Education and Travel: A Historical Perspective

February 9, 2021

Sonja Pippin headshotBy Sonja Pippin, Professor of Accounting, UNR College of Business

Wenn einer eine Reise tut, dann kann er ‘was erzählen (German phrase translated as “Traveling gives you something to talk about”)

Why do people travel? Why should you spend time and money to go to a foreign place where you might be uncomfortable and alone? There are at least as many reasons for traveling as there are travelers. For example, a student who is majoring in Italian is traveling to Italy because he wants to understand more about the language and culture that formed the language. A professor of ancient history plans an excursion to Athens Greece because she is studying some of the Greek architecture. Or, a manager of an American subsidiary company is visiting Tokyo to understand the culture of the Japanese parent firm.

Traveling comprises many components that cannot easily be separated. And even if education and learning is not the primary objective, it will be at least one of the side-effects of any trip. You may be going on a vacation at a beach resort and the trip is educational as you meet some interesting people from across the globe. You may go to study a language but you are also going to learn about the culture, the people and history of your destination. You may hike the Alps and you learn about climate, weather, and local traditions.

Traveling for educational purposes is probably as old as humankind. It may have become more formalized in the last decades with organizations such as NAFSA, IIE, EF Education First, and many others. But the idea of leaving your comfort zone to experience the world is much older.

Homer’s Odyssey tells the story of a Greek hero, the king Odysseus, who after the Trojan War spent ten years returning home. During his long journey (the Odyssey) he encountered many challenges; themes of the poem include wandering, return, testing, omens, and friendship. Homer’s poem is a work of fiction; but the notion of traveling for military, diplomatic, and trade was common in ancient Greece and Rome. Famous leaders (such as Alexander the Great and Julius Cesar) were mostly advancing across the continent to expand the borders; yet, they also learned from foreign cultures and brought much of it back to their respective cities. The information gathered abroad was often retold (and sometimes embellished) in travel narratives such as the histories by Herodot and Julius Cesar’s book Comentarii de Bello Gallico.

Since the middle ages, learners who completed their apprenticeship in certain professions are required to complete their “journeymen” travels which generally last at least three years and one day as one of the prerequisites to become licensed. Although this tradition seems antiquated, it is still an obligatory part of education for some professions. Similarly, many upper middle class and noble families (including royalty) used to spend time traveling to experience and learn. Famous travelers include Darwin, Adams, Mozart, Goethe, Mark Twain, and Earhart.

During the last Century the idea of sending college students abroad has become more common. This resulted in the formation of advocacy groups as well as for-profit and not-for profit organizations and programs that have the goal to facilitate international exchanges. Many of them focus on college students (e.g. IES, USAC, CIEE). In the United States, the first study abroad program (sending a few undergraduate students to France) was established in the 1920s at the University of Delaware. Efforts of study abroad and exchange programs were disrupted in the 1940s by World War II and picked up again in the 1950s. In the past decades study abroad travel has increased significantly – partially due to the campaigns of various educational institutions and organizations such as the IIE and the Forum of Education Abroad.

With all this in mind, why should you travel, where should you go and when?

  • Why? Because travel is fun and interesting and you will have a story to tell when you return (plus you will learn much more than you think)
  • Where? The short answer to this question is “anywhere you want”; but there is also a somewhat longer answer. First, do consult the S. Department of State website and be aware of travel advisories.
  • When? This one is tough right now. COVID-19 unfortunately has made international travel challenging if not impossible. Even if you could go to a foreign country, you likely would have to quarantine for several days which may be difficult if you are on your own and have a limited time budget. Waiting until travel is deemed safe (or safer) is advisable for most.

However, this doesn’t mean you cannot start planning your trip now. Check out your options. Look at possible countries and cities – for example those with which an exchange agreement exists. You may consider a semester-long exchange or one of the shorter study abroad programs. Once you have narrowed down your choices, contact your future host institution, e-mail the professors and administrators, and work at a possible class schedule. The more you prepare now, the more you will enjoy the trip.