The White House Wants You To Travel

Posted on
Dec 15, 2014
26

… and I’m pretty okay with that.

I am conflicted and hopeful. I guess politics will do that to you.

I got home last week from my first trip ever to D.C. It was brief, yet felt monumental in all sorts of ways. Perhaps because I was surrounded by monuments.

 

It was my first trip to the nation’s capital, and my first truly solo trip. That seems strange and almost impossible – I’m a travel blogger, after all. I should go places alone (and, indeed, I spend most of my travel days by myself, roaming around the city). But the actual traveling aspect of the trip has never been solo. I’ve always flown with a friend, or Rand, or arrived somewhere and met family or loved ones. I’ve never landed in a strange city, truly on my own.

This time I did. And it was kind of wonderful. I prefer to fly with my beloved, prefer to curl up in a hotel bed with him at my side, but it was nice to see that I could go at it alone, and be totally okay.

As a friend put it, “This means that you are officially a grown up.”

The impetus for my trip was an invite to an event at the White House, targeted primarily to travel bloggers and a few educators (and a few traveling educators). The State Department is opening a new office with the specific goal of sending more college students to study abroad. Presently, fewer than 10% of all college students study abroad, and that number is disproportionately white.

I think it’s a noble goal, if a self-serving one: there is a strong correlation between holding a passport and voting Democrat. That’s not to say that getting a passport will ensure the Dems easy wins in the future, but there is something to be said for making your citizens more worldly, especially if it helps you get into office.

I was initially unsure of whether or not to attend, as I don’t go on promotional trips, and while this one was not technically sponsored (hotel and transportation were not included, but there were hosted meals and various freebies), the State Department clearly had an agenda.

However, I felt that was something I could get behind.

I’ve been working on my book rather steadily for the last few weeks, and one of the biggest lessons to emerge from the manuscript is this: Get a Passport (and yes, I’ve capitalized the P, because it’s that important). My mother got me my first Passport when I was only a few months old. This is not a contradiction to my values.

So I went to the event. They began with a tour of the east wing of the White House (which had been decorated for the holidays), and I am not above being charmed by portraits of former presidents and twinkling lights.

OMG SELFIE WITH BILL.

 

Later, we listened to various speakers, including the White House’s Chief of Staff, Denis Donaugh. Here he is looking enthralled that I am taking his picture.

 

I stopped taking photos of speakers after that, because I was scared to. (Were we not supposed to take photos? NO ONE TOLD ME AND EVERYONE ELSE WAS AND … oh, god. I go to the White House and act like a middle schooler.) We also heard from other staff members that day, including Tina Tchen and Ben Rhodes.

There were panels of speakers as well, including Carrie Hessler-Radlett, the Director of the Peace Corps. While I think she did an excellent job, this still made me weirdly uncomfortable. The Peace Corps’ track record with protecting and helping female volunteers who have been victims of sexual assault is not great. Hundreds of women have been attacked, and many have felt unsupported in the aftermath (the organization has not helped volunteers get abortions when they were impregnated by their rapists, but has offered to cover parenting classes). I said as much on Twitter.

I appreciate that Director Hessler-Radlett is new to the post (she’s held the position for less than six months) and I’m grateful for her dedication to maternal health and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Also, I realize that she’s trying to make things better for female volunteers and encountering problems with the organizations itself. But I’m still upset that safety wasn’t brought up.

I have other criticisms with the event – like, I don’t think the plan is a perfect one. The officials who spoke talked about making travel – and college in general – more affordable to young people, including those underrepresented members of the population. Obviously, I am for that, but I am inclined to think that the problem starts earlier. In order to attend college and study abroad, you need to be address economic and education disparity that kids face beginning from when they are in diapers.  

That doesn’t, of course, mean that we shouldn’t make travel easier for people who are in college now. No. Absolutely not.

I say none of this to be disrespectful – this was the stuff that stuck out to me. Things that I wanted to comment on, and did (at least, on Twitter). It was validating to think that my opinions had value, and to be able to voice them. To be surrounded by a lot of accomplished writers, especially when one considers that my blog largely covers issues like eating dessert and making out with my husband. And yes, these proclivities also made themselves known as I spread the word about the new program:

I guess there’s something nice about realizing that no matter the circumstances, no matter where this blog leads me, it will always, fundamentally, be a reflection of who I am. That I can find myself in my country’s glittering hub, and still be able to think about matters critically (mostly). That I can wander to ends of the earth, and my priorities are the same: liberty, cake, and justice for all.

That’s a pretty damn good feeling. And I hope this program enables others to feel the same way.

