A Little Letter … To All the Young Dreamers: Travel Young, Travel Far

Dear Young Dreamer,

beach cartwheelThe end of the school year is here and freedom whispers on the air. Your attention wanders in these final days of lectures, homework, and classroom chatter and trust me, I understand why. Though I’ve graduated through life into “adult status,” I remember the keen yearning to spend my days hunting through the yard, chasing my brothers, and feeling the sugary slide of Gatorade wash away the heat. Or in truth, if we’re talking about my high school years, the yearning to sleep until noon. And though you can no doubt appreciate this notion of summers spent simply hanging out with friends, your emails to me indicate you’re already looking farther ahead.

Your thoughts are jumbled right now with the woes of your teenage years, and though you are on the cusp of adulthood yourself, you’re not there yet. Which means you war with the twin duties assigned to you: honor your childhood now, and yet plan for your future. You dream of being a pop star, of being the next president, of being a nurse-lawyer-architect. You haven’t told me specifically what you want but I know it will likely change several times over the coming years. And sometimes I know you dream of just getting through it, for even the most idyllic childhood has its obstacles, and yours was far from idyllic.

Rough as life can be, even for a child, I so hope you hold tight to this dream to travel. At no other point in your life will society give the permission to dream like you can now. And though you don’t need that permission, though the very notion of someone else codifying your life based on their life is false, though I urge you to fight against those people in the coming years who ask you to conform, for now you are still young, still subject to the will and best interests of those who love you. There is good and rightness in that too.

thai studentsSo then Young Dreamer, you come to me with the conundrum of your dreams. At times you hear the siren call of travel, and you wonder what you, a teenager, can do about it. You take classes and learn information that holds no interest most days—facts and figures you can’t fathom that you’ll ever need. It’s true, you’re right; you don’t need most of it. But you do need the ability to process those facts, to analyze, synthesize, and think for yourself … these are the skills you need to sort out the obstacles that will stand between you and your dreams as you grow older.

When other adults email me asking me for advice on travel, I tell them just to do it: decide to find the way to make it happen. I tell them it will change their life if they act on their dream to travel. But you present me with a conundrum of my own, because I cannot orchestrate your future, and in many ways nor can you. Parental decisions shape if you take a summer holiday to Europe, or a join student exchange program, or if you work full-time to help support the family—these are not my decisions to make.

But more than anything I want you to keep your dream of travel alive. And I say hold tight to this belief that you can travel young. This is a dream some find invalid, others tout as wishful thinking, or some even level the ultimate insult: they tell you you’re naïve. They tell you you’ll grow out of it.

It is my deepest wish that you never do.

leaning tower of pisaI know you will grow, you will fall in love with people, with new ideas, and if you’re lucky with a line of work that brings you some measure of joy. The beauty of travel though, is that it’s a dream that can run alongside the others, and one that’s never fully realized, for there are ever more corners of the world to see, foods to taste, and people to meet. So though I could have prefaced this letter with the acknowledgement that dreams shift and change—for that is the absolute truth—it is my hope that together we can light a spark for travel that will carry you through the coming years and out into the world.

And now you’re wondering if I’m crazy and carried away, I tend to move easily into “ramble mode” (just ask my niece, she’s subjected to these whims of thought often enough). But the truest lesson I can share with you is that traveling young will change the course of your life. The desire to travel goes deeper than a flippant answer to the question “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Travel is not an answer to any question, but rather the path you will take to arrive at an answer that is more honest and true to who you are and what you are meant to do.

jumpingYou’re in an in-between land, caught between a child and adult; it’s a lovely and strange place. It’s a time when you are given the task by life to figure out who you are. Can I be frank in saying that on the verge of turning 30 this year, I still don’t have an answer. Actually, every time I think I do, it changes … which is, perhaps, the lesson here. I wish someone had told me then that who you are evolves and changes with every new experience, with each tragedy you will face, and with the obstacles you will overcome, and the things you discover that bring you joy.

Let’s shift back to right now Young Dreamer, because your quandary has you discouraged and has you believing travel is unattainable.

I once thought that too. I once thought long-term travel was reserved for the rich, for the clever, for the people who had something I lacked. I lived in a place of seeking permission, of looking around at my peers—my best friends and those in my classes—and assuming what they strived for was also my ceiling. That if none of them dreamed of traveling surely it was out of reach me too.

