As the first in my family to attend an Ivy League school, I used to praise my university any chance I could. I shrugged off any casual comment about how Ivy League schools weren’t “worth it”, and paid little attention to any critique about Ivy League elitism. I had worked all my adolescent life for the degree I earned, and I was proud of it. I had little interest in over-analyzing what that degree actually meant.
But two years after graduating, when I took a year off to travel, I began thinking differently. Travel gave me an entirely different education than my university, and one I ultimately felt was equally valuable. While I still cherish my college years, and still feel immensely proud to call myself a first-generation Ivy League graduate, I now understand the many things travel taught me that my “elite” education never could. Here are a few:
1. How to interact with a diverse group of people.
Ivy League schools almost naturally create bubbles. Like many Ivy League graduates, my first job actively recruited at other top-tier schools, and thus placed me in a network of people with similar educational backgrounds as mine.
When I was 24, I had a disappointing moment at a party when I looked around the room and realized there was not one person in the apartment who didn’t attend a top-ranked school. The majority of people at the party also worked in three main areas: law, tech, and “consulting”. This was not my intention. I didn’t want my social and professional circles to be as homogenous as they had become.
My first night at a hostel bar while traveling was refreshingly the opposite. For the first time in years, I hung out with people of all educational and professional backgrounds: teachers, bartenders, construction workers, writers, tech programmers, firefighters, journalists and flight attendants all drank and chatted together in the same room. It felt far more natural to surround myself with people who saw the world through these different experiences, instead of only an Ivy League lens.
2. How to appreciate other kinds of “work”.
At my university, students commonly spent summers working internships. The upside of this? It exposed me early-on to professional life and gave me significant professional experience. The downside of this? It made me assume this very specific work environment was my only choice.
Meeting people of different professions while traveling not only provided much needed diversity in my life, it presented options I had never considered for myself. I had never thought about working a night shift, and pursuing creative art by day. I never thought about spending six months working in a ski-town and spending off-season backpacking South America. I never thought about living off-the-grid to lower my bills. I never even thought about freelancing or working remotely, the two paths I ended up pursuing when I returned from traveling.
With an Ivy League education, I assumed my life and work had to be much like my internships: live in a big city apartment and pay big city rent, work nine-to-five, have two weeks vacation, enjoy healthcare and a 401K. The idea of working and living in a non-typical setting wasn’t encouraged nearly as much. It wasn’t until meeting people who had done this themselves that I realized that I had way more options than I previously believed.
3. How to learn practical skills.
I graduated college having several theoretical and analytical skills, but lacking practical ones. Before I took a year to travel, I had never planted anything I later ate and I had never built anything I later slept in. I never spent any day living entirely off what I made with my hands.
After graduation, there was also something frustrating about realizing I had worked hard to educate myself on ideas I could rarely communicate to the majority of people, or even to my family members. And meanwhile, I didn’t know some of the most basic knowledge daily life required: how to cure a sprained ankle, how to fix an overheated car, how to cook, how to make a fire.
While traveling, it felt productive to start learning these concrete skills. After spending years working only on my resume, I now learned how to work on things that every day could matter.
4. How to take time to explore.
As an Ivy League graduate, I knew many people who had turned passionate and pleasurable opportunities down in exchange for something that more directly impacted their career. So even though I loved traveling and loved writing, I never devoted a significant time to doing it. I kept it as a side-project that felt only acceptable after achieving something else.
My summers at Brown were spent doing internships in a field I thought I would pursue as a career. It never occurred to me to spend a summer doing something just because it was a passion or a pleasure, when it would have no concrete, practical impact on my professional success. But traveling made me realize the immense joy of doing something just because you feel like it. I went on a meditation retreat in Nepal because I was curious about Buddhism. I taught myself to ski because I wanted to to learn to ski. I hiked because I loved to hike. I wrote because I loved to write. By taking time to explore and do things with little practical impact at all, I figured out the specifics of what I truly wanted. And that ultimately made me more far more focused professionally.
5. How to deal with uncertainty.
While traveling, friends back home always wanted to know two things: “Where are you going next?” and “When are you coming back?” They needed gameplans and numbers. They needed a finite amount of time and they needed a limit. They only framed my experiences against the backdrop of what it would lead to or what it could provide later.
But after traveling, I got better at appreciating an experience for what it was on its own, regardless of what could happen next. I focused a lot more on my long-term vision, and a lot less on the short-term details. I started looking at phases of uncertainty as phases with potential for new opportunities and surprises, instead of times that only cause anxiety. I realized that often, the unstructured, uncertain, scattered moments of my life were not signs of failure. Instead, they were exactly the incubation periods I needed to eventually reach the goals I wanted.
During that time, and ever since, I’ve clung to this quote by John O’Donohue: “Real power has nothing to do with force, control, status, or money. Real power is the persistent courage to be at ease with the unsolved and the unfinished. To be able to recognize, in the scattered graffiti of your desires, the signature of the eternal.”
After traveling, I realized that’s the kind of power I wanted, a kind of power I never could have learned in school.
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