Leave a Comment

  • Enjoyed your post and perspectives. Was distracted throughout by thoughts of the Eagle muppet guy tho. I now know who will play Denis in the movie!

  • Finally an honest opinion about that event. I read lots of travel blogs and they all talked about what an honor it was to be asked to attend. I like your opinions about the event, even your reservations. I still wonder what the point was. Wouldn’t mom blogs be a better group? To encourage their children? I’m not saying students don’t read travel blogs, but I’m thinking they need to figure out how to reach their target college student audience. Btw, the chief of staff looks scary! Ha!

    • Everywhereist

      Julianna – I totally hear you. While it definitely *was* an honor, and I appreciate them taking a different approach than just a standard press release, I was a little bit in the air over whether or not to attend. And I definitely think that talking to parents/more educators would have been a great move (though I did speak to several invitees who were all of those things), as well as more reps from colleges. I’m hoping that this will be the next phase of the launch!

  • Your critical review of the event impresses me. Most attendees were non-stop gushing about the fact they were invited to the White House. The gushing is completely understandable, but the fact you have the confidence to be more measured about it says a lot (of good things!) about you.

    I studied abroad and it was a life-changingly awesome time. To complete the cliche, I now live on the opposite side of the world with a guy I met while on exchange. I also recognise that I was incredibly privileged to be able to afford to do it. More financial support for students is great, but I don’t like to see people who have studied abroad or travelled widely put up on pedestals as superior human beings.

    • Everywhereist

      Melanie – WORD. I didn’t have the chance to study abroad during college (I did do a summer trip to Spain in high school, made possible by financial aid). I know a lot of people love the experience, but there are a LOT of factors involved that could prevent someone from doing it. I also wholeheartedly agree that travel is amazing, but we shouldn’t make it seem like people who have traveled more are somehow better. I see that a lot, and it really frustrates me. You can be smart and empathetic about the world, even if you haven’t seen much of it. That being said, I would love to make it a reality for more college students.

  • K

    I work in the study abroad field and found this summit to be … odd. It was not well publicized to professionals in the field, nor (to my knowledge) were many (any?) “big players” in the field invited. I kind of get it, if they thought they were trying to reach outside of the field, but why not have someone there to better direct the goals and conversations with more experience in this field? While I love reading travel blogs, because I of course like to travel, I am very curious why the White House chose to focus on travel bloggers as the invited guests. As Julianna mentions above, why not another group? How many students are really reading a lot of travel blogs? And, uh, those who are… are probably already thinking about studying/interning/traveling abroad and are not the group we’re concerned about here. Anyway, thank you for writing about your experience with the visit – the good and the weird!

    • Everywhereist

      Hi K,

      I’m less critical of the execution of the event – they’re trying something radically different that other administrations have in the past, so there are bound to be a few hiccups. I agree that there were a lot of missing big players, and I think that this was due to the focus on being on social media amplification (i.e., who has a big Twitter following? Who is a fan of travel and will message this well?) and less on blogs. I suspect they wanted to spread the word among a friendly audience first – and travel writers/bloggers would definitely be that.

      My biggest concern was/is that there are many more issues at hand (income disparity plays a big part in education disparity starting from a very young age. As I said before, you can’t study abroad if you don’t graduate high school). I’m guessing that this event was just to get the word out about this new program – and now that they’ve done that, they can focus on other groups they haven’t talked to yet – like colleges and parents.

      • K

        Not having been, I really appreciate your reading of the event and the point on social media followers – it was great to see the hashtag out there. Of course, they can’t cover all the implications of economic and social disparities in one study abroad-focused event, I just hope it’s always kept in mind as the background for this discussion. There are universities and organizations doing great things to help underrepresented students study abroad, and not just at the college level. I hope efforts like theirs can grow with a larger goal of expanding education opportunities in general. I’m glad to see this event generating discussion! And having lived in DC, I hope you were able to enjoy your visit!

        • Everywhereist

          K – I absolutely loved my time in DC, but it was all too brief. Considering a return trip sometime next year. And I intend to drag Rand this time. 🙂

    • Kristen

      K, as another professional in the field, I +1 everything you are saying!

  • I was over the moon to see you’d been invited to this event. As someone who has (loved) living abroad for the last 10 yrs and who always seems to be fielding questions about Americans and their invasion of/and-or/lack of travel abroad (I jest but it does usually seem to swing to extremes…), I was actually surprised to see it being organized. And that made me a bit sad as its the kind of subject that shouldn’t come as a surprise… A country doesn’t learn and grow only by looking & learning from itself… I absolutely adore your blog and was thrilled to see they invited you. I’m glad you’ve challenged them with some of the things you’d have liked to see them address. I hope they asked for your feedback and more importantly I hope they plan to follow up with you/learn from you too!

