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The Power of Student Travel

BLOOMINGTON – The famously beautiful Indiana University campus, where I have been teaching a summer course for the new School of Global and International Studies, is now almost deserted. Most of its students, like their counterparts across the northern developed world, are taking these next months to flee to the four corners of the country, and the world. They may work, hold internships, participate in exchange programs, or visit family; but, as often as not, they are traveling for the sheer joy of it.

Those students going abroad this summer for no reason other than the thrill of seeing and living life in other places should not feel guilty about it. Even if it means chalking up more debt or missing summer course credits. They are bound to have formative experiences that will do more for their education, and life choices, than almost anything else they could do.

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Conscientious universities everywhere, well aware of how fast the world is changing, are now working hard to find better ways to educate their students to become responsible global citizens. They are trying to internationalize their curricula to ensure that no one graduates without some serious knowledge about other countries and cultures, and some sense of global interconnectedness and interdependence. They are trying to ensure that domestic students share their study and social time with the international students living among them. And they are trying to give as many of their students as possible the opportunity to study and travel abroad.

I suspect that what matters most of all in shaping young people’s life choices and values will be the opportunity not just to study the world, but also to spend time physically exploring it. The experiences – good, bad, and ugly – that they are bound to have along the way will quite likely be life-changing. That was certainly the case for me.

My first-ever trip outside my native Australia was to Japan in the mid-1960s, getting there – before the days of cheap air travel – with a student group in the hold of a cargo ship. I will never forget what I saw in Hiroshima, at the epicenter of the 1945 atomic bomb blast. On a granite block, part of the front of an office building, was the shadow of a human being, indelibly etched there by the crystallization of the surrounding rock as he or she was, in an instant, incinerated.

I pledged then to do whatever I could, when I could, to try to rid the world once and for all of these terrible, indiscriminately inhumane weapons. If my efforts in and out of government since then have been almost wholly ineffectual, it has not been for lack of trying.

A few years later, traveling through some 20 countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East on my way to study at Oxford, I decided to see Vietnam while the war was still raging. I quickly found that Saigon hotels cheap enough for a student backpacker were not geared for those who actually wanted to sleep in their beds. My enduring memory is awakening to a shrieking ruckus in the corridor, where an enormous GI was beating a half-naked local girl with a broom handle down the staircase.

That episode (and a few others like it that week) helps explains why, though I am not a pacifist, I have had a horror not just of nuclear war, but of all war, throughout my adult life. It nurtured an awareness of the sheer scale of the human suffering and misery that is always associated with war – an awareness that has led me to spend much of my career as a government minister and global NGO leader working to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.

A few days later, on that same trip, I had a happier experience in Cambodia (then still peaceful), hanging out with students, drinking beer, eating noodles, and careering around the country with them in hard-class trains and ramshackle buses.

It was the kind of thing I did in many other countries across Asia that year. In the decades since, I have frequently run into people whom I had met in Indonesia or India or elsewhere, or who were there at the time and had a store of common experiences to exchange. But I never met any of my contemporaries from Cambodia.

The reason, I am sadly certain, is that every last one of them died a few years later, in the Khmer Rouge genocide of the mid-1970s. They were either targeted for execution in the killing fields as bourgeois intellectual enemies of the state, or perished, as more than a million did, from starvation and disease, following forced displacement to rural labor camps.

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The memory of those vivacious and engaging young men and women, and the knowledge of what must have happened to them, has forever haunted me. Twenty years later, when I became Australia’s foreign minister, I seized the opportunity to help initiate the United Nations peace plan for Cambodia. And in later years, I worked with international colleagues to win global acceptance for the principle of the international community’s “responsibility to protect” those at risk of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes committed behind sovereign state borders.

Not all of us, of course, will have the opportunity to translate such formative experiences into policy influence (for better or worse). But what we learn about our common humanity in our youthful travels is bound, one hopes, to translate into a sense of responsible global citizenship – a commitment to do the best we can to make the world a better place. May the next generation of student travelers do a better job of translating aspiration into reality than I, and my generation, have managed to do.

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