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Traveling to Learn

by Dr. Clay A. Hubbs

This time of year the mailbox used to be filled with seed catalogs. Now it's filled with magazine subscription solicitations, all with pretty much the same pitch: "Just try us; if we're not everything you wanted and more, call and we'll refund your money." While we try to keep it to a minimum, Transitions Abroad, in order to reach new readers, has found no alternative but to contribute to this clutter. And sure enough we get a few calls from people who want their money back. The reason given is almost always the same: "Your magazine is for students; I expected something more like Travel & Leisure."

The callers are right: Transitions Abroad is a magazine for students--for students of all ages, for genuinely curious travelers who are looking for an alternative to travel industry magazines and to packaged experiences; for those, in short, who want to immerse themselves in the culture of the country they're visiting. As we do our best to explain in our promotional literature, we're a magazine of educational travel.

Our confused caller may ask: "What's that?"

If they do, we try to explain. We might start out by saying that there are two kinds of educational travel: travel strictly for the purpose of study--such as a junior year abroad or an Eldershostel trip to Ireland to learn about Yeats--and travel as an education in itself. But we're already in trouble with our explanation because the distinction is a false one: Elderhostelers studying Yeats are adults on vacation; at the same time, they are also students. And college-age students spending a semester or year at a foreign university are likely to learn at least as much from their travel and living in another culture as from their course work.

The Elderhostelers and the students are all traveling to learn. All will come home changed by their experiences. If not, without the "transitions" or changes that real travel produces, they may as well have stayed home. (Of course, those who are willing and able to pay enough money can take their home with them and merely confirm abroad what they already knew; in fact, their surroundings abroad may be even more luxurious and more insulated than home itself.)

Independent Travel Is Increasing

In a time of economic prosperity and comfort for many, we might expect at least some increase in mass or escorted tourism over independent or educational travel. But in fact during the last decades there has been something of a reaction to mass tourism and an increasing interest in travel to learn. In a poll commissioned 10 years ago by--of all people--the publishers of Travel & Leisure, 40 percent of the respondents (even then) reported that their primary reason to travel was to meet new people, expand their horizons, and learn new ways of seeing.

While there's probably no way to measure the full extent of this surge of interest in educational travel and all the factors that have brought it about, I'm convinced that a major reason for it is that so many adults first learned to travel as students. And now students are bringing their parents and grandparents along, in case they missed it the first time. After all, why should the kids have all the fun?

Still, there are a few travelers, like the caller I mentioned, who view going abroad as a diversion and an escape and not as a stimulation and a challenge. They want Transitions Abroad to focus more on what we sometimes call touristing than on real travel.

(Mind you, we're not opposed to rushing south for a week to soak up some rays--especially not today when it's --20°F in New England. But that's not what Transitions Abroad is about.)

Then there's that very, very small minority--usually my former colleagues who know that I spent 30 years as a college professor and an adviser to undergraduates on international education--who would like the magazine to focus more on formal study abroad.

My response to all remains the same: there's much more to international education than formal courses of study, just as there's more to travel than going to see the sights or soak up the rays. In addition to selecting the most useful resources for international studies and for independent travel, Transitions Abroad also compiled the first bibliography for work abroad. Thanks especially to Bill Nolting, with help from Susan Griffith, this original bibliography of work abroad opportunities for students has grown into a book for all international job seekers--including college students. Its comprehensive information on work abroad--which is the only opportunity for international education that many students have--is regularly updated in the magazine and on our web site.

Living Abroad Is Crucial

Finally, whether our readers are enrolled students or vacationing adults, the most important educational benefit of international travel is the experience of actually living in another culture and getting to know its people. Even if the budget is small and the time is short, this is something that most of us can do. We can volunteer our time or expertise to organizations or communities that need it in return for room and board. If we have nothing else to contribute--or even if we do--we can tutor English language. We can join a hospitality network and exchange homestays.

Transitions Abroad searches out and highlights the many different opportunities for affordable immersion travel, the educational experience of living abroad.

In the last issue my wife and I published a piece about food and wine touring in Italy. By spending an intense week learning as much as we could about the traditional cooking of one region and by visiting small wine producers and learning how their special wines are produced and consumed with the local food, we came away with a much greater understanding of one small part of the world and its people than we would have in a month of conventional touristing. We are in our 60s, but we were still traveling as students (albeit with a slightly bigger budget than we had 40 years ago). And we had a wonderful time.

As long-time readers of this magazine know, it was to share information on this kind of travel that I started Transitions Abroad 23 years ago. We'll continue to try to explain--by giving what we believe to be the best examples--the advantages of independently planned travel for enrichment over prepackaged tours. We welcome all your thoughts, comments, and suggestions. Most of all, we welcome your contributions of first-hand information: what did you learn on your last trip abroad?

Dr. Clay A. Hubbs is Transitions Abroad's founder, editor, and publisher.

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