The hardest task you have ahead of you is to push through the naysayers, to look beyond the rules and permissions society places upon because of your color, class, gender, or age and to realize that if you dream it—if you hold something in your heart that you want to do, then there is validity and goodness in that choice.

You are frustrated now, to look around you and see the limitations and all the reasons you can’t travel right this instant, but one day that will change and it will be solely up to you to look at your circumstances and believe that you can make long-term travel happen. Grasp tightly to the belief that you will take a gap year abroad, or leave on a mission trip for a year, that you might study during college at some of the wonderful international universities or find a job that lets you work abroad.

travel quote emersonNow may truly not be your time to travel, for so many factors play into this part of your life—parents, money, family politics, national politics, education—the list is long. But in accepting the validity of your decision we can start to look at options, we can explore the world from the perspective that you—be you poor or rich, troubled or not—that someone in exactly your situation can travel someday. All you need to know is that it is possible, and from there we’ll find the opportunities to make it happen.

In fact, I am of the belief that as we accept a decision, we begin to see opportunities that we never before noticed.

And in that spirit Young Dreamer, with a summer of freedom ahead of you, I leave you with some practical ideas that may just take you closer to your dreams. Some won’t be right for you, you might hate a couple of them, and a couple definitely need to be discussed with your parents, but just maybe one will spark an idea that gives you one nudge closer to bringing travel into your life.

  • Find an international pen pal: When I was growing up this involved actually mailing letters via the post, but now with email and Facebook (and still old-fashioned letters too) you can develop a friendship that spans borders. This sounds antiquated in a way, but a German friend of mine exchanged letters for years with an American girl and they became such good friends that by their highschool and college years they spent the summers at each others houses. There are tons of sites that help connect penpals but Students of the World is good, safe place to start (and be a safe internet user when chatting with others, always check first with your parent).
  • Arrange a student exchange: The premise here is that you spend a few weeks up to an entire school year living abroad with a family that has agreed to house and feed you and send you to school. A French student attended our high school for a semester and it was very cool to meet her and get to know her (and she got to really practice her English!). AFS USA and Youth for Understanding are both very credible and both offer scholarships of some sort too.
  • Start a business: This one seems like the odd man out, but really if you can’t travel now you could take the initiative to start your own business—the people who come into your life as you delve into that world of becoming an entrepreneur could very well be the people who help you create the opportunities to travel later on. Plus, it can be good fun, a good use of your time, and at the very least you’ll learn tons. :)
  • Fundraise for a good cause: If you know of something happening overseas that you care about, why not find a creative way to fundraise for the cause and then donate that money to an organization helping to solve that issue? This not only brings you right into contact with the places you want to visit, but you are helping your friends learn and care too.
  • Read a lot of good books: The best stories will take you out of your situation and right into the lives of other people from all over the world. Reading will give you some of the nuances of a culture and will make you even more ready to meet and interact with the locals once you arrive in your dream destination. This page lists out tons of book suggestions for each country, or ask your English teacher for a recommendation for a country you’d like to visit, I bet she’d be thrilled to help you find a good book.
  • Take a mission trip with your church: If you’re part of a church or religious group it’s very common for these groups to place an emphasis on service, and in many cases when you join a program you spend some really fun weeks and months raising the money for your trip.
  • Join a travel writing program: Consider honing other skills that bring you into the world of travel, a good course takes you through some of the skills and ideas you’ll need on the road if you hope to share your trip with others.
  • Learn: More than anything, if the rest of these aren’t a good fit, keep finding things that make you light up inside and learn more about those, even if it’s not your assigned homework. Earlier this year I shared a big list of free courses you could use to learn the languages of the places you want to visit, or even take classes about astronomy, photography, programming, or really anything you love. Listen to international music, practice cooking recipes you hunt down online … take the initiative to creatively bring elements of travel into your life.

Young Dreamer, I so appreciate your emails. I love knowing you look at your future and see that travel has a place there, because more than college and work, my one-year round the world trip changed the course of my life. I am humbled that you reached out, that you cared enough to email a kindred soul—never lose that pluck for it’s more valuable a trait than you yet know.

Travel young, travel far. Never stop dreaming.


