My father took his final graduation exam at the University of Minnesota, didn't even wait for his graduation, and two days later was on a flight to French Guyane a remote colony deep in the Amazon on the Southeast coast of South America. His knowledge on this colony consisted of sketchy information from what he found in geography books in the University libraries. Not knowing the language, any of the people and not having any contacts whatsoever, this was destined to be the making of an adventure or a huge disaster. With $150 dollars in his pocket, a one-way plane ticket and no commitments back at home, this was bound to be a complete forced cultural immersion. Within two days of his arrival he was throwing up uncontrollably in the Atlantic Ocean on the back deck of a fishing trawler wondering why in God's name had he decided to leave his home in Minnesota. With a Captain so foreign and hulking as any true high sea pirate, he was only thinking about how to get off the ship. Fortunately (or unfortunately) once at sea you are committed to completing the trip (35 days).
It was not only a 35 day trip; within six months my Dad was the ship's captain, within two years he was an experienced mechanic, carpenter, captain and fleet manager. Within six years he was the company manager of a 130 boat fishing fleet operating out of three different South American countries (Guyana, Suriname, French Guyane and Brazil) and speaking Portugeese, French and Dutch. If he had not made that wild trip on that fishing boat or, in fact, that flight from Minnesota, he would probably be milking cows back home for his entire life. A life changing experience of complete personal immersion determined a successful career that's led to many varied opportunities for him that are open to a very few people. Why? Because most of us would have never taken the chance.
The chance of exploring cultures outside of your own, allowing yourself to evolve and truly grasping how the rest of the world differs socially, culturally and economically through immersing yourself in the raw reality of a foreign place, wherever that may be. Many of us have little to no knowledge of what lies beyond our protected and familiar bubble and it can be scary and dangerous, but this fear is what ultimately prevents the possibilities, opportunities and experiences that will mold your life around a worldly renaissance perspective.
Within 3 months of my birth in Florida, my dad had me traveling internationally to my new home abroad in Guatemala, of all places, where I would be living until I was 11 years old. Throughout my life, I have bounced back and forth between Florida and many countries in Central and South America, two extremely divergent worlds. This constant change in culture and environments helped me understand my role in my world, my aspirations for the future and that there is so much more to life than where I was born, what I was taught and what is expected of me. The problem with youth who have vacationed around the world is that it is often viewed as a cultural immersion when it is not. It is a manicured environment showing people only what they want to see and what they are comfortable with. This is not in any way a substitute for a truly foreign experience.
When I was going through FSU orientation, I met an individual my age who had recently traveled to Guatemala. They illustrated their experience to be an extremely clean mountainous wonderland in which they shopped, toured ancient mayan sites and ate ethnic foods made by locals. This person's experience shocked me because, although the landscape and culture is fascinating, my reality of this country consisted of malnourished children without shoes, families living in 8 foot huts with dirt floors and dangerous gangs extorting almost every business and household.
Feeding into tourism culture when you travel somewhere new may give you amazing views, a beautiful tan and some great pictures to post, but what did you learn about the lives of locals? How different is a cozy foreign resort from a simple trip to a domestic beach? Setting out on a journey should be an adventure of involvement and not revolve around leisure and relaxation.
One summer ago, after a long year of college, I decided to return to Guatemala, independent of my family and any connections I had acquired when I lived there. I contacted a group of Fransiscan Nuns in Canada who put me in touch with a Nutritional Center located in a very impoverished and small town on the South Coast of Guatemala. I was housed and fed for a month in return for my labor helping an unpaid staff care, feed and look after 25 toddlers that were so malnourished they were on the brink of death. By the end of my stay I was able to return the majority of these toddlers to their grateful parents with a large supply of food, medicine and instructions to, hopefully, ensure their health going forward. This unaided and self-made experience reminded me how different my life and environment is to a third world country where help is an instantaneous gift that cannot ensure sustainability.
Cultural awareness can only be achieved through firsthand experience, and although it can be intimidating to throw yourself into the wind, your opportunities to grow and learn become endless. Deeply engaging yourself in a foreign culture and country is an important journey that needs to be experienced before the start of your career so that the lessons you learn and the chances you come across can influence your future goals and mindset. All of you need to understand that nothing is out of your reach. If you save your money, choose a destination and safe method of housing, travel with an open mind and take a chance on each opportunity presented to you, your journey will transform you as a person. Although I have a lot of experience with many different cultures, there are still many foreign locations for me to learn from and be influenced by, and I intend to keep taking risks in order to further find my place in this world before I start to build my own career.
An idea is an explosion and that explosion is often uncontrolled. That's not a bad thing if it leads to an understanding of what we can do with ourselves, sometimes ourselves all alone. That's called experience, adventure and risk. Step out of your bubble, and immerse yourself in foriegn travel that is not touristically oriented. The benefits will be harvested your entire life.