, I had never truly been. Once I got off the highway and explored further, I saw a much different New Jersey than the agonizing corridor of I-95 presents. As a matter of fact, New Jersey can look a lot like New England…
Travel not only opens your eyes to new places, it opens your mind to new perspectives allowing for enhanced awareness. This fall I was at a painfully slow college fair in Toronto, agitated by the poor attendance and exhausted from the time change. Just as the night was finally ending, I was approached by the lone student left in attendance. Though I was tempted to give him my card so he could email questions, I’m glad I didn’t. This particular student was interested in learning more about our international admissions process which was ordinary as California attracts a large international population. However, as I spoke more at length with the student, I came to realize he was anything but ordinary.
The student was a Syrian refugee who had fled in the middle of the night with 6 family members when his hometown was raided. From there, he made his way to a camp in Jordan awaiting official refugee status from the United Nations which is required to enter Canada. After finally arriving in Toronto months after fleeing Syria, he lived with his entire family in a one bedroom apartment while they applied for work permits. As he told me his story I could sense no anger or resentment, only hope and appreciation. Our conversation- albeit brief- was a humbling reminder that certain things we take for granted in America, such as safety and shelter, are not always guaranteed elsewhere. Needless to say, I felt ashamed of my prior agitation. Yes, life as a young professional can be difficult but it will never be dangerous. Struggling to make ends meet is frightening but not nearly as frightening as struggling for freedom. I had read numerous articles on the crisis in Syria but never felt more aware of the implications than I did that night. Travel helps to raise our awareness through exposure to circumstances far different from our own, allowing us to view our current situations through a more enlightened perspective.
I want to get out of my comfort zone.
What if I told you our true identity may not rest not in comfort, but just past it…
In 2013 I altered my career path in an effort to push my limits of comfort and continue my search for identity. However, a few months in I realized a career change alone was not enough. If I followed the same routine I always had, I would get the same results I always did. I knew I needed to force myself out of my comfort zone- but how? During my first recruitment trip to California I created a game. In this game I challenged myself to do something I had never done before each and every day of my trip. Then, at the end of the day, I logged every new experience to hold myself accountable and track progression. As a general rule, the first idea/suggestion/invitation I immediately thought “no” to, I did. The purpose? To fight habit and discover what I was truly made of, not what I thought I was made of.
On September 28th, I was invited to a fun run by a Nike store employee who sold me new cross trainers. While I have always been an extrovert, meeting up with complete strangers in a foreign setting was by no means appealing. Upon returning to my hotel, I had a sudden change of heart. This was exactly the type of activity that would put me out of my comfort zone. I went. To my surprise, I discovered I am much more outgoing than I initially thought. Additionally, local runners went out of their way to make me feel at home. One fellow NBA fan even went as far as offering a free ticket to that nights Golden State Warriors game! In the end, the reward FAR exceeded my initial angst. For this type of positive response to occur so early in my trip both validated my efforts and encouraged me to push further.
Today, I have no problem venturing off by myself because I am confident I will be able to make friends anywhere I go. In fact, I now seek out these types of potentially awkward encounters just to prove I can do it, opening the door to new opportunities and friendships along the way. This is one aspect of my true identity I would never have discovered had I not made the initial push.It is far too easy to fall into habits and routines based on comfort and comfort alone. Rest assured there is a reward waiting on the other side of comfort for those willing to seek it…
I want to be a global citizen.
Whether you accept the idea or ignore it, we are all global citizens. According to census reports, “the United States is expected to experience significant increases in racial and ethnic diversity over the next four decades.” Among these increases, the Hispanic population is projected to more than double between 2000 and 2050 while the size of the Asian population is projected to increase by nearly 80%. The United States is trending towards unprecedented diversity, but also, unprecedented integration. In my professional experience, a major indicator of success relies on how well we are able to work with teams of diverse individuals and opinions. This is easier when people are like you, but, as the census predicts, the majority of people may not always be like you. Travel. When you travel you no longer see borders, you see humans. You are able to see people with your heart and not your mind which allows for a more personal connection.
My previous employer, the University of Connecticut, was filled with people who were just like me in a state where everyone was just like me. My current employer, the University of California Riverside, is one of the most diverse public institutions in the country. People are not like me. In my unit alone colleagues hail from Mexico, Portugal, Turkey and Singapore. When I started back in August I had no clue how to eat a tamale. Do I eat the wrap? Do I unwrap it? Seven months later I not only know how to properly eat a tamale (unwrap it), I can identify if a tamale came from Central America (banana leaf) or Mexico (corn husk) based on said wrap. Though tamales may not be common among the 15 million residents of New England, they are wildly popular among the 560 million residents spanning Mexico to South America. To see yourself as a global citizen does not mean you have to abandon your country, ethnicity, religion or beliefs. It doesn’t even mean you have to travel the world. It simply means your eyes are open and your awareness raised.
During my abroad experience Professor Birindelli challenged us to challenge ourselves by questioning all we previously held as fact. To understand the dynamics between ourselves and our interactions through a global lens with far more scope than the town we were raised or our country of citizenship. And if we didn’t understand, to start asking questions. At the conclusion of the semester there was much concern similar to the aforementioned email regarding the content of our final paper. I honestly had no clue what he was looking for but I think that was precisely the point. You won’t always know. As we continue to grow and shape our identity in a dynamic global environment, the answer constantly evolves. Therefore, the focus should not be on the answer, but the questions raised during our individual journey. As I am reminded time and time again, the answer is not in the end result but locked away in the process.
Travel holds the key.
It is now 2016. I am nearing five years removed from Florence and my future only brings more adventure. I voyaged over 25,000 miles in 2015 and am expecting to far surpass that total in 2016. As I continue to travel I want to challenge myself to share the places I go, the people I meet and the stories I hear. You cannot force people to think the way you do, but, you can inspire them by living an example of everything you defend. I hope you enjoy.
Oh and as for that final paper…
I got an A.
I frequently questioned this grade to myself, I didn’t think I deserved it.
Ask your own questions and find your own answers.
Please follow my adventure on Instagram and Snapchat @mattwemet.