I swung my carry-on from the overhead bin onto my shoulder, probably tearing a few muscles in the process and nearly breaking multiple people's noses. I grunted and groaned my way off the plane until I could finally set down the Olympic-heavyweight-worthy bag on the ground. My parents couldn't help but giggle, whether they were amused at how weak I was or at the predicament I was in was unclear.
It wasn't until I was able to rest my aching back in the taxi that I was able to fully appreciate where I was. A new city and a new country, all full of new opportunities. At age thirteen this would be my twelfth country visited and I could not be more grateful. Grateful for everything that is, except my book bag. There was something I desperately wanted to forget and it was the fact that I was going to be missing two full weeks of school for this trip, hence the schoolwork-laden bag I carried with me. My teachers assured me that I was fine. My parents were even more so convinced: "You're a straight A student, don't worry about missing school!" I found their confidence in me assuring, but I still had my concerns. I would have to do homework every night I was gone to stay on top of everything I had brought with me. But to me, it was well worth it. What student wouldn't be excited to explore a new country?
Every day after going to see new sites, go to a new museum, see more ruins or generally enjoying getting lost among strangers in their own community, I would have to go back to the hotel and read my biology book. I have always loved school and traditional learning, but I would long to go back to where everyone else was. I had wanderlust even when I was in another country! It made me realize how much more of an impact a hands-on experience with culture was better than learning about one in a classroom. I actively was trying to absorb as much information about the world as possible.
Upon returning to my school classroom it was easy to associate the places I had been with what was often discussed. If we would watch a movie or documentary it would be hard to suppress an outburst of "I've been there!" because I would get so excited that I recognized a place. When I met exchange students or foreigners they would get incredibly excited if I had visited their country before. When discussing landmarks or cities I knew exactly what was going on. I could relate to people in my school with different religions, and because I had seen so many people of different colors, backgrounds and languages, I was never surprised by a newcomer; which made them feel more welcome in turn. I found school to become easier for me as I took all the information I had learned in my travels and applied it to my real life.
I make the argument that cultural immersion at a young age is one of the most important educational experiences you can have. Sitting in a classroom and learning is one thing (and obviously a critical part of becoming a well-rounded person) but traveling has an ineffable ability to shape you into a well-rounded, cultured and empathetic human. The introduction to multiple cultures that are not your own allows you to have a greater understanding of other people's beliefs. Don't get me wrong, the Quadratic formula is important to know, but being able to relate to people and know the history of their culture and beliefs is absolutely essential to leading a richer and more accepting life.
I do notice that my friends that have traveled a lot seem to be more confident, they carry themselves and speak in a more sophisticated manner and they know how to listen. They also can form better debates and articulate their points in a clearer manner so that most anyone can understand. I have found within these friends far more knowledge of geography, culture and language. This, and the patience traveling instills in people, are not only generally important traits to have as a person but marketable aspects for getting better jobs.
It is for this reason that I urge any teachers who have traveling students to turn it into a learning experience for them. Instead of breaking their backs with fifty-pound carry-on bags, allow them the chance to write a reflection about what they've seen for some credit. Give them the chance to show that traveling is an amazing education in itself.
Understandably, most families cannot travel so much. Whether it be grueling work schedules, monetary restraints or too big of a family to transport, traveling is simply not a possibility for many people. But I encourage everyone possible to go exploring, even if it's within your own city. There are so many hidden pockets of culture all around us that are left undiscovered. You'd be amazed by what you can learn from others.