The Case for Purposeful International Travel

The interesting thing about tragedy is we have to be able to relate to it.

-George Clooney in Half the Sky


If you’re reading this post it is safe to assume on a daily basis you are bombarded with raging politically charged Facebook statuses, retweeted prayers for the latest disaster victims, links to petitions and fundraiser websites for the new saddest story you’ve ever heard, and news articles saying that Mother Nature is going to blow us all to smithereens within your immediate family’s lifetime.

The media, particularly social media, exposes us to the world’s greatest problems and connects us with the networks to make a contribution to human progress. However, without a real connection, it’s easy to let these causes dissipate into the clutter that is your newsfeed. That is why I’m taking this time to make a case for purposeful international travel.


I’ve noticed international travel has been developing a bad reputation lately. Some of the most compelling arguments against volunteer work abroad include:

  • Your money would be better spent if it went directly to the project rather than wasted on your own airfare, hotels, etc.
  • Chances are the local people know more about building houses, irrigation systems, and other necessities than you do. You’ll just be slowing everyone down.
  • There is plenty of poverty in your own backyard. You don’t need to go abroad to help other people.
  • Traveling increases your carbon footprint exponentially.
  • Americans volunteering in the Third World perpetuates the idea that we are “saviors.” We shouldn’t pressure other cultures to adopt our values and way of life.

While these criticisms are justifiable at times and raise legitimate concerns, the good outweighs the bad. The momentum international travel creates is invaluable, especially in this globalizing world.

I think back to the movie Hotel Rwanda (2004) when Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) and American journalist, Jack (Joaquin Phoenix), watch footage of the genocide. Paul asks, “How can they not intervene when they witness such atrocities?” and Jack begrudgingly responds, “I think if people see this footage, they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that’s horrible,’ and then go on eating their dinners.”

When people witness a tragedy they are less likely to take action when others are perceivably present. This is the sociopsychological phenomenon of diffusion of responsibility. With the explosion of human rights campaigns on social media, this phenomenon is as relevant as ever. Think about it: are you really going to make a generous donation to a GoFundMe campaign that thousands of people have already posted on their Facebook pages? Chances are, you’ll sign a petition and go on with your day.

However, when you make a physical connection with the people you’ve been empathizing for from your smart phone, both of your worlds change. The physical reminder that there are people from “the outside” who not only recognize the injustice but also are actively actually doing something to eradicate it can be crucial to empowering those in need.


I was inspired to write this post after spending the past week crying in public while reading Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky. Kristoff and WuDunn believe gender equality in the developing world is the greatest moral challenge of the 21st century, and they fill the pages of their book with horrifying personal stories about sex trafficking, gender-based violence, and maternal mortality to support their argument. Despite the incredibly heartbreaking testimonies, to most these stories of honor killings, gang rapes and female infanticide still seem like a world away. This is exactly why the authors call for readers to deliberately nurture their love and passion for a specific cause by traveling to where they are needed most in this world.


My first mission trip to Brazil (November 2010)

Their book made me think back to my first international mission in Imbaú, Brazil in 2010. I wasn’t building homes or providing medical assistance, but I discovered the success of our organization’s foreign aid program was just as much about the donations as it was about meeting our beneficiaries in person. Too energized to lock that trip away in my memories as that time I “did a good thing” and “learned to appreciate what I had,” I spent the next three years learning Portuguese in hopes of going back. Today I’m preparing to spend my second summer teaching English in Fortaleza, Brazil. Essentially the people I met on my first mission had such a profound effect on me that my path naturally formed around them.

International travel changes you. Not everyone chooses to go back, but travelers return with social momentum. They’re usually compelled to make a difference in a very specific way, and this inspires more people to do the same. This kind of dedication rises above the clutter and is therefore key to the success of a social justice campaign.

If you’re an empathetic person then you DO care about climate change, disaster relief, finding cures, social equality and every other worthy cause. You can make yourself care more by purposely exposing yourself to one of these causes by going abroad and seeing the problems first-hand.

Maybe money and time aren’t on your side, or maybe you’re truly uncomfortable with the idea of going to an impoverished area abroad. I have a few ways to combat this:

  1. Donate money and or time to an organization that sends students on international missions. There are few things more infectious than a youngin who truly believes they can change the world. Help make it happen for them, and you’ll feel more connected to the project.
  2. Pick an area you’re interested in and learn the language. There are plenty of free learning tools online. Once you start learning you’ll be more inclined to making a future trip a priority, and you’ll be investing in a skill that will make your experience ten times more meaningful. Your unique language skills might even make you a perfect candidate for a sponsored trip, you never know!
  3. If you’re in college, consider studying abroad in a less glamorous location. Although I totally understand the appeal of picking a beautiful place (as I sit in a cute, little Buenos Aires café writing this post), study abroad is a great opportunity to expose yourself to formerly unimaginable poverty. Any experience abroad is worthwhile, so there’s no need to completely sacrifice your Parisian dreams. Maybe consider spending that spring break money on volunteering in Romania instead of Ibiza, or find something like a soup kitchen to volunteer at once in a while.
  4. If you have a family, make your next vacation a volunteer trip. Maybe you can’t travel outside of the USA, but cross a few state lines and have this experience with your kids. When you return home you’ll probably be coming up with ideas as a family on how to continue helping your new friends.
  5. Take the first baby step and join a cause in the USA to which you can relate (thanks for the freebie, George Clooney). Share your experience with those currently affected in order to develop solidarity and trust. Maybe someday you can take the next step and fight for your cause overseas.
  6. If you’re holding back because you’re afraid, DON’T BE! Trust in yourself and your leaders, and trade your trepidation for the unbending will to help others. You will not travel thousands of miles from home to be afraid of anything.

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