SEOUL — By now, we’ve all memorized the standard line, “Each semester, students travel to a different global city with students from more than 50 countries.” This is perhaps the largest draw for many prospective Minerva students, and certainly one of the most attention-grabbing attributes of Minerva in the media.

Among the plethora of potential ethnographic and sociocultural studies that could be conducted with such a diverse and unique student experience, one of the easiest phenomena to document is the flight routes that students undertake, particularly between Minerva’s cities.

At the beginning and end of each semester, Minerva students spread out across all six inhabited continents, only to rejoin their peers in a new city thousands of kilometers away just a few weeks or months later.

So I decided to map out as many of the air routes that students in the Classes of 2019 and 2020 flew between their respective cities—Buenos Aires and San Francisco—in spring 2017, and Seoul, where they both just finished the fall 2017 semester.

I polled students on our internal social media groups this past summer and at the beginning of the fall semester to gather as many flight legs as possible, and ended up with close to 120 student responses, about half the Minerva student population in Seoul.

The results are astounding. 

Roughly half the flights that Minerva students in the Classes of 2019 and 2020 took between their spring and fall semester cities. Click on the image to view the full results.

The maps speak for themselves, but still under-represent the diversity of student travel given the 50% response rate. If you take into account the other half, Minerva students currently occupying the same square block in Seoul have collectively travelled close to four million kilometers between their arrival here and their departure from last semester’s cities. That translates to almost 100 times around the globe and more than five round-trip journeys to the Moon.

I don’t intend to share this merely to give yet another ego boost to the Minerva community and its self-perception as a supposedly “global” university. I don’t intend to brag about how “contemporary” we are.

Indeed, there are still many problems this community needs to address about how deeply we actually engage with the places we visit, and how genuinely students from such different cultures actually interact with each other. The map also highlights not only the limited representation of the African continent among the Minerva student body, but also the relatively peripheral role that the continent plays in today’s globalizing world — a topic worth several articles. Nevertheless, this data enables us to make insightful conclusions, while still raising serious questions about the sustainability of Minerva’s model, and globalization in general.

Close-ups of the regions most traversed by Minerva students over the summer break. | Louis Brickman

Carbon Emissions

The most sobering number from the data is the amount of carbon emissions.

From only those who responded, about 240 tons of carbon dioxide, 13 kilograms of methane, and 11 kilograms of nitrous oxide were released into the atmosphere for their travel between Minerva’s cities. Take into account all the students’ travel this past summer, and multiply it by four classes and predicted future class size, and you easily get to several thousand tons of carbon emitted per year to achieve Minerva’s global rotation.

This raises fundamental questions, or at least highlights the dilemma, of Minerva’s model of global travel and exposure. On a deeper level, it challenges the ethical status of “global” citizenship and engagement so long as air travel continues to be such a large source of carbon emissions.

About 240 tons of carbon dioxide, 13 kilograms of methane, and 11 kilograms of nitrous oxide were released into the atmosphere.

Of course, many Minerva students, myself included, would have sought out study abroad opportunities and/or gap years abroad no matter where they had gone to college. One could also argue that these emissions are an “investment” in a group of people who will more than make up for them in the future when the exposure from their current education enables them to make positive change in the world. 

So although the greenhouse gas emissions should not be taken merely at face value, they raise crucial questions about purportedly enlightened programs which reinforce the core values of globalization, precisely when we are becoming more aware of its real threat to the planet.

Nevertheless, this map is an exciting portrayal of what the Internet and the airplane have enabled, in a world that was hardly imaginable two hundred years ago.  

The diversity of Pacific Ocean crossings which is not immediately clear from a Eurocentric map projection. | Louis Brickman

Keep an eye out for the second edition of this map series, which will showcase the rapid, two-week diffusion and reuniting of Minerva students from Seoul to Hyderabad, India, where they will spend the next semester.