I realize that I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work in the travel and hospitality industry for most of my career. But even as I shifted my focus to higher education marketing, I took what I learned from tourism and applied it to selling education. It’s about the destination and the experiences you have there that ultimately teach you the most about the world, people and especially yourself. What students learn in the confines of a classroom is without a doubt foundational to their future. But the experiences that you get by traveling the world are invaluable and arguably more impactful to make you a more well rounded person with soft and hard skills. And while my own formal education is a fond distant memory, I am constantly amazed at how much I continue to learn every time I travel.
I am grateful for my humble midwest upbringing, but if I didn’t have the opportunity, and more importantly the drive to leave it for a different kind of life, I might still be living in the small blue collar town where I grew up. No offense to blue collars or small town life, but I had a fire in my belly to see and do things that my hometown just couldn't offer.
On our annual family summer trips, as my brothers and sisters sawed logs in the back of our forest green Plymouth Country Suburban station wagon, I was wide awake, riveted by the sites and sounds that were whizzing by my usually open window at 70mph. And glued in my hands, was my trusty Rand McNally atlas so I always knew where we were and what big city or geological wonder was coming up next. Back then I didn’t know that the term wanderlust existed, much less what it meant. But something in me just couldn’t get enough of the experience of travel.
By the time I was a freshman in college, I had only scratched the surface of the places and things I wanted to see. Top of my list? New York City. As I walked out of class one day, I saw an announcement on the bulletin board that small group of students led by Dr. Hal Gunderson, the head of the theater department, was planning an annual trip to the Big Apple for Spring Break. I thought for sure my parents would never go for it, much less pay for it. I was the tenth of eleven children, and with all due respect, my father worked at one of those blue collar jobs I so desperately wanted to avoid. He himself had traveled the world at 18, thanks to the US Navy and a little scuffle called World War II. It wasn’t cheap, but they managed to scrape together the money for me to explore New York City. I had always been a good student and they always knew my aspirations would take me far from Indiana. I was a budding designer (a graphic artist back then) and NYC was a must-see and must-do kind of place for anyone who wanted a successful creative career.
As a teenager, I had visited Chicago and other big cities, but Manhattan was THE Big City and an experience on a whole other level. As I stepped out of the first cab ride I had ever been on and onto to the wet pavement of 43rd Street, I could just feel that life would never be the same. The lights. The sounds. The smell of exhaust belching from city buses. It was all so intoxicating.
Over the course of the next seven days, so much of what we packed in became a bit of a blur. But there were standouts. We saw A Chorus Line on Broadway, climbed Lady Liberty, shopped for groceries at Zabar’s, spent the entire day at the MET and another at The Guggenheim and I saw my first pick pocket happen right before my eyes. But the memory that will be forever seared into my mind’s eye is standing atop the observation deck of the south tower at One World Trade Center. It was a brisk March day and I could see for what seemed like hundreds of miles. Seeing each of New York’s boroughs from that vantage point was like being in a different world. And I was standing on top of it.
That week in New York became one of the defining moments of my college career. It changed me. And although I was just one of more than 7.2 million people in the city that day, It made me feel important and relevant to be there. The things I saw, the food I ate and the memories I made are all a part of who I am today.
I have logged many tens of thousands of miles of travel since that first time in New York. And looking back over the my travels, I am absolutely convinced that we are all a collection of our experiences. And the more amazing and the more diverse the experiences we have, the more we learn and grow.
If you never venture out of the cocoon of your comfort zone, and travel to places you might never have heard of or never imagined seeing, you will never learn to be the “you" you can be.