When the White House invited me over for a chat out of the clear blue sky, my immediate reaction was a dramatically raised eyebrow. Every sensational Hollywood film I’ve ever seen flashed through my memory and sent my imagination on a tour of Will Smith’s big movies. Sure, the invitation said something about study abroad and global citizenship, two issues I care about very deeply, but I glossed over those words – that just seemed too obvious for this born skeptic.
I wondered, could this invitation be something more? Maybe President Obama needs a social media consultant for Sasha and Malia? (I love teaching tweens & teens about online behavior.) Or perhaps the First Family wanted someone to train little Bo Obama for the dog show circuit? (I was a gifted junior dog handler back in my day.) There was always a chance there was a top-secret mission and I was the only blogger in the world (or, one of 100) capable of getting the job done. I always wanted to work in some diplomatic capacity, so maybe this so-called “White House Travel Blogger Summit” was my clandestine invitation to a secret society of intelligence professionals. (I attended the National Youth Leadership Forum on Defense, Intelligence & Diplomacy in 1999, where I served as the Secretary of State in a mock crisis simulation with North Korea. James Franco & Seth Rogen were not involved.)
I pondered all these extremely rational thoughts in my heart.
And then I decided I’ve watched way too many summer blockbusters. If aliens, UFOs and/or special invitations to deal with North Korea came into the picture once I arrived at the White House, I’d figure it out on the fly like I always do…
The only reason I even have the confidence to “figure it out on the fly” is because of my international travel experiences (and mishaps), which technically started with my study abroad program in 2003. Ding ding ding!
The Transformative Power of Studying Abroad
I’d traveled internationally a couple of times before my study abroad trip to Paris in 2003, but as a sneaker-wearing, short-term, loud, wide-eyed teenage tourist, not an immersive solo traveler. My summer semester abroad gave me confidence, French fluency and the ability to figure out currency conversion in a snap. It changed my life, my worldview and my future in a way nothing else could have.
I was living outside my comfort zone on a daily basis, and while admittedly Paris is not the hardest place to adjust to, it wasn’t easy for me either. You must remember, this was a pre-WiFi situation. I had to walk to the Internet café – uphill both ways in the snow! – every day just to communicate, so it was surprisingly challenging to be so far from home.
My home stay was a hot mess, I had almost no discretionary money for food or fun while I was gone and I found myself missing my idiot boyfriend back home way more than I should have. And yet, it’s the experience I look back on with the most grateful heart because it turned me from an average college student to a confident woman who knew I could take whatever curve balls came my way.
Why does the U.S. Government care so much about study abroad?
If the U.S. wants to be competitive in the global economy, then many more of our citizens need to interact outside our borders. There are more Chinese students studying in the U.S. right now than there are American students studying in the WHOLE WORLD.
Of the 50% of American students who intend to study abroad, only 1.5% actually make it happen. There are many obstacles – some majors make it impossible to take a semester to study elsewhere and of course, the financial component can be prohibitive. (It certainly was for my family, hence I’m STILL paying off that trip to Paris in 2003. It is the only debt I have and I consider it worth every penny.)
Forget about aliens & shenanigans. I was so relieved when the White House Travel Blogger Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citizenship turned out to be just that – a collaborative meeting of the travel minds.
The summit was a revolving door of officials & shiny travel celebs: White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, Michelle Obama’s chief of staff Tina Tchen, commerce secretary Penny Pritzker, deputy national security adviser for strategic communication Ben Rhodes, Samantha Brown & Don Wildman from the Travel Channel, Paula Froelich from Yahoo Travel… the list goes on and on.
The bottom line: the White House is really, really, really focused on making study abroad accessible, affordable and desirable for students from every background. And amid the storytelling and statistics, the White House shared some exciting news: the creation of an official Study Abroad Office to tackle some of the issues keeping American students from getting out there. I’ll be interested to see how that shapes up, and of course I’ll keep you posted on news.
Statistics are great, but I know everyone wants to know how I spent the day! There was a lot of talking, a lot of note-taking, a heap of Tweeting and many selfies with new and old friends. Connecting with the other 99 attendees and speakers was both exhilarating and exhausting. We had breakfast at the gorgeous W Hotel, everyone was treated to a White House tour (such a treat at Christmastime!), we had lunch at the National Press Club, the Summit took place at the Eisenhower Executive Building adjacent to the West Wing and we had dinner at the wonderful Newseum. It was an unforgettable day, chock full of information and ideas. I’m still processing everything that happened!
It’s encouraging to know there are so many people out there who care about education through travel, and it’s also nice to be able to join an effort like this that stretches beyond just the confines of my own adventures. I’ve always written about my travels in the hope of inspiring others to do the same, and it’s gratifying that the White House views travel blogs and digital influencers as valuable resources to do just that.
