By Mariam H. Jalloul
The start of the school year at Harvard is always a special time. The crisp fall weather graces Cambridge, the environment is relaxed and stress-free, and best of all, whenever conversational skills fail you, you get to ask the other person what he or she did this past summer. Unfortunately, in the countless conversations I have had since the start of the semester, the different answers to this question have left me discontented.
Upon beginning my freshman year last fall, an upperclassman shared some advice: “Don’t get caught up in the Harvard bubble.” This statement, paired with my main goal to travel as much as possible during my college career, led me to travel to Hong Kong over spring break with the Harvard College in Asia Program and then to study in Venice this past summer with Harvard Summer School. As I returned for my sophomore year, I anticipated that most of my classmates had been traveling as well.
I quickly discovered that this was not the case. In the ambitious atmosphere of Harvard, many students feel compelled to get a head start in their career trajectory: If I am pre-med, I should probably stay on campus and do research, and if I want to enter the world of finance, I should get an internship in New York City. In the Harvard bubble, students want to build the most competitive professional application they can, often sacrificing play for work. In turn, many students will forgo travel in order to pursue a practical preparation for their future careers.
While jobs and internships are viable for the summer between junior and senior year—when students have declared a concentration and are more confident with their future careers—I was a bit disheartened when fellow sophomores were speaking about their summers in a lab or office. Freshman and sophomore years should be used to explore and discover one’s passions rather than to prepare oneself for a career that won’t begin for another three or four years. Students have the rest of their lives to work at an internship or job; this is the time to take advantage of our youth and see the world. This is the time to stray away from the bubble’s norm. This is the time to travel abroad.
More students—particularly freshmen and sophomores—should consider traveling instead of summer internships. The growth that results from experiencing life in a new culture is unsurpassable; the marvels of interacting with people who lead such different lives; the culture shock of getting lost on a bustling street with a language barrier; becoming familiar with foreign customs and values. Traveling allows students to leave their comfort zone and challenge their existing mindsets. From the Symphony of Lights of Hong Kong, to the calm, colorful calles of Venice, traveling expanded my worldly perspective, and I realized that although I come from the small town of Dearborn, I am not just a Michigander or an American citizen; I am from this Earth, and it is my duty while living on it to see as much of it as possible.
Nonetheless, many students may not share this wanderlust. Yet even for the practical types who feel confident in the trajectory of their future careers, it can be useful to experience how other countries’ career systems work. By learning about a country’s public issues and social approaches, we are able to apply fresh, diverse ideas to various fields of study. Experiencing life in a foreign country broadens our skillsets and thought processes; traveling has as much personal value as it does practical value.
There is no better time to travel than during the college years—when you are your sole responsibility, when you are exploring your interests and figuring out what you want to do with the rest of your life. When you are free to choose how you wish to spend your summers. Moreover, and I cannot stress this enough, it is wise to take advantage of the opportunities, programs, and resources that are at your disposal during your time here at Harvard. Almost all travel opportunities can be funded; sources range from the Office of Career Services to the many centers—such as the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies—which provide funding for particular regions and activities. Traveling is not exclusive to the summer term either; many student-run college programs and clubs offer cost-free chances to travel over winter or spring break. Though many students say they intend to travel in their future, the best time is now, when the responsibilities are limited and the travel is free.
A large aspect of my undergraduate career will be highlighted by my past and future travel experiences, and I would not have it any other way. I have been bitten by the globetrotting bug, and I am already searching for my next destination. The number of stamps on my passport has become a benchmark of my growth in my undergraduate career. Students should not feel hesitant to pursue endeavors that will contribute to their personal growth as much as their professional growth. Traveling abroad does just that. This is the time for escapades and exploration. As Ellie told Carl in Pixar’s “Up,” “Adventure is out there!” There is a whole world waiting for you to explore it—you just have to pop the bubble.
Mariam H. Jalloul ’16 is a Crimson editorial writer in Mather House.
This was previously published for the Harvard Crimson.