Tell someone you’re part of the extraordinary one-point-whatever percent of students accepted into one of the world’s most selective undergraduate programs — they roll their eyes. Say that you take classes on an active, science-of-learning-informed video platform called the ALF (no, wait, “Forum”) — they raise their eyebrows. But when you tell someone that you’ll study in seven global cities — their jaw drops.
Minerva drew in many of us students with this dazzling globe-trotting promise. We lead with it when explaining our totally-not-a-cult school to skeptical outsiders. We base our Instagram personas on it. We’ll tell our grandchildren about it — “when I was your age, I was a digital nomad!” — assuming they aren’t drowned by the cumulative effects of all those jet-setting emissions. The global rotation is what makes us cool and, often, what forms the basis of our identity as Minerva students.
Implicit in all this hype is the assumption that travel is good, inherently and uniquely so. It might be expensive and stressful, but, in the end, it’s worth it, for us and the world.
But what if we all just… stayed home? Or, at least, didn’t cross an ocean every four months? Imagine a Minerva with the same brilliant and, dare I say, extraordinary, students, the same curriculum, the same weird rituals, the same everything, but stationary. If the gears grinding us through the global rotation stopped, what would we actually lose — besides the flag emojis on our Tinder profiles?
But, Emma, why would you want to stop traveling? Aren’t you living the dream?
I used to think I was, dear reader, but I started to question the value of travel after a particularly disheartening semester in Hyderabad. Like many of my peers, I was constantly exhausted from taking four classes (yes, the academic team tries to limit us to three for a reason) and desperately sending internship applications into the void. I was frustrated by the difficulties of traveling anywhere in Hyderabad, which seemed especially hard after my spoiled existence in Seoul, where transit was as relaxing as the subway song and I never wondered if it was too late to walk home from Itaewon.
Ultimately, despite some feeble attempts to visit the old city, my experience of Hyderabad collapsed into a sparse constellation of Wi-Fi hotspots. My memories star white-washed walls: the modern interior of the Sentido cafe, the stylishly Swedish Ikea dining hall, and the soul-sucking hollowness of my apartment. The Ikea 10 minutes away from my home in Ohio doesn’t sell veg biryani, but beyond these superficial details, most of my days in India might as well have been spent in the U.S. suburbs.
I knew there was so much more to the city than my experience in the Minerva bubble, but I almost never caught a glimpse of it. In the end, my four months in Hyderabad left me with the suspicion that, despite all my faith in it, travel isn’t always good. Maybe it could even be bad.
Ok, so maybe your semester wasn’t perfect. But can traveling really be BAD?
In terms of pure utility, it certainly can be. The cost of travel is almost always guaranteed to be steep. Plane tickets are expensive. Moving is stressful and time-consuming. Jet fuel and piles of discarded housewares destroy the environment. The first four months in a new destination means losing the deeper connections that would have come from lingering in the old place for months five, six, seven, eight, or even beyond.
In exchange, we often expect travel to benefit us by default. We expect to learn something, to open our minds, to become better people, just because we are in a new place. But I’m no longer convinced the sum of these benefits automatically outweighs the multidimensional price of moving so much. Sometimes, I even think travel can negatively warp our world-view.
Let me explain: before living in Seoul and Hyderabad, my impression of these places was mostly neutral, based only on the news that had trickled into the U.S. media and a handful of Korean and Bollywood movies. After living in each city, however, my personal experiences overrode my feelings toward it, even if those experiences had almost nothing to do with the place itself.
It is not a good thing when I, especially if I imagine myself as a “global leader,” come to associate Hyderabad with dysfunction and persistent anxiety.
It is not a good thing when I, especially if I imagine myself as a “global leader,” come to associate Hyderabad with dysfunction and persistent anxiety — it’s even worse if I generalize this impression to all of India. It is no less distortive when I look back on Seoul with rose-tinted nostalgia, allowing cute cafes and the dazzle of Hallyu to dominate my memories.
Obviously, I can’t ask myself to have a completely fair emotional experience in every place I visit — I’m not even sure what that would mean. There are always going to be better semesters and worse semesters, and sometimes they correlate with cities. The problem is when we conflate our experience of a place with the place itself, when “I had a great time in Seoul” becomes “Seoul is great” or “I felt awful in Hyderabad” becomes “Hyderabad is awful.”
But surely you liked some things in Hyderabad? Doesn’t that count for something?
Sure, I left Hyderabad with a newfound love of biryani, kulfi, flowy skirts, elaborately patterned scarves, and a handful of catchy Bollywood songs. These things make me happy, and while they’re all available in my U.S. home, I probably wouldn’t have discovered them if I hadn’t lived in India. But these sorts of benefits from traveling are, ultimately, just superficial. Unfortunately, I can’t equate opening my mouth to spicy food with opening my mind to the worldview of those who cook it.