Speakers from the U.S. Government included:
- Benjamin Rhodes – Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting, National Security Council
- Evan Ryan – Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), Department of State
- Denis McDonough – Chief of Staff, The White House
- Bernadette Meehan – Senior Director for Strategic Communications & NSC Spokesperson, National Security Council
- Jonathan Greenblatt – Special Assistant to the President and Director, Office of Social Innovation & Civil Participation, The White House
- Penny Pritzker – Secretary of Commerce, Department of Commerce
- Carrie Hessler-Radelet – Director, Peace Corps
- Tina Tchen – Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to the First Lady, The White House
- Shannon Green – Senior Director for Global Engagement, National Security Council
From the private sector:
- Patrick Dowd – CEO, Millennial Trains Project & Editor at Large, National Geographic
- Daniela Kaisth – Vice President, External Affairs and IIE Initiatives, Institute of International Education
- Paula Froelich – Editor in Chief, Yahoo Travel
- Amex Montoya – Alumnus, Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship Program
- Dr Angel Cabbrera – President, George Mason University
- Samantha Brown – Television Host, Travel Channel
- Robert Reid – Digital Nomad, National Geographic
- Robin Goldberg – Chief Experience Officer, Minerva Project
- James Howard – Program Director / National iHeartRadio Brand Coordinator, iHeartMedia
- Don Wildman – Television Host, Travel Channel
But what about…?
I’m totally on board with encouraging students to study abroad, but let’s be honest, it would help if public education wasn’t in shambles to begin with. It’s tricky to convince college students to study abroad in Ghana when they don’t even know where Ghana is, am I right?
Are there broader issues that need to be addressed? Of course. In a country this size with a populace this size with a government this size — good heavens — I believe there will always be more obstacles and more projects than there will be folks to tackle them. But one piece of the puzzle is education, and one sliver of that is study abroad. It’s a passion of mine and something I’m qualified to talk about, so I’m onboard, and I hope you will be, too.
Study abroad isn’t for everyone. It’s never going to be 100% adopted by every American student, and I don’t think it should be. But I do think 1.5% is a pathetic representation, especially because in many cases the desire to go abroad is there, but the funds are not. But if there’s a desire to go and a desire to make connections with other cultures, then I think as travelers we have a responsibility to encourage those students. It will benefit the students and the country in both the short and long term.
The Summit was so timely for my family because little sister Rachel, who you might recognize as a partner in crime in many of my travel adventures, has been waffling about study abroad for some time. She wants to do it; the desire is there, the love of travel and willingness to go outside her comfort zone is there — the money is not.
Just sending her to a state school is a huge hardship for my parents. We recently decided that it’s just not going to be feasible for her to study abroad officially, and that she can travel in other ways, just not for credit. But having now attended the summit, I think we’re going to take a second look and see if we can find a way to make it happen for her. As it turns out, there are some great resources for students seeking to study abroad, so we’re checking out http://exchanges.state.gov/us/ to see if we can make Rachel the 2nd member of our family to study abroad.
Why were travel bloggers chosen to deliver the message?
Mashable, the Washington Post and even other travel bloggers seemed perplexed (ok, some chatter was akin to spitting nails) that a small group of digital influencers were the chosen recipients of the White House’s messaging on international education. I suspect the White House chose to rally this particular group because this is what we travel bloggers do every day. We advocate for travel. We encourage people to step outside their boundaries to meet new folks, bridge cultural divides and serve as unofficial ambassadors. (How the 100 were chosen is anyone’s guess.**)
Just a few speakers into the summit and the whole room was smiling & nodding because yeah, we get it. We’re on the same page. We all agree – no matter what our political leanings are – that travel is without question one of the best investments you can make in your future.
How can you participate in the #StudyAbroadBecause* movement?
- If you studied abroad, I want to hear about it. Tell me in the comments what your experience meant to you, and if you chat about it on social, use the hashtag #StudyAbroadBecause.
- If you didn’t study abroad but wanted to, tell me: what stopped you? Was it finances? Fear? A relationship back home? I’d love to hear about some of the reasons people don’t study abroad.
- I would love your feedback and thoughts on the idea of the White House hosting a summit for travel bloggers. I can’t promise I can answer every question, but I’d love to get a lively discussion going.
- Check out stories from some of the other bloggers in attendance! That Backpacker, Expedia Viewfinder, Travel Mamas, Around the World L, Amateur Traveler… more to come.
Patent pending, Hyperactivate
*When I say #StudyAbroadBecause, I also mean #TravelAbroadBecause. I believe it doesn’t necessarily have to be a study abroad program to be a valuable and transformative travel experience. You don’t have to be an enrolled student to be educated globally. Go on a mission trip, backpack through Europe, take your first international journey in your 60s – as long as you’re getting out of your comfort zone and meeting people who are different, I believe you can be a student at any age.
**I had my reservations about attending a White House media event. I am very careful to keep my professional life apolitical. I absolutely HATE election season because people that seem so nice in person turn into raging jerks with loud opinions, name-calling and intolerance. I make it a point not to post anything political on my social platforms, so it’s important to me that the endorsement of study abroad is not seen as political party endorsement. I cherish this opportunity to get involved in a U.S. Government initiative that doesn’t require choosing sides. Travel benefits us all. Well-rounded, well-educated American students are the future of the country, so I’m all in for the #StudyAbroadBecause movement.
Sponsors of the summit included: Hosteling International, Turkish Airlines, Travel Channel, Hyperactive, iHeartMedia, The Newseum, Minerva, W Washington D.C., Capital File Magazine, Baron Tours, Marriott International, Millennial Train, Yahoo Travel, and National Geographic.