41 Responses to A Little Letter … To All the Young Dreamers: Travel Young, Travel Far

  1. olivia askew April 25, 2016 at 4:19 pm #

    Need more adults like you in my life. Being an 18 year old who can only think about travel with the most conventional “get a job get a mortgage settle down” family is exhausting and demoralising !!! This helped so much thank you !! Just what I needed xxx

    • Shannon O'Donnell April 25, 2016 at 5:52 pm #

      I am so glad that it resonated Olivia. It can be tough to shape the life you want. I wish you the best of luck as you work on bringing travel into your life these coming years. This pose I wrote might strike a chord too: http://alittleadrift.com/2015/11/seven-year-reflections/ — It’s about how to drown out the noise and make the hard choices that reflect your goals, not the goals of others.

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  3. Shannon O'Donnell January 21, 2014 at 11:16 am #

    Six months! So soon, and how wonderful. Congrats on getting everything enough to leave (and yay for long term travel and staying out there in the road!). I appreciate you sharing tips and offering to allow readers to contact you. Best of luck, safe travels, and let me know if there is anything I can do to help. :)

  4. Jessica Voigts August 19, 2013 at 11:57 am #

    Thanks so much for mentioning our teen travel blogging mentorship program – it is changing lives!

    I, too, was entrusted to travel at an early age by my parents – a fact which i am grateful for every single day. but no matter how old you are when you start traveling, having a sense of curiosity about the world is the best tool in your toolkit!

    LOVE these resources!

    • Shannon O'Donnell August 19, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

      You are very welcome, I know you have been working in this space with youth and travel and really have a wonderful program from the writers at heart who dream of travel. :)

  5. Abby July 17, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

    This post, no this whole blog is incredible. I can’t wait to start travelling and your blog gave me most of the inspiration. It was maybe last year when my mum came home from work (she works at a college) with a gap year brochure that I began thinking about it. I looked at so many (Fiji certainly caught my eye) but then i thought why go to just one country for a few weeks, why not go around the world. More recently I’ve been looking at different pre-organised RTW trips to start with before I do some solo travelling and they do look interesting. I’ve only been out of Western Europe a few times, I live in England and have taken holidays to Spain, France, Italy and Holland, the furthest I’ve been is Lanzarote in the Canary Islands and Lapland in Finland when I was a small child. Although I’ve been to a few countries, I don’t feel satisfied enough to continue life in the way society wants. I’ve always been dependent on my mum and it’s my younger sister who everyone thinks will just get up and travel, but I don’t want to do what everyone expects me to do. I want to see the world and experience different things. One thing definitely on my bucket list is to spend some time with monks as I’ve always been interested in their way of life, can you suggest anything? I’d also like to spend some time in Egypt and Morroco if you know anywhere thats good. Sorry I’ve dwindled on a bit, I just want to say thanks for inspiring me.

    • ShannonOD July 18, 2013 at 6:12 pm #

      Hi Abby, thanks so much for sharing your experience here, it sounds like you’re on the cusp of some big travel! I love that your mum gave you the gap year brochure — it is great that you have someone supportive and there encouraging you to take a trip overseas. The tour idea might be a good way to get you started on your trip, but I think once you’re on the road you’ll gain enough confidence to tackle some regions solo. Have you thought of perhaps using a company like G Adventures http://www.gadventures.com/ to land in a region and travel for a few weeks or months, then set of on your own after that? Thailand is a great spot to learn from the monasteries there, or Nepal if you have some months to give for teaching. Southeast Asia is the spot I love to recommend for beginners on their own because it’s really safe and there’s a decent tourist infrastructure in the region. Plus the food is delicious and the culture is wonderful! I would love to talk more if you’re keen, just shoot me an email and we can delve into some of the specifics.

      This trip sounds wonderful and I am so happy you are deciding to act now on your dream to travel and take a less conventional path. I look forward to chatting more. I have a few posts coming up in the next month about finding work abroad post-graduation, and some options you have beyond just travel too! :)

  6. Victoria June 22, 2013 at 6:01 am #

    Only just read this, Shannon. It’s beautiful.

    • ShannonOD June 22, 2013 at 6:24 pm #

      Aw shucks, thanks lady.

  7. Sarah P June 20, 2013 at 12:40 am #

    Shannon – thank you so much for this. I teared up reading it because it was such a beautiful piece of writing & spot on in every way!

