There are a lot of familiar images and popular heady phrases you’ll see describing international travel or study – the happy young people in backpacks or smiling with a family from another culture with text that talks about “life-changing” experiences that participants “will never forget.”
And those images are real and much of the talk is true, but there are also practical, less ad-worthy reasons for travel abroad – and scientific research showing how it pays off.
“Honestly the most valuable things that traveling has taught me are adaptability, problem solving and patience," says Mercy Favrow, an Uncollege fellow who spent time in Brazil. She says unexpected events caused her to be resourceful and it’s a skill that has stuck with her.
“Some things where in my control and some of them weren't. Either way I had to figure out a way to get through it. I didn't have a data plan so I couldn't just google the solution, or call my parents to go come get me. This made me realize what I was capable of on my own. All these skills are still things I use on a daily basis.”
More than one student who has traveled or studied abroad finds that the process helps them mature, be more resourceful and develop better executive function skills that serve them well later.
There is also a lot of research suggesting that it helps a lot when it comes to getting a job and can help in the college application process. Participants also regularly say that they greatly expand their network, which can lead to all sorts of opportunities. And research has shown that such travel improves the likelihood that you’ll be a good leader.
In an age when every candidate for president had something to say about globalization, it also is pretty clear that having experience outside of this country pays off.
Those who work, study or travel in other countries do talk about how it changes them, giving them time to find themselves. They often talk about it as an experience that changes their lives and direction.
But, more specifically, they say it just gives them a broader perspective about life beyond their own.
“I think international experience has the power of humanizing National Geographic,” says Ryan Finley who traveled at a young age and now is now the global programs manager at the growing African Leadership Academy, which helps train young African leaders and brings American students to that continent. He says students learn about other cultures and through that process are much more aware of their own experience. They will, as Wooster College tells its study abroad students, “confront privilege.”
That is related to what researchers say is a big bump in empathy that most young people experience. And empathy – that ability to put yourself in someone else’s position – is one of those socio-emotional skills that is now seen as very important beyond just making you a good person.
Research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has shown that students who travel also are more creative, another skill that has value beyond just tapping into your writing or musical skills. It can relate to how you solve problems.
And even more practically, students report they handle money better, keep better track of their time, improve foreign language skills and learn to work better collaboratively.
So, there’s nothing wrong with going to a foreign country to find yourself, but it might be nice to know you may find a lot of other things out too.