By Matt Villano, on December 16, 2014

Travel bloggers take Washington

All of us here at the Expedia Viewfinder blog were delighted to hear that some of our own had been invited to the first-ever White House Travel Blogger Summit last week.

The event comprised 100 of the “most influential travel bloggers and digital media outlets,” including our Kara Williams, Beth Whitman, and Carol Cain. (Dave and Deb Bouskill, of The Planet D, also were invited but were not able to attend.) The goal of the summit: To highlight U.S. Government initiatives and discuss strategies for encouraging American students to study, volunteer, and work abroad.

Over the course of a long day inside the White House, bloggers listened to remarks, dynamic presentations, and panels of experts and high ranking government officials focus on current efforts around studying, volunteering, and working abroad.

Bloggers also had an opportunity to interact with some of the speakers and engage in dialogue about the importance of travel and study abroad.

They even got to take pictures inside the White House—something very few visitors ever are allowed to do.

The big news announced during the event was that the State Department is creating a U.S. Study Abroad office under its Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. In our world, however, the takeaways were more personal. Here, in no particular order, our participating bloggers share their impressions of the experience.

Kara Williams

When I studied in Mainz, Germany, as a college junior in 1989, I didn’t think about how it might make me more desirable in the job market after graduation. Frankly, I didn’t consider how it might help me “become a global citizen” or “enhance my world view”—two ideas that were mentioned repeatedly by esteemed government speakers at the White House Travel Blogger Summit last week.

As a 19-year-old packing her oversized backpack with a film camera, fanny pack, print guidebooks, and a calling card (no cell phone!), I just knew my study-abroad experience was going to be a heck of a lot of fun. I would be traveling with two Dartmouth classmates to several European countries before living with a German family for a term and spending as many weekends as possible taking trains for hostel overnights in various parts of the country.

Kara Williams, studying abroad at age 19

Indeed, a flood of memories of those four months abroad came back to me during the summit. I recalled hiking in the Black Forest with my host dad; crossing Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin (just six months before the wall fell); and getting terribly lost in the south of France with my equally navigationally challenged girlfriend.

But the more I sat in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and reflected on my study-abroad experience, I realized how much it affected the rest of my life in such a positive way. I gained an incredible amount of confidence, reading maps, figuring out train timetables, and negotiating new cities in a foreign language. I learned firsthand what daily life was like in Germany, and by the end of my stay, my German was good enough to talk to my host family about current events and popular culture in their country. I also gained an appreciation of local culture; I baked them American chocolate chip cookies and they introduced me to Apfelstrudel.

These are just some of the reasons why the White House is encouraging more students to study abroad. To paraphrase U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, travel helps us appreciate one another’s customs, backgrounds, and traditions, ultimately developing greater cultural sensitivities, and making us more willing and able to find common ground.

Between the White House Travel Blogger Summit, and my recent summer spent working aboard a Semester at Sea ship, I’m more determined than ever to help spread the word of the importance for young people of studying, volunteering, working, and living abroad. And of course, enhancing your view of the world doesn’t end when you earn your college degree. My kids don’t know it yet, but when they spend their college years abroad, I’m going to be their most frequent visitor, whether they’re in South America, Scotland, or Seoul.

Beth Whitman

Two big thumbs up for the current administration for bringing the topics of travel and study abroad to the forefront. With more than 25 years of globetrotting under my belt, I fully understand the importance of travel (even outside of an institution) as an educational opportunity. It breaks down barriers, provides us with new perspectives, and hopefully gives us insight into our own culture and the communities that make us better citizens and people.

White House Xmas tree

Most of the speakers had personal experience with studying abroad so they knew its power first-hand. But the very fact they had the ability to join a study abroad program in the first place means they had more access to money, information, and support than less fortunate students.

I was one of those less fortunate students once. While I grew up in a middle-class community, my family struggled financially. My parents did not have the wherewithal to provide guidance to me in terms of higher education. I was on my own in deciding where to go to college (close to home), filling out applications (few), and applying for scholarships (none). I graduated from a small community college that cost US$5,000 a year because that’s all we could afford.

At that time, travel—let alone studying abroad—was not in my future. It was only with a scrappy attitude and a strong desire to leave New Jersey that I began my backpacking days and subsequent career and lifestyle. I admit I’m likely unusual. Not everyone has the confidence or ability to pull themselves up by their bootstraps like I did. But I’m certain that many would if their worlds were cracked open by travel.

The summit was a great first step toward getting people to change their thinking. But I’d like to see this idea go many steps further in order to reach young people who may not know such opportunities are even available.

Let’s face it, if you’re reading this blog, I likely don’t need to convince you or your children of the importance of studying abroad. The students whom I’d like the White House to reach are probably not reading travel blogs or following hashtags at all. But I hold out hope that with this initial summit as a starting point, it’s possible that study abroad programs soon may attract students of much more diverse backgrounds.

Carol Cain

Attending the White House Travel Summit was an honor for me, and it had a very personal significance as well. I studied abroad as a young adult—not because my family could afford to sign me up for a pricy international studies program or because my inner-city school even offered such a thing, but because we had family and friends overseas and my immigrant family valued the cultural experience enough to know it would be important.

Not like many minorities study abroad anyway. The number of American minority students studying abroad is less than 24 percent of the total; that number actually represents all ethnicities combined. The number of white students studying abroad is more than 76 percent. (My source on this: the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers.)

There is no question that there is a lack of diversity in these programs. Without improvements to communicate and to reach out to these groups, minorities will continue to fall behind in the increasing competitiveness of the global market.

I was surprised and excited to hear program leaders and White House administrators acknowledge this problem as a serious concern. I appreciated listening to their interest in finding ways to change everything from perception to reach to cost, in order to attract more diverse groups. I was impressed to hear that they are interested in expanding programs to incorporate more diverse interests in study focus and destinations.

My favorite speaker of the day was Tina Tchen, Chief of Staff for Michelle Obama, who admitted that it would be a challenge to attract the interest of certain students to travel when going to college in the first place isn’t even something many see as being attainable. She said, “Making sure the children we send overseas to study abroad are diverse is also key to our national success.”

I am hoping to hear more of what they are doing to make this happen. In the meantime, I am just thrilled to know it is in the forefront of discussions.