Transitions Abroad at 25
The Founding Editor Reflects Upon the Magazine, its Contributors, and its Readers
Clay celebrates his 65th birthday in Paris in 2001.
In March 1977 I announced that Transitions [will be] a new kind of travel publication. Its purpose is to provide the non-touring traveler with an up-to-date review of educational travel and study abroad. While the initial audience would consist largely of students and educators, future issues would be directed to all who travel to learn (an audience that has grown to nearly 50,000). The title, I explained, was meant to suggest the changes that happen to us as a result of immersion in a foreign language and culture.
In the first issues lead storya report on a stay at a residential high school for adults in Norway, where learning the language was the first necessityKatherine Lesser described her response: Bombarded by new sights and sounds and ideas, one cannot, if sensitive to them, remain rigid in ones own ideas. It is a mind-expanding experience.
Also in that first issue, Gary Langer, then a freshman at the Univ. of New Hampshire, spelled out what I meant by the non-touring traveler to whom the new publication was directed. In an article describing a visit to Jerusalem in 1976, Langer wrote about his stay at the guesthouse of an eccentric Armenian. Only travelers stay at Mr. As, wrote Langer; tourists do not:
The distinction is simple: Tourists are those who bring their homes with them wherever they go, and apply them to whatever they see. They are closed to experience outside of the superficial. Travelers left home at home, bringing only themselves and a desire to see and hear and feel and take in and grow and learn.
Travel that is mind-expanding, travel that involves learning, travel that changes usthis then would be the focus of Transitions Abroad over the next 25 years. Formal educational programs would be at the center of itafter all, I was a college teacher and it was primarily for students that my colleagues and I started the publication. We would, however, cover all the opportunities for international education, including work and travel and, of course, living or immersion in another culture. We would not try to limit our readership to students.
For that first issue, Lily von Klemperernot only my mentor but also the doyenne of international educationcontributed two pieces. One was about a Pratt Institute film professor who went to France to make a film and later went back with his students, and one was about attending a cooking school in Florence run by a great Italian cook (whose book I still rely on), Giuliano Bugialli.
The editorial mix of ready-to-use information on educational travel, study, work, and living abroad has not changed in the first 25 yearsa testament either to the editors vision or to his inflexibility. What has changed from year to year and issue to issue is the way the mix is divided: Transitions Abroad introduced the concept of responsible travelculturally responsible and environmentally responsiblein the early 80s. Since that time weve drawn increasing attention to individuals and organizations that support sustainable tourism and give something back to the host community. Over the years weve also devoted more space to work abroad, particularly to volunteering.
For this special anniversary issue I asked the contributing editors if they wished to share examples of their own of mind-expanding experiences of the kind that Transitions Abroad has featured over the years. Heres mine:
In the early 60s my wife and I decided to take a year off from study (I was then in journalism, she was in history) and follow the footsteps of a cultural hero, Alexander the Great. We set out from Cambridge, England with our 3-year-old son Greg in a second-hand VW van and Herodotus as our guide to the ancient world (this was long before Lonely Planet). We hoped we had enough canned food stashed under our makeshift bed to last for several months, plus enough to trade for fresh produce along the way. (Alas, Spam was not popular.)
On the ferry from Spain to Morocco we learned that John Kennedy had been assassinated. At that time America was widely admired and Kennedy lovedwhich at least partly explained the warmth and generosity that greeted us everywhere we went, from Morocco to India.
A lot was going on in the countries along the wayfrom border wars to military coupsand we had many adventures. For me, however, the impact of our voyage did not come from single incidents but, as we went deeper into the Arab world, from the gradual realization of how limited and distorted by cultural bias our perception of this world had been. When we arrived in Persepolis we heard from the guards around the abandoned site that Alexander was remembered locally not as a hero but as the destroyer of a great empire.
My most lasting impression of our voyage to the place where Western civilization and its religions began was that people who were vastly different in origin and upbringing and worldview could not only co-exist peacefully but appreciate and learn from each other, just like Gary Langers fellow guests at Mr. As. This was the inspiration for Transitions Abroad, and this has been its emphasis. Finally, its not a question of where we travel or even why we travel, but how we travelwith an open mind and a willingness to changethat distinguishes readers of Transitions Abroad.
