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Backpacking Abroad After College: Five Lifelong Benefits

Backpacking after college
Backpacking after college is a rite of passage leading to many lifelong benefits.

As summer approaches you hear all about it. American universities have finished for the year and hundreds maybe even thousands of graduating seniors ink their passports for the first time. Since its inception, this age-old pastime has often been seen as a luxury of youth. Today, more and more people of all ages are searching for longer-term travel options as a way to expand upon and transform everyday life experience. After graduating university, I set off on just such a backpacking trip to Europe along with two friends, having no idea just how deeply the experience would transform our perspectives. Almost 20 years to date, we returned, liberated, broader-minded, and exhausted. Never could I have imagined that I would continue the long-term travels and still recall moments from that maiden journey so vividly and so often.

Then it was about the places we visited, the stamps we received, and the food we ate. Today, I realize that the experience was about a good deal more. Recently, the White House has put a huge emphasis on international experience and is on a quest to encourage far more students to head abroad. Now more than ever, international exposure counts on job applications and is a big bonus on a resume. Organizations relish hiring those with knowledge and passion for the world beyond their borders. I heard all sorts of remarks from others when we were heading out on our journey. Comments often included, “escaping real life,” “running away from responsibility,” “when are you getting a job,” and others of a negative nature. Rarely were the words largely positive or encouraging. Today, I realize more and more that what I gained from that trip far outweighs what those naysayers thought I’d be losing.

1. Independence: We had our return tickets booked, a Eurail pass in hand, a general itinerary, our Let’s Go Europe book, and each other. In the years before the Internet’s explosion travel was a bit different. Three Long Island girls on a backpacking journey had no idea what was in front of them. We not only survived, we thrived! We managed to book places to stay, find safe transport to our next destination, and communicate with each other and locals in languages other than our own. We coordinated schedules, likes, dietary choices, even keys, and learned many other travel skills at a time when all we had to guide us was a paper map and the North Star. I came home changed, having found even more independence than I did at university. We flourished during those three weeks abroad.

2. Communication skills: Three women traveling together requires a bit of coordination. Not only is it the simple act of sharing a bathroom, but three sets of likes and dislikes, three ideas about what the journey would look like, and three personal histories coexisting in harmony for awhile. We continued to not only learn about each other, but managed to communicate our needs and desire to locals in six countries, in six languages, and using six currencies. Relying often on the kindness of strangers, we embraced the unknown, recognized the need to sometimes ask others for help, and honed our communication skills in a world where we learned daily.

3. Perspective: We traveled throughout Western Europe, and our respective perspectives broadened. Between a visit to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, standing amidst the ancient ruins of the Acropolis, and being in the shadows of Rome’s Colosseum, educational experiences occured at every location and on every path. History revealed itself to us in a variety of enlightening forms, and many we met along the way shared in our journey. We met people from all backgrounds, countries, and walks of life who shared our desire to experience new cultures. Our way wasn’t the only way. We played with street kids at local playgrounds in Greece, stood beside hundreds of travelers/tourists at the changing of the guard, and scurried past the watchful eyes of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. Abroad we studied things that couldn’t be taught from a book or absorbed from a digital screen—here we learned in person. Here we grew.

Parc Guell in Barcelona
Parc Guell in Barcelona.

4. International exposure: Then we were three graduates out for an adventure. Now, in hindsight, I realize that was my first international journey absent family or a tour. Today, I see how so many of life’s connections were fused in those three weeks abroad. A taste of new cuisines, different sides of the street on which to walk, various ways to greet people, acceptable hand gestures, and heaps of unusual vocabulary—all were recognized and absorbed continually by us out of necessity. Tolerance, acceptance, navigating the unknown, flexibility, trusting strangers, and acting with grace were just some of the many skills we developed daily. Who knew then just how significant those qualities would turn out to become later in life? That initial independent exposure shaped me into the traveler I am today.

5. Love of travel: We stayed in hostels, pensiones, train cars, ferries, and hotels. We chatted with locals, got lost, followed maps, went where the wind took us, ate new foods, made new friends, and pursued adventures. For three weeks we were on our own, with a limited itinerary, away from the comfort of university friends or family. We made it from point A to point B and along the way; I found a love of travel. Joy in the everyday, magic in the simplicity, delight in the newness, comfort in the unknown, and pleasure in the freedom to just be—travel changed me and I am better for it.

It’s been almost two decades since that backpacking extravaganza. I’ve since been to more than eight times that many countries, married a foreigner, lived abroad, and been on longer-term travels (still with a trusty backpack). I’ve used photos from that journey in my ninth grade Global History classroom, and still tell tales of the day we went to visit the cheese-producing town of Edam. I’ve retraced some of those initial footsteps mentally and physically, and remember fondly the newness of it all. More importantly, when I encounter recent graduates setting off on that same adventure today, my comments are fully positive. “Embrace the experience,” “learn from it all,” “keep a copy of your passport on you at all times,” and “enjoy the journey” are words I utter to those fledgling travelers off on the adventure of a lifetime. For I know first-hand the benefits of the skills, knowledge, and exposure they are about to experience and enjoy. I also know how much of that journey they will continue to use far beyond the trip’s end.

Stacey Ebert in Barcelona

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