I spent college studying and interning, but I didn’t realise I’d missed a huge opportunity until it was too late

Author Olivia Young in New Zealand. Matt Picking

Standing in line to receive a college diploma at my graduation ceremony five years ago, knowing that I was in the midst of one of the most important moments of my life, I was overwhelmed to tears. As I pitched my cap into a sea of 5,000 mortarboards, I felt reassured that I had done everything right.

My diligence had landed me summa cum laude status and a competitive summer internship, and I hadn’t compromised my thriving social life for it. As time passed, though, I began to worry that there was something missing from those four years.

While I was poring over notes, attending chapter meetings, drinking bargain pitchers on weeknights, and passing time in the newsroom of the college paper, my peers took semesters off to study in Barcelona, Paris, and Prague.

I didn’t envy them at the time, because my college career was flourishing, I thought. I was being recognised by my professors and nominated for statewide awards, after all. Acutely focused on climbing the academic ladder, I witnessed other students exploring the world with new friends and somehow failed to see the value in all of it back then.

The students who I knew that had participated in study abroad programs came back to the states with a newfound thirst for different cultures, languages, and places I had never heard of, and with a fresh friend group who would be tightknit for eternity, they claimed. I thought it was only a phase.

After graduating, I moved from Ohio to Los Angeles, and in the years that followed, fellow young professionals who I met through work and mutual pals continued to rave about their time abroad even into their mid-to-late 20s and beyond. Meanwhile, I had never even been on an international flight.

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I’m a burned-out millennial who quit a high-paying 9-to-5 job to travel full time

NAFSA, the Nonprofit Association of International Educators, names enhancing global awareness, developing leadership skills, personal growth, and learning foreign languages as some of the key benefits to international education. However, the organisation recently revealed that only about 1.6% of the US’s enrolled undergraduates study abroad for credit.

As one of the 98.4% who didn’t, I regret not taking advantage of the invaluable opportunity to travel the world while my brain was just a bit spongier, when it was offered to me with a group of built-in friends, and – most of all – for a lower price.

Olivia young study abroad
Young on a hike in New Zealand. Matt Picking

I’m 27 years old now, and I left the country for the first time two years ago. The urge to explore hit me so hard that I quit my full-time job and spent the next 22 months travelling through three continents. I realised then how being immersed in different cultures is not just a fun experience, it’s an essential step in better understanding the world.

An eight-month stint in the mountains of New Zealand, for instance, opened my eyes to the tangible effects of climate change and my personal role in preventing it. Witnessing rapidly melting glaciers and wild birds that have been so domesticated that they now beg for food from humans fuelled a newfound veneration for the environment in me. A later excursion through some of the most impoverished communities in Asia taught me the true value of money and what it’s like to live without it.

I learned from fellow travellers that students in Europe learn plenty more about world geography and politics than I ever had in school. When foreign friends would meet me and start engaging in conversation about President Trump, as they inevitably would, I was perpetually embarrassed to be so ignorant about the politics in their home countries, which could have involved prime ministers, presidents, or kings – I wouldn’t have known.

I walked away from my travel experience with a much more pervasive knowledge of the world, one that will never be fully comprehensive but that could be deeper if I had started earlier. Today, I urge everyone who crosses my path to travel if they get the chance, and to do it as soon as possible, because experiencing other parts of the world is not just fun, it’s a crucial part of education that simply cannot be learned through textbooks, lectures, or cramming for exams.