Travel, conversations and learning – How being part of conversations can shape your educational/ professional future

We often think of travel as movement. Physical movement to see people, places or attend events. But have you ever considered travel as a conversation?

A conversation to enter a new space, a new way of thinking and new way of experiencing life? This is what I realized during my recent trips with my students.

We often don’t appreciate the value of a good conversation. Conversations – the exchange of ideas, questions, debates and at times disagreements are vital to learning and growth. Without this, we may be poorer in our lives.

A week ago, I visited Washington DC metro area, with a handful of my students, who were all excited to meet many of the folks I had lined up: Folks working in Congress, several NGOs, thinktanks and also community development organizations.

What was the purpose of this trip? Of course, we had our learning outcomes lined up. Students would write a research paper, based on a topic they had picked – to make it relevant to their interests and also enjoy some of the sights.  But beyond that, there were going to be the intangible outcomes. Those are always hard to capture and measure. And I hope to dwell on that, here.

As day 1 rolled up, I realized that this trip – like many others – was going to be a full immersion, of sorts. Despite the short time we would spend at each visit – we had about 17 visits in 4 days, the depth of conversations and back and forth surprised me.

Here’s a snapshot of some of the conversations and learning opportunities that came up. There were many others that I haven’t captured here, but these give you a glimpse into what happens when we enter locations/ conversational spaces that we are not too familiar with. We may feel a bit uncomfortable at first, and ill equipped. But with a bit of reading, lots of observation, critical thinking and an open mind, these conversations can open us to different ways of thinking and living.

Visit to the Capitol raised several questions – both from our hosts and from our students. Who gets to be celebrated, as heroes and architects of our nation? What was the role of slavery and the Native Americans in building the institutions that exist today and how did their labor contribute to the fabric of our nation? While not comfortable, we had an early start to some of the difficult conversations that have animated throughout our history, as a democratic nation.

A visit to the TIMEP, brought to focus the role of research, advocacy and courage, in bringing forth issues that are important. As a researcher who has worked on difficult issues such as philanthropy, migration and the like, I was glad to hear that TIMEP is doing the important work of asking difficult questions in a part of the world (Middle East and North Africa) where data is hard to come by, given government censorship and regulations.

Meeting with Denisse Delgado Vasquez showcased how research is conducted in an area of work where again, data is hard to come by. Denisse pointed out that need for persistence, need for greater focus and patience, as research gets used to make policies.

Conversations at the Rumi Forum involved the need for interfaith and interreligious dialogue, an issue that is becoming increasingly important. With increasing demographic diversity, the US and many parts of Europe are seeing xenophobia, Islamophobia and other forms of hatreds growing. We discussed ways that such fears can be managed and how individuals and small groups of people can work to address them.

The US Navy Inspector General’s office visit was an education in learning how corruption is viewed and handled by the agency, in addition to learning how one might get involved in serving the country.

Adults learn differently from children, as this article reminds us. Some of the ways that adults learn are by setting their own goals for learning, seeking relevance to the learning process and by self-directing their learning.

Travel seminars by nature allow for all these elements to come together. While we have broad learning outcomes and activities to inform them – through readings, guest lectures and group discussions, I believe that much of the learning in these contexts occurs as self-directed activity.

Academic learning (and writing, specifically) can be seen as being part of a conversation. As many writing coaches will tell you, the main point of academic writing is to push the conversation forward, to add to it or modify it in some way – either through theoretical innovation, methodological innovation or the like. Learning to observe the various conversations going on – whether about national security, housing policy, representation in public spaces, Middle East foreign policy or any number of issues is the first step to learning.

Adding to it, in some way, either through research or activism or related is the next step.

Keeping these factors in mind is helpful, for those who design or seek to design travel seminars/ experiential learning activities.  The classroom is not just a confined space, with four walls. If we creatively interpret learning and what it can help us achieve, the whole world can be a classroom and all experiences can inform the learning process.

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