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Study Abroad: Training for the Modern Vagabond

Without question, a huge portion of the traveling community is young. Although curiosity and wanderlust is absolutely ageless, the intensity of youth pushes these feelings to the forefront. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has lain awake at night thinking that if I was going to travel, I had to go soon. Otherwise, [...]

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Without question, a huge portion of the traveling community is young. Although curiosity and wanderlust is absolutely ageless, the intensity of youth pushes these feelings to the forefront. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has lain awake at night thinking that if I was going to travel, I had to go soon. Otherwise, the dreaded “Responsibility”, with its giant, emboldened, capital R, would entangle my life and keep me from living my dreams. Have you ever felt the same way?

It certainly doesn’t help that most of our native cultures have written off travel as a form of wasteful hedonism. Americans view travel as something only for the very young or the retired: something to bookend a long, hard-earned career, but nothing to be taken seriously. For people lucky enough to live in countries with the tradition of the gap-year, a stretch abroad is one giant party to burn the youthful urges out of your system before settling into studies or a job. In other cultures, travel is a status symbol – a rushed affair in which the goal is to take as many photos in front of famous places as possible. In all cases, travel is seen as a structured, pre-packaged affair, something to be purchased rather than experienced.

If you’re reading a website with the word “vagabond” in the title, though, I expect you share my sentiments that travel can be a much deeper experience. Some nights will almost definitely involve bar-hopping and chasing strangers with sexy accents. Some days will probably be spent taking the same damned photo of the same damned monument at the same damned landmark that millions of tourists flock to each year. But this is not where travel stops. For us, the real goal is to be exposed to new things and new ideas, so that we can learn more about our world and about ourselves.

Back to my point: why do I claim that study abroad is “training for the modern vagabond?” There are definitely some major differences between the two, such as:

  • Studying is much more structured because of the university aspect. Vagabonding is open-ended.
  • University life exposes you mostly to other students, while vagabonding puts you in touch with a broader population.
  • Studying abroad through a university gives you access to people whose job is to help you with any big problems. Although there are always support networks travelers can tap into, vagabonding, as a rule, requires much more self-reliance.

Aside from these differences, study abroad and vagabonding have a lot in common. Both involve living in foreign lands for an extended period of time, and both come with similar challenges. You will learn a wide range of new skills, from things as complicated as fitting in with different cultures, to things as simple as grocery shopping when you can’t read a single word on the labels. If we get down to the nitty-gritty and compare study abroad with vagabonding, they are essentially two types of the same fruit.

Looking at it this way you can approach study abroad as an “incubator” for the aspiring vagabond. It introduces you to all of the skills necessary for travel, from the exotic to the mundane, but with the advantage of having the university as a lifeline. Have you ever had to find housing in a country where you don’t speak the language? Have you ever filled out mountains of paperwork to get a student visa, written in a terrible combination of poor translation and legalese? Each of these challenges, and many others, are necessary frustrations for any traveler. The good thing for you as an exchange student is that your home and host universities have dealt with these problems hundreds of times before, and they are there to help you.

My first semester spent abroad was in Turkey in 2007. Turkish law, similar to the laws in many other countries, says that foreigners staying for more than three months must apply for a residence permit or face deportation. At the time, this application process was something akin to bureaucracy-induced torture. Applicants had to stand in line in a crowded, poorly ventilated hallway, packed shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of other immigrants, fighting the entire time to keep their position. More than one ancient, bent-over, flower-hatted grandma threw an elbow into my spleen to try and gain a step. The entire process could take up to five or six hours. On top of that, all of the paperwork was in Turkish, none of the officials spoke English (although they knew some other languages), and if any of your documents were missing or filled out incorrectly, you were sent to the back of the line to try again.

Because of this day I will never forget Hakan and Ilhan, two of the Turkish students sent by my host university to translate and act as liaisons between the foreign students and the bureaucrats. They stood with us, voluntarily, for the five or six hours it took to get our residence permits. Their willingness to suffer through the hours in that line to help us foreign students, complete strangers until that day, was not just my first glimpse at the depth of Turkish hospitality. It also served another purpose. If the university hadn’t sent them to assist, I would probably still be standing in that line.

Learning how to deal with bureaucracy is one of the more mundane parts of travel, but it makes my point. Since my time in Turkey I have had to apply for long-stay permits in four more countries, and tomorrow morning I am going to the Polish consulate to apply for another. Only this time, it will be easier. My first semester abroad taught me the process: how to find what documents are needed, to research any possible problems, and that unless I’m in my home country, I should probably bring a language dictionary.

Bottom Line

Ultimately, you don’t necessarily need to make the hard choice between travelling and studying. There are many options that allow you to experience other worlds while still keeping up with your study and career goals. And, of course, the experience you will accumulate while travelling and studying in other countries can be life-changing.

If you are not set on a certain destination, options such as online FNP programs or degree courses can help you get the qualifications you want while you are on the road.


The example about Turkish bureaucracy provides only one example out of countless other travel lessons I have learned while on exchange. Study abroad can truly act as training for the modern vagabond, when approached with an observant mind. Thanks to my experiences, I now have the confidence and the skills needed to live, work, study and travel anywhere I want in the world. If you want to have a life full of travel, but don’t know where to start, wander down to your university’s study abroad office: they may have some ideas for you.


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Filed under: Study Abroad, Travel Tips

About the Author:

Travis is a compulsive traveler who believes that travel and “real life” can be one and the same. He has combined working and studying with his long-term travels. He is currently on the road. has written 18 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Travis is currently in: Undisclosed Testing FacilityMap

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  • Chaya Shepard January 23, 2013, 5:39 am

    Nice article. I learned a lot studying abroad too (I studied in Turkey and South Africa as well!). I agree studying abroad helps you prepare for vagabonding even more than a gap year or just backpacking. You are more likely to have meaningful interactions with people outside the tourist trade. You instantly have peers in local university students many of whom are willing to help you with translating, researching or just showing you around the city. In addition, being a university student gives you an in to let you find out more about the culture. Want to check out the local elementary schools? Visit a local farm? Find out what young Turkish women think about sexuality? All you have to do is explain you are a study abroad student, and doors open for you. These are the same kinds of questions all long term travelers continue to research as Wade wrote about here: http://www.vagabondjourney.com/the-travelers-plot-line-how-to-make-your-travels-interesting/
    Being a study abroad student just makes it a little easier, with professors and willing translators and an easy answer to the who are you? why do you want to know? questions.

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    • Vagabond Journey January 23, 2013, 6:01 am

      Definitely. I actually miss the years that I was a study abroad student and had easy access to the cultures I was living in and an identity that makes it normal to ask a lot of questions. Now I have to work a lot harder 🙂

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  • DavidJacobs1 January 24, 2013, 2:36 am

    You’re off to Poland!?  When do we get to hear the plan/story!?

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    • Tristanbul January 24, 2013, 9:19 am

      @DavidJacobs1 I’m not sure if my trip up to Poland will merit a story or not yet — we’ll see. I’ve been fairly overloaded with graduate school work, so I don’t have any pet projects set up to guarantee I get into anything interesting. I figure the  last thing the internet needs is another “yeah, so I went there, and ate at a restaurant, and then went to sleep” story, so we’ll see if I can drum up something a bit deeper. We’ll see, I guess!

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  • yourlifeforless January 24, 2013, 9:43 am

    Congrats on your first published article, Tristan! I enjoyed your recollections of Turkish bureaucracy, and recall a similar experience myself when I was there for a semester in 2006. 
    All the best in Poland as you finish your masters!
    -Ryan D’Souza

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