Traveling towards a global identity

The first time I traveled abroad, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. 

My family traveled a lot when I was baby, but by the time I was two they had settled in the U.S. and didn’t leave the country again. Listening to their stories, I grew up dreaming about exploring the world so when I was 18, I didn’t miss my chance. There was a volunteer opportunity in rural Cameroon during my college’s summer break and there was no way I wasn’t going. 

I’ll spare you the details but let’s just say I vastly underestimated the difficulty of living in a different country. I finished the six-week project with my two teammates and we all returned safely home, but I was never the same again. 

Though, unlike what the average media outlet portrays, this had nothing to do with the “dangers” of “third-world” or “developing” countries. Instead, I had changed in a way that helped me see the world as though I were part of it as whole, rather than just part of my particular piece. It was a global perspective I was working on, rather than an international one. 

And this effect only grew with each new country I visited. From study abroad to interning, teaching a language to learning one, I always grew a bit more, was challenged a bit more, and changed a bit more. 

This is hardly a glamorous process, despite what the feed of your nearest Instagram influencer might suggest. While there is nothing wrong with a vacation, that is very different from going to a country with the intent to learn something new, or even, with the intent to be proven wrong. Traveling with this purpose changes the places you select, from tropical beaches to poorer economies, from high-rise luxury to post-conflict zones, and also the actions you take while there. 

That’s because traveling with the intent to learn is about correcting incorrect assumptions. It’s about exposing your flaws and becoming vulnerable. It’s about seeing the injustices of the world and how you yourself are representative of them; how simply your presence can be a reminder of the imbalance of power and of a painful colonial past that will never be distant nor addressed enough. It’s about questioning your identity and beliefs because the life that you know is inconceivable to those where you currently are. It’s about being, at times, very alone. 

So why do it? Because no matter how hard it gets, there are few things more rewarding than knowing that you are growing, clearing your vision, and expanding your perspective. More importantly, you are developing a global identity that ties you to the world and to its people, and with that will come the understanding and empathy to fix the imbalances on our planet. And the more people who do it, the faster that will be. 

What do you think? Do you like to travel to learn or would you like to start? Any pro-tips you can offer? Reply to this email or let us know on social media (#WiFP). Emily Gray Salada is a newsletter coordinator at #WiFP and starting her MS in Foreign Service at Georgetown University this fall.