    I’m on the cusp of graduation & my life is pretty planned out but my heart is tugging me in a different direction – I know in my heart someday I’ll get to fulfill this yearning to travel more fully (instead of dichotomising my “real life” and my “travel life”)

    Just… thank you for taking the time (: Gives me so much hope to know there are adults like you who are so committed to keeping alive youthful dreams (instead of telling us we’re naive / idealistic) :D Rock on, Shannon – I’ve been a longtime fan!

    • ShannonOD June 20, 2013 at 10:29 am #

      HI Sarah, I am so glad that this piece resonated with you. Graduation is a really tough time and I know a lot of adults forget what it felt like to transition like that, to be asked to put on the mantel of adult — sadly by that many adults actually mean “now give up your dreams and make money).

      Good luck and please don’t hesitate to let me know if there is something I can do to help, or merely just lend an ear :)

  8. Sky Fisher June 18, 2013 at 9:36 pm #

    I feel like you were talking directly to me with this post. I feel so lost in my life right now and the only thing that I know that I REALLY want to do with my life is travel. But according to everyone else, that’s not a viable life option. I know that people are wrong and I can make it work but I keep using my age as an excuse to hold me back. In all reality, I am terrified of traveling right now because it seems like everyone who goes out and sees all these amazing things are at least “twenty-something” and I haven’t even hit 19 yet.

    • ShannonOD June 18, 2013 at 11:24 pm #

      Hmm, a lot of the bloggers tend toward the mid-twenties, but there are definitely people your age out there traveling Sky, take heart! I met a lot of 18-22 year olds in Australia and Southeast Asia when I was there. I think the biggest thing stopping many people is money, but if you have or can save up, or finagle it hit the road and you will be amazed by the diverse ages, lifestyles, cultures, and people also traveling round the world :)

    • Kaitlyn January 20, 2014 at 4:20 pm #

      I just read this and although you may go not read my response – I think you should definitely go do it! I’m 19 and I’m leaving in less than six months to the UK to travel. I haven’t told anyone I don’t really intend on coming back just yet but it’s so exciting! Save up a lot and remember you can find work sometimes or even use couchsurfing.org and volunteer at places that offer free accommodation! If you read this and want to talk more, email me at kaitlynturner@hotmail.com. This is my first trip and I’m terrified but so excited! I definitely understand how you feel.

  9. Celia June 8, 2013 at 7:10 pm #

    Thank you for this Shannon! I’ve had this dream for a long time and after I read The 4-Hour Workweek by Mr. Ferris, I started thinking that I might be able to do it. Since then, I have googled a lot and have found all of you awesome and inspirering travel bloggers! It has really changed my mind about traveling.

    My boyfriend and I have been working towards becoming location independant. It’s now finally working out, and we’ll set out on an amazing trip later this month! Wow. And I have you and other travel bloggers to thank… So, thank you! Writing these sort of things are really changing people’s lives! :)


    • ShannonOD June 8, 2013 at 7:49 pm #

      I am so excited for you Celia — congrats on deciding to act on that dream to travel so soon. I really appreciate you sharing your story here and let me know if there is anything I can do to help you plan. Safe travels and have a wonderful trip! :)

  10. Sonika June 1, 2013 at 12:10 am #

    As someone who is in that in between age this post was absolutely wonderful and meant the world to me. It’s beautifully written and speaks volumes to me. Few people in my life understand my desire and need to travel. Few people understand that one day I WILL get out there are make the fantasy in my head a reality. They either think I am naive or just don’t know what I want yet. Your post is such a blessing and I am so glad to have read it. It makes the waiting so much better :-) Plus, I started using the website Students of the World. I have found some people I really enjoy emailing. Thanks for the magnificent post and recommendation. :)

    • ShannonOD June 4, 2013 at 3:46 pm #

      Thanks so much for reading this Sonika, and for sharing your own struggles and experiences. I know it can seem difficult to see through to when you are able to make your own decisions, but I hope you keep the dream alive — especially through the Students of the World, that looks like a really fun way to connect! If you ever need a friendly ear just send me an email and we can chat more. :)

  11. Gabriel May 31, 2013 at 6:03 pm #

    In the end, JUST DO IT! =) great post.

    • ShannonOD June 4, 2013 at 3:43 pm #

      Thanks Gabriel, that’s the core of it for sure — find a way and DO IT! Thanks for stopping in and reading :)

  12. Mariella May 31, 2013 at 11:04 am #

    I love that you mentioned Youth for Understanding. I was an exchange student to the US with them 12 years ago and I benefit from it to this day.

