We've all read the stories and heard the testimonials: Travel can be a pretty life-changing experience for a lot of people.
For some, their eyes are opened wide to new cultures and ways of life. Some fall in love — either with a place, or a person in it. Some decide that the nomadic lifestyle suits them, and abandon all semblances of their pasts. And still others return from their travels with memories and experiences that will shape and influence aspects of their lives for years to come.
Everybody travels a little bit differently, and everybody takes away something different from their travels.
There's absolutely no doubt about it. I am not the same person I was when I graduated high school, untraveled and yet eager to see the world.
In the years since I graduated high school, a lot in my life has changed. I went to college, moved away from home, got a job, and took advantage of every possible opportunity to pack my suitcase and go out and see the world.
In high school, I dreamed of travel. I wanted to experience new cultures, maybe pick up a few phrases in a new language, and come home with tales and photos of far-off lands. But that sort of travel isn't necessarily life-changing.
Spending a week abroad is not nearly enough time to really comprehend and appreciate any one place. I, like so many other travelers, was at first obsessed with racking up all the travel experiences I possibly could, to collect them like keychains or postcards in order to display them later on my bookcase like trophies. I went bungy jumping in New Zealand. I played a marching band concert on the Great Wall of China. I ate gelato in Italy. I toured Ireland with an Irish rock band.
But none of these experiences changed me. At least, not fundamentally.
Sure, my first trip to New Zealand made me fall in love with the country. My trip to China opened my eyes up to just how very different our two cultures are. And all of my jaunts instilled within me the desire to see, do and learn more.
But my real, life-changing travel experience did not come until my senior year of college, when I decided to study abroad.
I could go on and on about the benefits of studying abroad. But why bother? So many others have already covered it. Bottom line: Study abroad is awesome, and you should do it.
Studying abroad had been something I’d wanted to do since those high school days spent daydreaming about travel. I wanted to live somewhere else for a while; get a true sense of a country that was not my own. New Zealand was a logical first choice.
I left everything behind to go to New Zealand – my family, my boyfriend, my friends, my comfy bed, the sense of security that comes along with everything that is familiar. It was terrifying, and yet liberating at the same time.
It was easily the best choice I have ever made.
Going to New Zealand was something I did solely for myself. But that meant that everything to do with the trip was also completely up to me. I traveled alone, dealt with a nightmarish housing situation on my own, and was compelled to meet new people on my own.
But, having no one to rely on except yourself forces you to approach things differently; it forces you to change. Living in New Zealand for nearly five months forced me to become more independent and self-sufficient.
It was in New Zealand that I believe I really grew into myself. Discovering something new about my host country, living abroad, or traveling often led to the discovery of something new about myself. The whole idea of “finding oneself” through travel may sound silly, but, considering the amount of learning that can take place abroad, it’s really not such a far-fetched concept.
I may not have come home from New Zealand looking any different. I didn’t return with a funny accent, new political views, or a strange diet, either. But I did come home changed in more subtle ways.
Being on my own for months left me plenty of time to contemplate a lot of things about my life. Traveling around a country that I adored made me realize that life can be about doing things you love, and not just about things you think you’re supposed to love.
Once I returned to Ohio, I realized that the epiphanies I’d had overseas were important. Though I looked and sounded like the same person who had boarded a plane five months earlier, I didn’t feel like the same person anymore.
So I decided to make some changes in my life.
I decided to focus on travel writing for my undergrad thesis. I broke up with my boyfriend. I cut ties with some friends who never had really been friends at all. Simply put, I began focusing on the things in life that I loved, and letting go of everything else.
It took travel to make me realize what I really want to get out of life. I want passion and joy and adventure, not complacency and regrets. I want to love the life I’m living; to be challenged in order to appreciate the success and good times more.
And it took my trip to New Zealand to make me realize this. It took travel to make me realize that I’m the only one who has the ability to change the course of my life. I’m the only one who can go after the things that I want.
Without a doubt, travel has changed me. Shaped me, even.
And I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Have you experienced similar transformations as the result of travel? Was there one specific moment when you realized you had changed? How are you different?