Posted on Oct 26, 1997

Travel is a favorite activity of American students abroad. Some experts estimate that travel occupies as much as 25 percent of a student's semester or summer of study on foreign soil. Is it time well spent?

In the course of teaching in a summer-abroad program in Innsbruck, Austria, I had cause to wonder. A fellow anthropologist and I required our students to keep detailed journals of their experiences. When I first read them at midterm, I was startled at the shallowness of the students' engagement with the people and places they visited. There was little sign they were learning much about any European culture, and their observations seemed mostly naive and simplistic.

Yet the students believed they were learning more from travel than they were from their academic courses. It was not easy to accept the notion that my efforts in the classroom meant less to them than their random, often chaotic, weekend sojourns. In the end, however, I came to understand why they felt that way — and even, in large measure, to agree.

At the end of classes each Thursday afternoon, the students set out from Innsbruck with their backpacks and Eurail passes. Herd instinct predominated: Their primary destinations were almost always places other students recommended and those featured in their guidebooks, especially Let's Go Europe. The most popular destinations were Venice, Florence and Rome; Vienna and Salzburg; Munich and Berlin; Budapest and Prague. They also went to resorts on the Italian and French Riviera and to Interlaken in the Swiss Alps.

The students rarely stayed long in one place and averaged between two and three cities per weekend, despite their professors' admonitions to slow down and get to know the places they visited. As one student put it, expressing the sentiments of many: “I want to be able to go home and say that I saw as much as I could in the time I was here.” They also wanted to get maximum value from their Eurail passes, for which they each had paid about $500.

As a result of this pattern, students spent an average of 19 hours per 72-hour weekend sitting on trains and another three hours waiting in stations. Sometimes students chose where to go next simply by determining where the next train was heading.

Traveling mostly in groups of four or five at the outset, the students spent more of their time interacting with one another than in observing their surroundings. Their conversations, even when standing before great European art, architecture or scenery, were often about people, places and events back home rather than where they were.

Like tourists everywhere, they took lots of photos — on average 16 per weekend, mostly of themselves and their companions posed in famous places. When I asked why a postcard wouldn't be as good, one student said: “A photo is proof you've been there. You took it, and it's got you and your friends in it.”

By late afternoon, students typically returned to their hotel or hostel to nap. After eating dinner — often at American-style or franchise restaurants — virtually all spent the evenings drinking and fraternizing in bars. Often they stayed out until midnight or later and went to bed drunk or exhausted. One young woman characterized her companions as “young students who come to Europe to spend their parents' money by getting drunk in as many different cities as possible.”

As the summer progressed students adopted more sensible travel patterns, map-hopping less and traveling in smaller groups. Even so, they did not learn as much about European cultures as their professors hoped. A colleague suggested that “Europe was for the students a big shopping mall in which to hang out, not a place to challenge one's cultural categories.”

That strikes me as too harsh. There was evidence that, for all the foolishness associated with it, travel did have a significant positive impact on the students.

Two kinds of changes emerged in most student journals. A large majority of the students believed that traveling extensively through Europe without the supervision of parents or other adults increased their self-confidence. Many also said they became more adaptable, better able to cope with the inevitable problems that arise when traveling.

Also interesting was not just how the students had changed but why. Traveling is rarely predictable, and clearly students learned much from having to cope with surprises and unexpected predicaments: missing a train connection, getting lost, arriving in a town only to discover there is no available accommodation. Because the students traveled in so many different countries and moved so frequently, challenges multiplied. When the travel took them across national borders, they were forced to confront a succession of new social systems, languages and customs in a single weekend. Women students faced the additional problem of dealing with unwanted sexual advances from local men.

What if they hadn't ventured out with their backpacks and Eurail cards? Once students got to know their way around Innsbruck, their lives settled into predictable routines; in fact, students considered Innsbruck to be their “home” and the university dorm their sanctuary. In contrast, travel exposed them to cultural variation and required them to adapt and function in a new environment almost daily.

One indication emerged loud and clear from student journals: University-sponsored and organized study trips are no substitute for independent travel. Moreover, students should be encouraged to travel in small numbers, as it increases their likelihood of interacting with local people and forces them to confront individually the challenge of getting information and solving daily problems. It should also be recognized, though, that students who are abroad for the first time often feel the need to travel in larger groups until they are secure enough about their ability to negotiate their way.

Whatever the size of the group, independent travel in a foreign culture is a catalyst for personal growth and should be encouraged. The words of one student speak for many: “Coming to Europe was a huge experience for me, bigger than anything I've ever done before. I'll never be the same because of it.”

George Gmelch is the chairman of the Department of Anthropology at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.