The Best Classroom of All Is the World

Allison Burney

What my world-traveling grandma knew about education

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Before I ever traveled outside my home country, I thought there was no need to.

Until 19, I’d never been further from home than the U.S., and I hadn’t really given travel all that much thought. But why would I? Everything I needed was right here in Canada: my family, friends, language, culture, traditions (basically, my comfort zone).

And that, in hindsight, is exactly why I needed travel so desperately.

As I entered my twenties and finished university, that opinion started to change — and then changed drastically.

I became curious, and then almost insatiably so. I wanted to know what else was out there.

Start by opening your eyes

Questions started to surface. I started wondering about life and about the wider world. Then I couldn’t stop wondering.

What was the world like outside the bubble I’d grown up in? What were the people like in countries across the world? What did those places look like? What was the food like? How did they do things differently than we do here? What languages did they speak?

This last question stopped me in my tracks, and I remember considering it deeply.

As embarrassed as I am to admit it now, there was once a time when I’d believed the whole world spoke English. I didn’t have any reason to think differently, because nothing I’d encountered so far suggested otherwise.

Before venturing out of my bubble, my larger beliefs about the world were shaped only by my own experiences, perspective, and culture. At that time, anything outside my own vantage point was totally unimaginable to me.

So, I changed that.

Make the decision to just go

I decided I needed to start expanding my horizons and set off, first on a volunteer placement in Guyana, and later on a teaching contract in South Korea.

Every chance I got during those periods, I’d stretch just a little bit further and visit a new country close by or see a part of the country I hadn’t yet seen. Those experiences then led to a backpacking trip throughout some of Southeast Asia.

And I still consider that initial decision to just go to be one of the best I’ve ever made.

As I look back on it now, it was certainly a turning point for me. Going abroad and having those experiences has opened my eyes to an infinite number of possibilities and paths I could take and any number of things I could do with my life.

Being able to entertain and even appreciate alternate life paths and lifestyles is a gift travel has offered me open-handed, with an open heart.

I wouldn’t trade the way it’s opened my mind for anything.

Travel is the best education out there

My grandmother instilled in me the belief that travel is the best education you can give yourself from a very young age.

She’d remind my sisters and I of this as she showed us the slides of her latest voyage around the globe each time we went to visit her. We’d all be huddled together on the couch in her living room, listening to the story that went along with each new picture to appear on the screen. It was like magic.

For the rest of the day, visions of faraway lands danced in our heads (you know, instead of sugarplums).

The fact that it was my grandmother who paved the way for her family to travel is, in itself, pretty inspiring. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t know of many other grandmas who’ve been to over 100 countries, and did the majority of their traveling after they retired, by themselves (my grandfather had already passed away).

My grandmother wasn’t like most grandmas, though. She was the definition of a trailblazer. She was a university-educated, strong-willed woman who did whatever she set out to do. She was also a department head at the high school she worked at, with a reputation for being a strong but fair teacher. She was respected by students and staff alike, known by all as someone you don’t mess with.

She was somebody who believed in the value of education and the importance of lifelong learning — not just in the classroom, but outside the limitations of the school system as well.

That she believed travel was the best form of education meant even more to me because of the fact that it came from a career teacher.

The best classroom will always be the world

My own travel experiences so far have only shown me how right she was.

You can learn a lot by reading a book or travel guide or looking at pictures of faraway lands and people, but there’s no substitute for actually being in those places and interacting with local people.

That’s where the real learning happens.

You’ll learn so many different things while traveling, like how to deal better with numbers: currencies, time zones, transport schedules, taxi meters, bank statements — everything. You’ll learn better navigational skills.

You’ll learn how to ask for help. You’ll learn how to watch your own back and take care of yourself. You’ll learn how to stand your ground and refuse to buy things you don’t want. (Or you’ll buy them anyway because you feel too guilty to say no to a kid who’s just spent an hour giving you his best “tour” of an ancient temple.) And then you’ll learn how to be okay with that.

You’ll learn how tired you can get before you absolutely snap. You’ll learn how long you can go without eating and how badly it affects you (and the people you’re with). You’ll learn how many days you can go without a shower when you don’t have access to one.

You’ll learn how to ask questions and clarify information.

Most importantly, though, you’ll learn humility and gratitude. And also how to swallow your pride.

You won’t regret going somewhere new

You might be sitting there thinking, Sure, travel is great, and I’d love to go somewhere. But there’s a global pandemic happening at the moment…remember?

It’s true. Covid-19 has left most of us landlocked, and even housebound for long stretches. Right now is certainly not the best time to travel, and may not even be possible in a lot of cases.

But when it becomes possible and safe again (and at some point, it will), please travel.

Travel all you can, as often as you can, as far as you can. Travel once a month, once a year, or once a decade, if that’s what you can manage. Travel as cheaply as you can, or as expensively as you can. It doesn’t matter how you do it, where you go, or what you need to do to get there. Just make sure you do it.

Every new adventure is an investment in yourself, and every journey holds many new lessons to learn.

The more you stretch yourself, the better you become. The more you learn about the world and the more you encounter people who are different from you, the greater your capacity for compassion, empathy, and openness. You understand how to be a better human being by interacting with people and learning about them. You understand how to help people and create a better world for all by seeing it with your own eyes.

Travel may cost money, but never traveling costs much more.

I promise you won’t regret it.

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Writer & proofreader. I love travel, reading, coffee, and exploring nature. On a mission to keep learning, growing, and enjoying this adventure we call life.

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