“Everyone knows two things about you, Kyle: you treat every stranger like you’ve known them forever and you feel compelled to haggle for everything.”
I chuckled, choking on my pa-nang curry.
Friends that tell you like it is are invaluable. Chris’ little jab helped me recall the root of my wanderlust: a desire to connect with others. (The haggling habit, by the way, is a real thing; a presentation on haggling for Chinese antiques is what landed me my first job.) It’s so close that I often discount my passion for learning and travel.
Every decision I have made since I was 16 has squeezed the last drop out of every opportunity to meet new people and gain from their perspectives. I took my studies very seriously, hoping that they would lead to a happy future of balanced meaning and success. Before I really knew what happened, I was walking off the stage with a PhD, a number of foreign languages under my belt and two Fulbright fellowships. But my craving to connect persisted.
Turning the degree into a runway
While teaching Chinese language and Asian Studies at a small liberal arts college in the United States, I took point on a number study abroad courses, leading faculty and students to China, England, Cambodia, Italy, Thailand, Myanmar and Tibet. I liked to teach and research, but the pull to share my passion for travelling with purpose was my true obsession. I didn’t crave writing or hearing my own voice echo in the classroom as much as I did igniting in others a desire for enlightened travel.
So, when Centre College began its search in 2017 for a new director of international programs, I was ready. Now, I spend my energies as I dreamed I might: creating, developing and managing life-changing experiences for everyone from college students to seasoned professionals.
We make the best discoveries and find the greatest meaning when our experiences are personalized.
I couldn’t have guessed years ago the detailed manifestation of my innate passion for connecting with others. But that motivated ignorance is itself telling; we won’t always know what our passions are in the process of bringing to life in the world. Sometimes, all we can do is trust and follow them.
I never imagined that pursuing education and becoming a teacher would put my feet permanently on the dusty silk roads of the world. However, when we allow our deepest longings to shape circumstances, those humdrum degrees and occupations transform into runways toward adventure.
Unlike the typical study abroad director, I’m little interested in simply pushing up ever-increasing numbers of people to go abroad. This corporate approach to scaling up high-impact experiences fails in substance the closer it approaches its goal.
Travelling, serving and working abroad actually seems particularly ill-suited for massification. We make the best discoveries and find the greatest meaning when our experiences are personalized. With Centre College’s study abroad participation rate already at 85 per cent (one of the highest in the US), I’m most concerned that students and instructors have powerful, life-changing experiences, not that they buy plane tickets en masse.
I preach a traveller’s gospel of making a positive impact and planting contributions. With the damage of service and educational tourism a constant threat, we need to be clear about our values and goals, listening to what others need and offering them what we have.
I recently witnessed this tracking down two students, Margaux and Tyree, at Baan Raksa in the wilds of northern Thailand. They expressed worry that they weren’t much help on the farm there. They weren’t sure if tending to water buffalo, repairing huts and furniture and digging holes for banana trees and rice counted for much. At the end of the day, the greatest help we can offer is the one voiced by those we live with. Margaux and Tyree were literally learning the value of planting contributions; more often than not, the seeds of our impact are first gifts given by others for us to nurture for them.
Converting holidays into missions
I strive to walk the talk as well (I’ve never put much faith in preachers without a practice—a great anecdote about Mahatma Ghandi cured me of that).
Five years ago, I turned early visits to the Golden Land of Myanmar (Burma) into a quest to help that nation heal from decades of destruction. Asking educators, businessmen, senators and ambassadors how I could help quickly extracted me from the haunts of tourists and placed me within a talented and dedicated circle of young educators.
We are currently in the process of establishing that nation’s first liberal arts and sciences university. My work with the Parami Institute embodies what I wish for everyone who travels and works abroad: the transformation of holidays into personal missions.Add this article to your reading list