As a Sydney-sider plunged into the depths of Californian college, I had been met with surprisingly little culture shock -- that is, until I mentioned to my fellow students that I would be missing the first week of school whilst still traveling abroad. The range of stunned responses spanned from the stammering and confused, "but ... what are you going to do about class?" to the downright outraged, "are you even a student here!?"
I was equally baffled.
Had I not just seen these same students skip their Friday lectures to capitalize on a sunny three-day weekend or pass over discussion because it was too much of a strain on their foggy, recently beer-soaked brains? UCLA students are by no means immune to tardiness, nor do they hold perfect attendance records, but in my peers' minds, an activity as extravagant and indulgent as travel surely could not justify an absence from school ... where for some reason nursing a hangover from last night's frat party could.
As an avid traveler, and one currently living abroad, I have been prone to quizzing others on the extent of their ventures around the globe, curious to test my assumptions about the traveling propensity of American students (not to mention that my meager stock of small talk subjects generally rely upon holiday anecdotes -- just try going through sorority rush as a foreigner). The responses chart a disturbingly similar radius: "Oh, I've been to Cabo" and "Yeah, I've done some skiing in Canada." No no, I mean overseas as in over-the-seas, not a weeklong excursion to one of your contiguous neighbors.
It is no secret that Americans are typecast as insular and globally ignorant, and it is with relief that I have found such stereotypes often to be as reductive and glib as they sound (I am yet to record any instances of being questioned about drop bears or whether I ride a kangaroo to school). With credit, the 50 States offer such a wealth of diversity that to set out and neglect one's own backyard can be a folly of itself. But there is something eye-opening and necessarily humbling in witnessing how -- and acknowledging that -- the world operates outside the borders of one's home country.
From what I can surmise, the limited culture of student travel in the States is not a result of American insularity or a lack of genuine curiosity, but something more perniciously engrained in the education/career track of the American student. Study abroad? Sure. Volunteering? Even better. But taking three months off to forget your GEs, TAs and GPAs and lose yourself in the foreignness of another culture, practically unheard of. The problem with such structured exposure to the outside world is that it is overly sanitized and contained, losing the raw realities of independent exploration, and there is something troubling about a system that fails to recognize travel as a form of education in and of itself. Traveling for the sake of traveling just isn't an idea that germinates in the soil of American college.
On multiple occasions I have been assured by those I meet that Australia is a destination they have always dreamed of visiting -- far from a sign of disinterest in the outside world. But it is a dream that remains firmly rooted in the realm of fantasy, a guilty pleasure that just doesn't square with the American definition of 'success'. When a summer of traveling is just a blank line on the resume and deferral for a gap year requires a written request to the Dean, it is hard to prioritize overseas travel as it falls neatly behind school, work, career, co-curricular activity, community involvement and domestic trips. Not to mention that most American students are either bogged in student debt or otherwise so committed to a college schedule that they are precluded from working enough hours to raise the thousands of dollars necessary for an overseas adventure.
But shouldn't we be traveling while we're young, before we have two week annual leave, a mortgage and have outgrown the stage of comfortably being able to bunk down in grimy hostel dorms? To put this in perspective, voluntary summer session would be a considered a blasphemy to the Australian notion of university break, 'gap yahs' are encouraged opportunities for the private school elite -- hardly blemishes on the academic record and in the six months I have been living in the States I have had at least nine Australian friends pass through LA. While I might not always be proud of the reputations of the Australian tourist, I am proud of our readiness to venture beyond the familiar, and despite a relatively small population, our ability to be found in every corner of the globe.
This is a call to the American student: Leave your textbooks behind this summer and join me down under, where traveling is a rite of passage and showing up in the first week of class is just an indicator that you haven't maximized the explorative potential of your time off!