From a Student’s Perspective: The Advantages to Travelling Abroad During College

Atop Lion’s Head at sunrise. Photo courtesy of Adam Yates.

Atop Lion’s Head at sunrise. Photo courtesy of Adam Yates.

It’s hard to watch the news or scroll through your Facebook feed without having the underlying feeling that the world is a scary place. As a parent, sending your child to college is a big step. But what happens when they want to take an even bigger step: studying or working abroad?

While the knee-jerk reaction may be to keep your child a short car-ride or at least a domestic flight away, the opportunities for personal growth that abound by traveling abroad are endless.

Today on the blog, we are joined by graduating senior at Northwestern University and budding journalist/documentary filmmaker, Adam Yates, to share his unique perspective on why it’s important to let go of our own fears as parents in order to help our children maximize their own potential to grow from the world around them.

The notion that the world is much larger than one’s immediate community is easy to accept but harder to comprehend. Everyone knows that the countries that span the globe contain diverse and unique communities and cultures, but until one leaves their own community they can’t internalize this notion.

The Cape Town cityscape. Photo courtesy of Adam Yates.

The Cape Town cityscape. Photo courtesy of Adam Yates.

Not only can travelling abroad enrich your child’s life in the experiences they receive while travelling, but upon return to their home country their transformed perspective have the possibility to enrich their everyday life. It can be as simple as an approach to water conservation or a new recipe learned, or as complex as a comparative perspective on the ways in which the eradication of generational inequalities relies on much more than political promises.

I am a senior journalism major at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Through the journalism residency program at my school I got an internship at the Daily Maverick, an online news publication in Cape Town, South Africa. I was drawn to South Africa because I knew the history of Apartheid left a legacy of inequality that permeated all parts of society. I wanted to learn more about a relatively new democracy working towards a new goal. I knew that reporting in a foreign country would give me journalism opportunities that I couldn’t receive as a student in the States. I left the States last spring intending to spend ten weeks in the country, and quickly extended my trip through the summer in order to work on an independent documentary project. Now I am a year out of my time in South Africa and the memories feel almost unreal. In reflecting on the experience, I realize that what I gained from my time abroad is almost universal to all students who take time off from school to leave the country. Here are the top four reasons I think all students should seize the chance to travel/study/work abroad, should they be privileged enough to have the opportunity to do so.

Cultural exposure

Travelling to a different country will almost certainly expose your child to an entirely unique lifestyle from what they are used to. Everything from food and art to lifestyle and politics create an environment in which immersing oneself in the local culture results in the exposure to new ideas, new experiences, and new ways of living.

Perhaps just as exciting as having brand new cultural experiences, is finding the points of connection between cultures. Sitting in the oldest Synagogue on the African continent I found myself transported to my summer camp in New Hampshire as a recognizable tune for a prayer was sung. Driving with a political coordinator, we spent two hours in the car playing music for one another while noticing that we are drawn to the same sound and style even if the languages are entirely different. 

Opportunities you can’t get elsewhere

Cape Point. Photo courtesy of Adam Yates.

Cape Point. Photo courtesy of Adam Yates.

When I arrived in South Africa I didn’t expect that I would be sitting down with the deputy mayor of Cape Town in my first week there. I had no idea I would travel six hours to the middle of the desert for an arts festival. I certainly didn’t expect to get an advanced copy of a highly anticipated novel, and I hadn’t the wildest intuition that I would need to book flights, hotels, and car rentals across the country in preparation for work on a documentary.

I know that South Africa is unique in this sense. The media landscape is widely respected but disturbingly underfunded, and my responsibility and access as a professional journalist led me into rooms and offices I would never have access to in the U.S. However, what is universal about my time there is the fact that in entering the country the majority of my imminent experiences were completely unknown to me. I felt more inclined to say yes to everything due to the pressing sense of ephemerality throughout the trip. I had a return flight and knew I wanted to salvage the most of every moment in preparation for my departure. The equivalent urgency to seize advantage of opportunities that you can’t get elsewhere simply doesn’t exist when you’re home. It’s easy to justify missing a concert or not going to a new restaurant because that opportunity will always be there. While abroad, one is always seeking to make the most of every experience. In returning to the States, I tried to make sure I maintained this approach. The joy I felt in South Africa by living life to its fullest, cherishing moments and experiences over relaxation and work has transformed the way I live my life at school. I am by far the happiest I have ever been thanks to this lifestyle change.

The freedom to redefine your own identity

When I went to South Africa I exposed myself to a world in which I had no previous identity, no expectations of who I am or what I am like, and the unique chance to redefine my own identity at age 20. At school, it is easy to play into other’s expectations of yourself. Being in a brand new environment plants the seeds for personal growth.  It allowed me to reflect on what is important to my identity, and what I haven’t had the chance to explore in my home environment. This freedom is liberating and empowering. I eagerly stepped out of my comfort zone on multiple occasions because there is no pressure to conform to traditional social norms or expectations.

Transforming expectations (both your own, and those of others)

Even the most open-minded person has expectations of communities and worlds that differ from their own. It’s hard to challenge internal biases and accepted stereotypes without immersing yourself in that world. Proximity streamlines the path towards empathy. It’s impossible to pass judgment on a community without understanding the ways in which they feel forgotten and ostracized by the political parties in rule. I often found myself surprised by the ways in which I could relate to people all over South Africa.

South African Federation of Trade Unions March for Minimum Wage (April 25th, 2018). Photo courtesy of Adam Yates

South African Federation of Trade Unions March for Minimum Wage (April 25th, 2018). Photo courtesy of Adam Yates

The transformation of personal expectations is just as powerful as the transformation of the expectations of others. Having the opportunity to add nuance to one’s perception of Americans, to explain the political climate in a way that doesn’t seek to simply boost TV ratings, or to explain religious traditions in being the first Jew someone meets is an incredibly powerful experience. Human connection is the path towards understanding and one must seize the opportunity to do so. There is something subtly powerful about exchanging life stories with someone who comes from a background and a world so different from your own. It is easier to appreciate the advantages you have had in your own life, the most obvious being the opportunity to live in a foreign country, and it makes anger and sadness regarding global inequalities much more accessible.


Each abroad travel experience is unique. I feel very lucky that I had the opportunity to not just travel abroad but work in an environment where each day I spoke to someone new, heard stories, and learned more about the country where I lived. At the end of the day it is the unknown aspect of what a travel experience might bring that thrills me. The opportunities are endless, the chances for transformation are constant, and it is invigorating to live somewhere new and see a change of scene when you walk outside your door every morning.

Sunrise over Cape Town’s waterfront. Photo courtesy of Adam Yates.

Sunrise over Cape Town’s waterfront. Photo courtesy of Adam Yates.


Adam Yates is a senior journalism major at Northwestern University with a minor in psychology. He grew up outside Boston, Massachusetts where he developed his passions for storytelling, social justice, sports and art. As part of Northwestern’s Journalism Residency program, Adam worked at Daily Maverick for ten weeks last spring. He then spent an additional six weeks travelling the country alone to create a documentary about the dangers of poor education infrastructure in South Africa’s rural schools. He plans to move to New York after graduation and is excited to pursue a career in documentary filmmaking.

You can see Adam’s Daily Maverick reporting here, watch his documentary, 29(1)(a), here, and check out the rest of his work at his online portfolio.

PLEASE NOTE: The writers of this article are not medical professionals. The information in this column is not intended and should not be construed as providing medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information and provide a perspective to better understand the lives of themselves and their children. Articles on this website may be opinion based. The articles are not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional. If you do have health or safety concerns, please get in touch with a healthcare professional.