According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there were 19.5 million refugees and 38.2 million people forcibly displaced in their own countries in 2014. From the same source, as of Sept. 6, 2015 there were over 4 million registered Syrian refugees. In 2013, migrants made up 3.2 percent of the world’s population, and according to a July 2015 article from the Pew Research Center there were 11.3 million undocumented immigrants in the United States in 2014.
I’ve listed all of these statistics because one, that was how I learned to begin essays in middle school and I’ve never really kicked the habit, and two, they show that travel is an important theme not only in our global past, but also our present.
It would be idiotic to equate my experiences as a student abroad in Spain with those of refugees around the world, but it is important to keep their experiences in mind when reflecting on my own. It’s also vital to remember that there are millions of travelers with fascinating and important stories that need to be told, and that the story of another white girl with wanderlust is among the least necessary or interesting.
The stories that I have heard about refugees on the news have made me more grateful for the small inconveniences of travel I’ve faced while preparing for my semester in Spain, such as waiting an extra two weeks for my passport, having to go all the way from Hartford to NYC to get a visa, and only being able to check in 50 pounds of my completely necessary crap at the airport.
I’ve also begun to wonder why people who have the privilege of not needing to travel still choose to travel. Traveling can be the most inconvenient, expensive, and environmentally damaging way to see family and friends, learn a new language or see priceless pieces of art and monuments. Of course it has its obvious benefits: by traveling you can meet new people, experience another culture, open up your world view and a bunch of other cliché things that you can find on the UConn’s study abroad website.
There are also a number of non-cliche benefits of studying abroad that I am beginning to understand. Generally speaking, travelers like myself are the kind that other countries are more than happy to receive. We have money to spend, and we have no intentions of staying here for a long time and seeking employment. As long as we don’t deface or disrespect an important spiritual, national or cultural site, there will most likely be no prevalent rhetoric against us.
I won’t speak for all students who study abroad, but we can tend to be a nuisance even when we aren’t trying to be disrespectful. Sometimes we are loud, drunk and obnoxious, and sometimes we’ll ask a waiter to repeat himself slowly four or five times because we don’t understand the language well enough.
Even though we have the money and the proper visas, I don’t think that many of us are what certain politicians would consider “ideal” migrants. I’m sure that most of the characteristics that Donald Trump has assigned to immigrants from Mexico could be applied to at least a handful of student travelers.
As Americans, I think it is valuable for us to understand what it’s like to be welcomed in a foreign country. Anyone who has applied to study abroad from UConn has probably tried to write an essay about becoming a global citizen and what being a global citizen means, as that is the topic of the essay required for students interested in the Global Citizen Scholarship.
There are millions of people who inherently become global citizens when they struggle to obtain a national citizenship that they were born without. Students who study abroad, on the other hand, are making a very privileged choice to become global citizens. It’s been interesting to see how budding voluntary global citizens such as myself are treated in comparison with those who made a less privileged choice between global citizenship and violence, poverty and persecution.