From my vantage point out at sea the clearest water, a brilliant hue of blue of water softly rolls to the shoreline of Fisherman Island, gently kissing caramel sands and billowing palm trees.
I’m touched with feeling. It is not the postcard-perfect beauty of the scene before me that truly touches me. No, it is instead the heap of children -- none of whom I’d ever met more than five minutes ago when we departed the island -- who now sit gathered around me, curled into my arms and spilling out of my lap onto the planks of the boat below.
In a remote corner of Papua New Guinea, off the coast of Port Moresby, the country’s capital city, my heart is melted by the beauty of a moment. My love for off-beat, wild places is re-affirmed.
This was a love that began for me, one could say, when I chose not to follow the crowds of undergraduate students from University of Maryland to study abroad in Paris, London, or Rome. Instead, I chose to trek on my own to Melbourne, Australia, a city I’d never heard of before visiting my school’s study abroad office, on an exchange program as the sole student from my university.
If you, like me, have chosen an off-beat study abroad destination you might wonder why it is that we love them so much. If you're considering an off-beat study abroad destination, you might wonder why these destinations are so enticing. To this, I say that we love them because…
We Long for a Unique Setting, On to Call Our Own
The Eiffel Tower truly does stun us no matter what the haters may say, and there’s no topping the pubs of London anywhere in the world. But we long for a unique setting, one we can call our own.
Whether we’ve been to the destinations on the beaten path, or have just read, heard, and seen so much about them that it feels as if we have visited, those of us who love off-beat study abroad destinations long for someplace new. In a new setting, one that hasn’t been trekked through by everyone we know, we are free to start a new chapter a fresh, one of our very own in a place that we can live in and watch as our story unfolds not in clichéd stereotypes, but in unexpected moments.
When We Leave the Beaten Path, We Learn More About Humanity
The well-beaten path has been trekked on by so many people who resemble ourselves that it can be difficult to have authentic interactions with our fellow humans.
That shopkeeper in Istanbul? He’s already sold five bowls to women who look not too different from us today. That cute boy in Rome? He’s already romanced a tourist and had his heart broken by her (and broken a few himself).
When we study abroad in places where few others have been we are free to have more authentic interactions with people who are drawn to us out of curiosity and fresh wonder, rather than fatigue. It is down these paths that children flock to us in innocence, women stop us along the road to share fresh honey, and men question us about what it is really like to live in the United States.
We Learn More About Ourselves in Off-Beat Destinations
Study abroad is inherently a learning opportunity. We learn about the world in the classroom and in our host country. We also learn about ourselves simultaneously.
The further we venture from home, the deeper we are drawn within ourselves, to discover who we really are. When hiking distant trails through wet jungles, or navigating city streets where no English is spoken we are pushed to the edges. It is far outside our comfort zone that we come to terms with who we really are inside and all that we are capable of.
In distant lands we unbury our prejudices and are forced to survive -- and thrive -- with the skills we can bring to the table. Through this inner journey we push our limits, sometimes finding that we are not as brave or strong as we once thought, but learning that none-the-less we can accomplish so much more than we imagined.
We Seek to Discover the World As It Really Is, Not as We are Told About It
When we are someplace new that few in our circle have trekked to before we are free to discover the world as it really is, not merely as we are told it is. Since we are in a place where none of our acquaintances have been we are not burdened by their advice or suggestions. We can experience and learn with fewer pre-conceived notions and stop in at the sites, restaurants, and towns that we are drawn to, not the ones that friends and family have told us to visit.
We can instead unveil our stories as they happened to us, presenting the truth of the world as we saw it with our own eyes.
And when we return home we don’t have to compare our experience to anyone else’s pre-set itinerary. We are free to share all that we’ve learned without fear that someone will stop us mid-story and say that is not the way I saw it. All we have is our eyes and the way the world spoke to our heart.
We Want to Write Our Own Odyssey and Be the Hero in Our Story
Above all we want to write our own story. We study abroad not to compete with others or race through a checklist of items and destinations, but for the story. We’ve grown up reading fantastic books about fantastic places and fantastic people who do fantastic things.
Now that we are grown we seek to follow our own Odyssey, to write our own story in which we are the sole hero, embarking on an adventure tailor-made for us. We are free to take hold of our own destiny and captain our ship in whatever destination we seek, and what better place to do that than someplace new, someplace where the ground is still firm, unhindered by the heavy steps of others’ boots.
So my fellow adventurer, whether you’re just beginning your experience studying abroad and are a little unsure at your choice of a non-traditional location, or you’ve returned home filled to the brim with stories, I thank you for sharing my love for unturned stones. Join me in this tribute to wild places, and join the Go Overseas Community to share your stories from study abroad.