Thursday, November 03, 2011

Budget cuts are slashing college schedules and forcing students to miss classes, but there’s a better learning experience to be had


The Israeli security agent in front of me is not happy. He can’t understand why I’m traveling alone, halfway around the world from my home.

My U.S. passport has already been taken to another room, and two people have politely, but soberly, questioned me. I’m held so long my driver has sent another airport employee to find me. I later find out that Israeli security is suspicious of anyone coming into Israel, via Ben Gurion International Airport, alone; regardless of which passport you’re carrying.

This single experience taught me more about international policy, security, and culture than any class I’ve ever taken in school. It was a course in social anthropology as it relates to (a very touchy) sovereign country’s safety, smashed into one afternoon.

India taught me patience as I struggled to grasp the realities of over population and poverty mixed with incredible beauty. For example, it’s not looked upon as rude to cut to the front of any line there; it’s simply a survival tactic.

Italy taught me to calm down and not stress when I miss a train; there’s always another. Which came in handy years later when I missed my Eurostar from London to Paris.

Fiji taught me to slow down, period.

As entire college sessions are being scaled back or cancelled altogether, there is one alternative to traditional classroom learning that will pack more knowledge into your brain in a given amount time than slogging through that non-existent summer session would have anyway: travel.

Not the study-abroad type of student travel, where you’re still in a scholastic environment and herded through weekend day trips in groups, but the get-out-of-your-element and expand-your-horizons sort of travel.

Don’t worry; it’s not all interrogations all the time. It is, however, the best way to continue your education when you can’t be in school. You’ll learn more about yourself through the cultures you visit than you might while sitting in that classroom.

Before you start arguing that it costs too much for a college student to travel to Louisiana, let alone internationally, just hear me out. Yes, you have to be choosey about destinations, but it’s not as costly as you think and there are arguably more resources out there for student travelers than there are for everyone else. 

Using these resources, it’s perfectly possible to travel internationally for less than the price of a semester at school.

Here’s how it breaks down: let’s assume that you take a full load, 12 units. That’s $432 in tuition. You have to buy four textbooks at roughly $125 per book. Add $20 for a parking pass. That’s $952. And that doesn’t account for all of the incidentals you buy over the course of a semester.

Since you have a small budget, you decide to stay in the neighborhood (meaning the Americas), and choose Costa Rica. A flight into San Jose booked through STA Travel, the go-to company for booking student travel, will cost $553.17, round-trip in June. While you’re on their website, you can also arrange for a global cell phone, travel insurance, online visa applications, and any other of their 1,500 services tailored specifically to students on a budget. www.statravel.com

Budget after airfare: $398.83

Now that you’ve arrived, you transfer to the Pacific side of the country to lie on the beach in Tamarindo. A shuttle will get you there for $59 per person. It’ll take four hours. Book through Liberia Costa Rica Info. www.liberiacostaricainfo.com

Budget after transfers (round-trip): $280.83

As for a place to lay your weary head, you have two alternatives for very inexpensive accommodations all over Costa Rica: hostels or couch surfing.

Notwithstanding the serious aversion Americans have to sharing space with strangers, and the horror movies about how wrong staying in a hostel can go, it’s a fantastic option for people on a budget. You have the chance to make new friends from all over the world, as well as the country you’re visiting.

I once stayed in a hostel that was a renovated 13th century castle in Tuscany, and had the distinct pleasure of getting to know two crazy Australians, who insisted on bartending in our dorm most evenings, in Rome, through hostelling.

If you do chose to stay in a hostel, they start at around $10 a night for a dorm bed in Tamarindo. So if your stay is 10 nights long, there’s another $100 out of our budget. www.hostelworld.com is a very reputable site for - you guessed it - hostels all over the world.

Budget after hostel: $180.83

But if you’re more daring and aren’t afraid to really get to know people, you can arrange a stay in someone’s home through www.couchsurfing.com. The subscriber-based website provides a forum for like-minded travel junkies to connect worldwide with a system for screening and vetting each other. You see who’s available in the area you want, find out if they happen to be home when you’ll be there, and voila, you have a built in local guide who is usually more than eager to show you around their city. Then, you stay for free. Free is good.

Budget after couch surfing: $280.83 (give or take what you contribute to help keep the kitchen stocked).

That’s also the beauty of couch surfing; you hang with locals, and therefore eat like one, which means spending less on food than you otherwise would.

If you spend your $280.83 over 10 days, you have roughly $28 per day to spend on food and local transportation. I’ve traveled Europe on $30 a day, so rest assured, it can be done in a country whose exchange rate is currently 510.70 Costa Rica Colons to the U.S. Dollar. Stick with the locals, and you’ll have money left over.

If, on the other hand, you want to spend three times as much as the cost of this itinerary, there are ways to do it.

There are study abroad sessions coming next summer for community college students in my area in France and Spain. Each starts in the $3,000 range, which doesn’t include airfare, although this does include the price of tuition for the courses. More than likely, STA Travel is the company you’d book through.

I’m not knocking study abroad programs. I’m simply advocating truly getting to know yourself through the bare-knuckle experience of traveling either alone or with one or two friends into a culture where you are completely out of your element.

The world is the best classroom you’ll ever have, and if you can’t get those remedial courses in due to deep cuts in education funding, you might as well get out and learn on the road.

Be culturally sensitive, and people will reach out to you in ways you can’t imagine. We all have a desire to teach others about what our respective worlds are like. If you’re willing to learn, you’ll realize that we’re all much more alike than we are different.

You can view The Peregrine Dame episodes from Israel, India and Italy at www.theperegrinedame.com





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