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How to: Balance Long-Term Travel and Distance Education

by Camden Luxford May 9, 2010
Camden Luxford offers tips on how to combine a penchant for travel with academics.

Traveling can be one of the most intense learning experiences on the planet. Far more exhausting than the physical strain of ceaseless slogging through unfamiliar terrain is the overwhelming stream of mental stimuli, unfamiliar language and alien cultures.

Some travelers, myself included, opt to balance the heightened experience of a nomadic lifestyle with formal further education. Many universities now offer the option to move your studies off-campus, and there are even institutions dedicated to distance education. Open Universities Australia is a good example, but there are some less reputable operations as well so research is essential.

Why do I do it to myself? It’s a combination of factors. While I certainly don’t see travel in itself as wasting time, I do like the idea of being able to indulge my hankering for long-term trips while working toward my future academic goals. This lifestyle gives me a deeper understanding technology in today’s world, forces me to manage my time, to self-motivate, and to push on without the comfort of the usual campus safety net. It’s yet another way for me to satisfy a constant yearning to be learning, growing, and challenging myself.

Whether you choose to take one semester by distance or an entire degree, this both frees you to embrace your inner travel addict and ties you down to a stressful balancing act. If you decide to take up the challenge yourself, here are a few tips and tricks to manage it.

1. Plan, Plan, Plan

This is the most difficult part for me. I loathe over-planning my trips, but if you’re balancing the commitments of a university semester with travel, planning is inescapable.

You need to know when you’ll be passing through areas with minimal or non-existent internet in order to download any relevant material ahead of time. It’s essential to know when exams or assignments may be scheduled and to avoid any break-neck travel immediately beforehand.

A dash around Guatemala and south to Panama with limited laptop-charging opportunities left me spending my first two days in Panama City sitting on the hostel patio drinking gallons of coffee and chain-smoking cigarettes while frantically typing up an essay on Marx.

I passed, but it’s not an experience I wish to repeat.

Most importantly, you’ll need to know when your exams are. I never cease to be amazed that I can sit my exams anywhere in the world, but it does require a certain amount of jumping through hoops. Exam centres need to be approved, suitable supervisors found and boy oh boy do you need to actually be where you said you’d be on that date. Always allow for unforeseen travel disasters.

Most institutions will assist you with finding an appropriate supervisor or exam centre. It may take a little work and generally requires passing through a big city, but exams are not an insurmountable obstacle.

2. Tie Courses in With Your Travel Plans

Travelling exposes you to a planet of unfamiliar sensory information: new sights, smells, foods, very often a new language, new people with new ways of interacting with their world. Add to this the demanding flow of information typical of university degrees and you can find yourself cut in two, drowned in a sea of new experiences, facts and ways of looking at the world.

If you can select your units so they complement the countries you’re travelling through, this cuts down on the sensory overload and opens up a whole new perspective on your trip. Studying American foreign policy on a trip through Central and South America, where past US actions have been, well, ‘questionable’ may be the kindest way to put it, has been an enriching experience.

A unit on Democracy and Citizenship opened my eyes to the theoretical basis behind practical experiments in self-governance – and failures of democracy – in a region struggling to define itself after a history of military dictatorships and coups.

3. Prepare and Secure your Technology

Studying while on the road essentially settles the laptop vs old school debate. Lectures, assignments, and discussion forums are all online. You’ll need to spend hours trawling through JSTOR or other online databases to compensate for the likely lack of English language libraries with their ready selection of hard-copy sources.

Unless you’re prepared to spend hours and hours in internet cafes, you’ll have to drag along your machine. Get yourself a good padlock, and don’t forget regular and possibly duplicate backups. Think seriously about what machine you’re bringing along, and how you’re going to secure it.

Other handy technological devices you may want to bring include an iPod for listening to lectures on long bus trips, a USB stick and/or portable hard drive, and an extra battery pack. Consider getting a Kindle. I have yet to take the plunge, and there’s not a huge wealth of textbook material available as yet, but a considerable amount of other useful sources are yours via instant download.

You may also want scan your textbooks before you leave. This decision is a matter of weighing up the time investment of scanning against just how much those books weigh, and how often and for how long that pack is going to be on your back.

4. Be Kind to Yourself

Travelling and university study, each taken on their own, can be stressful and exhausting experiences. Put them together and you’re asking a lot of yourself. Travel slowly, don’t be afraid to spend twice as long as you usually would in each place. Consider a private room instead of a dorm for the most intense portions of the semester, and search out a nice, peaceful hammock from time to time.

5. Study Something You’re Passionate About

Travel is a hugely absorbing and fascinating process. You can and will lose yourself in the tiny alleyways, ancient forests, sights, smells and colors of local markets, and the intense and exciting friendships with the people you meet.

Study things you enjoy. If the intellectual journey you’re on during your travels isn’t an equally compelling adventure, the actual journey of boats, buses, trains and border crossings will win every time.

I wish, for the sake of my academic career, that sounded like a worse thing.

Community Connection

On top of traveling and working on her Bachelor of Arts in International Studies, Camden is also a student at Matador U.

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