  • I really appreciate your honest coverage of this event. Loved seeing you speak at ProBlogger btw (hi from Sydney!).

  • I studied abroad in college, but I am white and went to a liberal arts college – so not surprising, right? However I do vote (whispers) republican (mostly) so I think learning and growing are good either way you vote! It makes you more able to see the other side and I’ve voted for ‘non-typical’ things like Death with Dignity and gun control, I mean, no brainers!

    • Everywhereist

      Oh – totally! I didn’t mean to suggest that travel was the exclusive domain of blue staters. Simply that, given all the trends we see between passport ownership and being a Dem, this was a smart move politically.

      But yeah – I definitely think travel helps you empathize with others, regardless of your political affiliations!

  • I truly appreciate your candid report about the WH Travel Bloggers Summit. I wasn’t invited (apparently, they were looking for people with more than 6 Twitter followers), so I ended up listening to the Chief of Staff and Co. on White House Live while making cookies. Then, I ended up eating raw cookie dough while continuing to listen and pretend that I was there with all the rest of you. Anyways… many of the other blogs that I’ve read reporting on this summit seem to merely be repeating the same message as the White House as opposed to critically thinking about it. In fact, that’s my general concern about sponsored travel. I really like that you put your own independent opinions out there. I also like the pictures of the East Wing.

  • I’m so glad you brought up the issue of income disparity (whomp, whomp). Was this discussed at all?

    I’ve read the write-ups from people coming back from the conference and other than an occasional mention of “college is expensive”, no one actually addressed the incredibly high cost of studying abroad (thousands of dollars on top of tuition).

    After looking at photos of the event, here’s my second question.. why was everyone attending white? No minority voices there?

    Glad you decided to go. It sounds like it was the start of something good.

    • Everywhereist

      Megan –

      So, part of the new plan will be not only to make study abroad more affordable, but college more affordable in general (I appreciate that they thought about that, which was why my concerns were about low-income kids getting the raw deal early in their lives – none of these programs benefit you if you aren’t graduating from high school).

      Also, re: diversity amongst the travel bloggers, I can’t believe I forgot to mention this in my post: no, there wasn’t a great amount of ethnic diversity. There was a good representation of women, which was great, but apparently most travel-abroad students are women, anyway. But the group was largely white – noticeably so.

  • That’ a great initiative by the part of the US government. Fortunuately in Europe there is the Erasmus programme, which sends hundreds of thousands of students to study abroad. It’s becoming weird NOT to have an erasmus experience on your CV!

  • Janet T

    you can remove this if it is inappropriate but the selfie with Bill? It looks like he is checking out your backside.

    This was a great post. True to who you are and how you blog: voicing your opinions, not gushing and then distracted by nutella..

    I miss your frequent postings…but I look forward to your book

  • Not being very original here but I’m very happy about your honest report. I think you raise some excellent questions.

    Also, for what it’s worth, I’m 100% for studying abroad. I came to the US to study in 2011, met my husband, got a job and made a life here, without a passport I would have missed the love of my life, I don’t even want to think about it!

  • Michael

    Excellent post.

    BTW – Did you have braces when you were younger? You have great teeth.

    • Everywhereist

      Aw, thanks.

      No braces (we were poor). They aren’t that straight – they just photograph well. 🙂

  • I loved this review. Everyone’s posts from this have unimformative. I studed abroad in Romania and it was amazing and life changing and had a lot of delicious wine- I think we can all agree studying abroad is awesome, but you mentioned some big points about economic disparity. Also I love your point about the peace corps- I went through the interview process but they reacted really negatively to me when I asked what safety precautions they put in place to protect volunteers. My recruiter told me I needed a better attitude(?) – its a great program but they do need to make changes

    • Everywhereist

      They said you needed a better attitude? Because you were worried about SAFETY? That is horrible. I’m so sorry to hear that, but glad to know that you are a good advocate for yourself. Clearly, the Peace Corps needs a revamping – I can’t tell you how bothered I was when I saw that they were on a panel and no one was bringing up the issue of safety. I really should have asked, but I wasn’t confident enough about my knowledge of the issue to talk about it.

  • I’m really happy to hear this is on peoples radars and they’re talking about it. I’d like to see the change for sure. Will be keeping an eye on this one. 🙂

    Thank you very much for sharing your trip: do love the one speaker photo you DID share!

  • Just catching up after the holiday season ( India officially does not have one, but I still took holidays 🙂 and oh my you went to White house.. Cool and now the President Obama is coming to India… may be he should invite some bloggers from India too next time 🙂 Or may be just may be meet some of us travel bloggers from India while he is here in India… 🙂

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