I know college is expensive – tuition, room & board, books – it’s outrageous! It may be hard to find the extra cash to travel abroad, but it is usually cheaper to have the college plan the trip instead of a travel agency. And you likely won’t ever have this much flexibility again for a while (a while = retirement).

While a junior in college, I spent three weeks in India. That’s right: INDIA! I had never left the country and this was the first place I decided to go. My college offered students a travel scholarship and I wanted to use it to the utmost advantage. And I knew I would likely never have a chance to go to India as an adult. What do you think a travel agency would charge for that?! Yikes. And the professor I was going with had been several times before, so I felt safe. After doing some persuading of my parents, they agreed – and even helped finance the trip, with a caveat that I would not be receiving any Christmas gifts.

I never would have imagined the impact that three week trip would make in my life. Here are 5 ways traveling abroad in college changed me:

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  1. I’m more environmentally friendly. The amount of trash I saw in India was mind-blowing. Here in the US, we’ve got lots of trash, but we carefully stow it away far from our eyes – in a dump. But there is a lack of space (and sanitation services) in both urban and rural India, and it was usually visible. So now I try to do my part to leave at least a little less of an imprint on this world by carpooling when I can; I also do that because gas is expensive and I’m cheap. And I am crazy about recycling – I will seriously bring a plastic water bottle all the way home from a several day trip away, simply because it pains me to throw one of those in the trash. Overall, I guess I try to be cognizant of how I plan to leave this world for the next generation.
  2. I understand why minorities can sometimes feel fearful. I am a Caucasian female college graduate. Neither of my parents went to college, but I was brought up in a self-sufficient household with the American mentality to pull yourself up by your own boot straps. And I know it was easier for me than others because of white privilege. But I learned what it feels like to be a racial minority in India. I never went anywhere by myself and tried to stick with a group that included a male. I always wondered how much higher the price was for items for me, a white person (although, it was India – everything was very inexpensive). I felt especially bad for the blondes in our group; someone was always staring at their hair. I felt less trusting of many of the many well-intentioned people we met because I was in an unknown place and everyone there knew it. English was fairly well spoken in urban areas, but language was none-the-less a barrier most days. It was scary being out of my element.
  3. I always second guess my TP usage. Toilet paper is…not quite a luxury, but pretty darn close. We were told to pack our own – for three weeks. Do you ever think about how much TP you use on a daily basis? Now multiply that by 3 weeks. Why is TP an issue? Again, lack of sanitation services. There’s so much sewage and the paper blocks it up – so we were told to toss used pieces in the trash can. But mostly, Indians use a tiny little sprayer next to the toilet to clean up any…residue. It’s fairly warm in India, so there’s no fear of being a bit wet. And this goes back to impact on the environment – less toilet paper going into our sewer systems has to be good, right?
  4. Americans have it so good. A trip to a country in the midst of moving from developing to industrialized makes you less selfish – and needy. Most days I get caught up in the grind of American jealousy: “Why don’t I have enough money for (insert anything here)?” All these material items really nag at us more than we care to admit. Advertising is a nasty culprit, as is simple comparison. But poverty in the U.S., for the most part, looks different than poverty in India. I try to remember how blessed I am.
  5. I need to disconnect more. Separating from your everyday world allows moments for necessary introspection and reflection. College tends to be a major time of finding oneself – especially when it comes to spiritual beliefs. I was considering deep questions about my life’s purpose while on my visit – simply because I had the time and was experiencing a very different country. When you’re not around everyday deadlines or stressors, you have time to sit back and consider all that you’ve done in this world (are you making a big enough difference?) and where you see yourself in the future.

I’m so glad I took the time and used the money to travel abroad in college. There is so much to learn and experience in this life. Don’t miss out on it! Say “yes” to new opportunities that come your way. I’m not promising all will be great (it actually took us living in airports for three days to get to India because of cancelled flights), but it’s incredible how a visit to a Hindu temple, going on a camel safari in the Thar Desert, and bargaining in an open-air market will make you grateful for what you have and give you a thirst to live life more adventurously.