And then there was September 11. Because we couldnt stop for the world, it unkindly came to us. More than any other single event in American history the attacks revealed to us how interconnected the world truly is. Americans on the whole are generous, and there was a tremendous outpouring of support for the victims. But no industrialized nation is as stingy as us when it comes to the disadvantaged in the rest of the world, where half of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Americans think we are contributing 10 percent of our gross national product to development aid. In fact, our contribution is .10 percent, or about eight times less than The Netherlands. Americans think we are liked in the rest of the world because of our generosity. In fact, a recent Pew survey found that while 52 percent of Americans believe we are liked because we do a lot of good, only 12 percent of Latin Americans and only 21 percent of all foreigners agreed with our assessment. (Im not sure if the poll, cited by Paul Krugman in the New York Times of January 1, was taken before or after the disaster in Argentina, which is largely a result of the continued insistence by the U.S. on a failed monetary policy.)
Has the country changed as a result of the September 11 attacks? Yes, more students are going abroad than ever before and more are going to Third World countries than ever before (there are clear signs that the interest in study abroad jumped significantly after September 11). And, as Transitions Abroad has shown (the average age of our readers is now nearly 50), as students go, so goes America. Travel for learning or life enhancement has become the most popular and fastest-growing form of nonbusiness travel.
Study the Language
The travel experience I find most rewarding is where you somehow manage to talk with local people in their language. I vividly recall my first visit to South Africa some years ago. Apartheid was at its height. Although I was only there for a short time, I studied the Xhosa language. One afternoon while on a walk on a back lane I encountered a Bantu woman, with the usual heavy load of something balanced on her head. I said Hello, how are you? in Xhosa. Surprised, she smiled and responded, So you are with us. To me this spoke much about the society: the mixture of discrimination and hope.
What Travel Means
In the 25 years since Transitions Abroad was first published most people would agree that the world has become a smaller place. Not only have opportunities to travel become more abundant, people around the world have experienced new cultures and views through the media and the Internet. Although we may see this as a shrinking world, one with less mystery and fewer remote regions to explore, I see it very differently. Through my experiences as an international volunteer, I have met and worked with people from around the world. Working side by side with brothers and sisters from Latin America and Asia, my global family and my worldview have expanded tremendously.
For most people, travel is a means of escape from everyday life. For me, traveling has been not only a destination but also a beginning. Volunteering abroad has inspired me to better understand my own culture, get more involved with my home community, and celebrate the diversity of cultures that are just beyond my doorstep. If I can continue to live my life as though I were traveling, I will see each day with limitless possibilities to learn and to make connections with people around me.
A Catalyst for Change
When I was managing editor of Transitions Abroad I spent most of my days poring through the amazing overseas experiences of the magazines contributors and dedicated readers. It led to a lot of daydreaming, which may not have increased my productivity much.
Finally, I decided I had to experience real TA travel for myself, and my husband and I pulled up stakes in Amherst and moved to Prague. That was a year and a half ago.
Living abroad has been the most challenging, exhilarating, frustrating, exciting, and ultimately rewarding endeavor that we have attempted thus far. From learning Czech to tackling Christmas carp, weve been able to immerse ourselves in another culture by living it every day. Even when we eventually return to the U.S. we will take the lessons weve learned to wherever we settle.
Because of my lifelong interest in overseas travel I might have ended up living overseas even if I hadnt worked at Transitions Abroad, but the resources that I learned about while there were the catalyst I needed to make it happen. And I know I am only one of thousands of people who can say the same.
Nicole Rosenleaf Ritter
Former Managing Editor
My strong belief about at least one of the root causes of this terrorist attack and others is that many people around the world do not feel that they have much control over their own lives and that the U.S. and other superpowers are running roughshod over their most basic needs, wants and desires for a safe and secure life for themselves and their families. The kind of travel that I like to lead and take part in supports real human communication between equals. I think that this can make a difference in the world, one person at a time.
Dexter, OR (Responsible Travel Editor)