The method of travel I came into Minerva with was entirely centered around consumption: taking photos, eating food, buying souvenirs, collecting exotic-seeming details. I went in knowing what I should get out of a trip and tailored my itinerary to meet those expectations. Too often, the experience became about purchasing a place, a boring, binary exchange, rather than embracing the complexities of truly immersing in it.
This approach to travel, which has made my Minerva semesters more like long-term tourism than short-term residency, doesn’t have to be especially problematic. It’s often just fun, albeit fun at a pretty high price. And for some people, the thrill of walking through Charminar or climbing to the top of Namsan Tower is worth all the money, stress, time, and energy it took to get there.
After two semesters abroad, however, I no longer count myself among them. My consumption-based method of travel has been replaced by one centered around existential crises. Instead of showing up in a new country and asking, “What can I get here?” I stumble off the plane, jet-lagged, and think, “What is the point?”
But, if we don’t travel, how will we immerse?!
I’m not saying that I haven’t experienced the type of perspective-changing revelations we global citizens value so much. Indeed, I’ve thoroughly interrogated all of my assumptions and feel like I’ve opened my mind so much that I suspect some of my brains spilled out (if you’ve been paying attention, I’m sure you’d agree).
But, while all of these transformative experiences required me to leave my comfort zone, I often didn’t need a passport or plane ticket to make that trip. One of my first life-changing realizations happened just 10 minutes from my house, in a 24-hour diner I’d been driving past my entire life, at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting I visited as a journalist. Interviewing people rebuilding lives demolished by heroin addiction eliminated many of my naive beliefs – like that the U.S. criminal justice system is completely fair or that doctors never write prescriptions that could harm a patient.
Another occasion was more recent, and does actually involve another country — I watched a Bollywood film centered around toilets. I can barely recall the romantic plot, but a key component was a village’s resistance to installing bathrooms near their homes. As the older characters explained, they thought doing so was dirty: surely anyone would rather defecate in a field, far from where they cook and eat, than at home. The movie argues against this perspective but presented the anti-toilet view such that it made sense to me. I now understood the (pretty valid, actually) logic behind why someone would prefer to poop outside, something I would have written off as a tolerable but inexplicable cultural difference before.
While all of these transformative experiences required me to leave my comfort zone, I often didn’t need a passport or plane ticket to make that trip.
And, yes, I have had moments of learning that did occur during, and arguably because of, travel. Before this semester, I spent a few days with an extended family who ran an organic farm in Northern France. Despite a language barrier that prevented substantive conversation (the owners even had to pantomime fieldwork instructions), I absorbed a lot of their relaxed ethos regarding work, food, and family. I spent the next week experiencing a very different version of France while staying in an Airbnb on the outskirts of Paris. The French-Moroccan owner ultimately invited me to her son’s wedding, an epic culmination to a visit that helped me learn about parts of the city that rarely make it into the typical white-washed tours of Paris.
Note, however, that both of these trips took place outside of Minerva, during a precious period when I could make travel the sole focus of my life. During the semester, I’ve tried to replicate this with SXP events and civic projects, but so far scheduling, flaky teams, and the competing priorities of survival and passing classes have kept me from having a good Minerva-sponsored immersion experience.
Gosh, if you really think traveling in Minerva is that bad, why don’t you just drop out of the global rotation?
I thought about it. There’s a much more pessimistic version of this story that ends with the piping hot take that travel, at least the Minerva version, is nothing more than a marketing gimmick — the smart kid’s version of party campuses and sports teams. If you talk to me on the wrong day (or the wrong semester — sorry Hyderabad), I’m sure I will be very happy to break this argument down for you in further detail.
But I can’t bring myself to write that conclusion. I have enough residual hope to keep myself from giving up. The way I’ve been traveling is dissatisfying, but I don’t think visiting new places is inherently meaningless (or at least no more inherently meaningless than all of existence). The goals I want to reach through travel — learning from other cultures, developing a more empathetic worldview — are important and possible, just not as easily achieved as Minerva’s marketing and the popular myths of wanderlust suggest.
With that in mind, I’ve decided I’d rather use my last three rotation cities to try to “travel better,” by both figuring out what that means for me and developing ways to actually do it. While I’m sure I will travel more later in life, I doubt that I will ever again move as frequently and as far as we do in Minerva. If I’m being bounced around the globe anyway, I might as well try to learn the most I can from it.
So I want this article to be a public challenge to myself, and you, if you saw yourself in my experiences, to ask more questions about the way we travel and test out solutions to them. Should I commit myself to a civic project? Forego Minerva programming and search for community on my own? Relentlessly troll Tinder until I develop a robust network of local, um… contacts? Explore the city with Minerva friends for more fun and safety, or go solo to force myself to make new connections? And where do I draw the line between all this and making sure that I’m eating vegetables, sleeping a bit, not failing all my classes, applying for internships, and not becoming completely overwhelmed and depressed?
This article doesn’t have solutions, but you might! A forthcoming piece I’m working on with Tanha Kate will collect stories of “good cultural immersion” in an attempt to answer some of the questions posed here. If you want to share your experience, reach out to either of us at [email protected] or [email protected].