Dear Young Dreamer,
The 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.
So 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.
I 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.
You’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.
Now 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.