    • ShannonOD June 4, 2013 at 3:43 pm #

      Oh I am so glad you had a positive experience with them Mariella, I tried to do a lot of research into the good ones since I never did an exchange. Do you still keep in touch with your host family? :)

  13. Jonathan Look, Jr. May 31, 2013 at 1:00 am #

    Great advice! Best to start early. As someone who waited until I was 50 to become a full time traveler my only regret is that I didn’t start earlier!

  14. Paul May 30, 2013 at 1:52 pm #

    Great post!

    Makes me (again) reflect on how grateful I am for my parents, and how I was raised.

    Thanks for bringing this awareness back to the forefront of my mind!

    • ShannonOD May 30, 2013 at 3:05 pm #

      As with you, I am grateful my dad took the time to support my dreams — I didn’t travel internationally as a kid, but he supported the dream to do so. And I thank him for that regularly :)

  15. Rika at Cubicle Throwdown May 29, 2013 at 8:49 pm #

    I sent this to all my friends and cousins who just graduated from high school this week. Thank you so much for writing this… I wish I would have had this at 18.

    • ShannonOD May 30, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

      Aw shucks thanks for sharing, one of the things I’d love to start doing more of is talking to people of that age/stage in life — it’s so important that they know they can (and should!) go travel. :)

  16. Drew Meyers May 29, 2013 at 1:07 pm #

    “The hardest task you have ahead of you is to push through the naysayers, to look beyond the rules and permissions society places upon because of your color, class, gender, or age and to realize that if you dream it—if you hold something in your heart that you want to do, then there is validity and goodness in that choice.”

    This applies in all facets of life. The naysayers keeping putting you down, and most people inevitably give in and start to listen to them. The trick is having the persistence and determination to ignore them.

    • ShannonOD May 29, 2013 at 3:07 pm #

      It is so true of the other facets Drew, I agree. I think Mark Twain encapsulated that sentiment pretty well “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” It can be hard to learn to trust your own path and instincts and keep pushing — that’s where the good stuff in life is waiting :)

  17. camorose May 29, 2013 at 9:08 am #

    I’m SO grateful that my parents trusted me to travel at a young age: a summer spent with family friends in France when I was 16, a summer studying in Paris when I was 18 really set the tone for my love of France, and eventually, travel. My mom spent her junior year of high school as a Rotary Club exchange student in the north of France and her junior year of college in Montpellier (where she hitchhiked to Spain and wandered through Paris)–and I’m so grateful that my first-generation American grandparents in a small town in Pennsylvania supported that in the 1970s, a time before jetsetting was as easy or cheap or common as it is today. They’ve created a legacy of young travel in our family–and while I’ve surely taken it beyond their wildest dreams, I’m so glad that they did.

    • ShannonOD May 29, 2013 at 3:05 pm #

      That awareness from your parents is so rare for many — you were definitely luck Christine to have them know the value and support you so early on. Your mom sounds like a great lady too! Whenever I meet the travelers who hitchhiked and backpacked in the 60s and 70s I feel these little pangs of jealously that there were elements to the journey — the true immersion and adventure — that we don’t quite have any longer. :)

  18. joanna_haugen May 28, 2013 at 2:52 pm #

    This is such an important post, Shannon. As much as I hope students go out and pursue their dreams, I think adults have a responsibility to help encourage students to do these things. For example, in the U.S., American high school students rarely study abroad, but that doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t. Also, I’d encourage adults in the U.S. to volunteer to become host parents for foreign exchange students. There is a shortage every year, and it’s an important experience for students to have.

    • ShannonOD May 29, 2013 at 3:03 pm #

      I had no idea that there were not enough host parents in the US — that hadn’t occurred to me. I think it’s really about spreading the word that it’s something that can be done to some extent, because I know to a lot of people it wouldn’t occur to sign up to the program. But I think if I have kids and a house, it would be a great way to still have them exposed to new ideas and cultures without actually leaving — an entirely different type of reverse travel for the people hosting I think. It is chatting these past couple years with you that kept it at the top of my mind as an option, even, so it’s great that you blog and share that experience and awareness.

  19. Michelle May 28, 2013 at 8:10 am #


    • ShannonOD May 29, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

      Thanks so much Michelle, I realized that so few people are talking about what to do before you’re the master of your own destiny as an adult :)

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