By: Alex Bak

I open the doors of Burke Science Building and go into room 147 for my first class. The first question I get asked is “What did you do over the summer?”

Of course, I ask them as well. Small talk. This goes on throughout the day and then it suddenly hit me.

Things are different now. When I ask another what they did this summer, it’s no longer just out of social etiquette and curiosity but also as a means of validating whether my summer was ‘worth something’ this time. This time, I didn’t just squander my summer away. I actually had a “valid” story to tell.

When the curriculum regurgitates the same content to 600 students at a time and career counsellors advise the same summer pathways as most of the alumni have chosen, I felt little short of becoming generic. That’s why I decided to go backpacking. Destination? New Zealand.

From my experience, I firmly believe that experiential learning abroad fills the holes of a traditional post-secondary education.

It gives an insight into what a big picture really is; life isn’t only governed by facts you learn from the curriculum or textbooks, there are also nuanced socio-cultural aspects that are unique to every community: building blocks that connect the world.

Travel didn’t just give me an experience I can share. It also came with a pinch of headaches, a dash of invigorating patriotism and a plate full of skills with global applications.

I packed my life in a backpack, bought a plane ticket, booked the first four nights at a hotel and nothing else. Now looking back, it was the best decision I have ever made.

Contrary to what I thought, the things I remember the most and learned from aren’t gut-wrenchingly enjoyable activities like skydiving or rafting. It was struggling to find a place to stay or food to eat. It was asking questions like, should I starve a meal so I can go out tonight?

Travel didn’t just give me an experience I can share. It also came with a pinch of headaches, a dash of invigorating patriotism and a plate full of skills with global applications.

It was witnessing first-hand the financial, educational and healthcare disparity that indigenous Māori people experience and how relatable it was to Canada.

Interacting with people from all over the world and listening to their life experiences are one of the most profound facets of travel.

It completely changed my way of thinking when listening to how they’re planning on climbing Everest next year as they already summited the rest of the seven summits or casually listening to how they gave up their six-figure salary at a top firm in Vancouver to travel while we’re surfing.

The world is larger than just the campus and every student should experience ‘this’. Whatever ‘this’ can be for you.

I encourage McMaster students to take advantage of these exchange programs like MacAbroad and travel aids such as scholarships and clubs like the McMaster Exchange Club available to you.

Through travel, I encountered situations I’d never have imagined and had a lot of struggles I’ll never want to have again but the values I gained were precious. I came back to school and I could confidently and proudly say no, I didn’t do four months of research at a prestigious centre nor publish papers. I didn’t ace summer school or build houses.

So what did I do? I failed to get a job. I slept overnight on airport couches. I ate pasta with half a can of tuna and peanut butter for most of my meals.

I had to leave two weeks early because I ran out of money. And I am so glad that I did for I learned how to successfully fail and redefine what is valuable.

Venture the unknown, explore the impossible and learn how to push further, love deeper, soar higher and repeat steps one through three.

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