Travel in college to help gain perspective

(Illustration by Liam McFadden | Staff Illustrator)

As my car sped across the plains of northwestern Ohio — passing open fields, red barns blazing in the sunset and the distant impression of neon — the only thing my mind could focus on was that I wasn’t back in Pittsburgh yet.

With summer coming to a close, I had decided to take a road trip with a friend to visit the vast swathes of the upper Midwest in Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota — states I’d only seen before from an airplane.

The pressures of beginning a new semester, trying to sort out my postgrad plans and resuming the responsibilities of my job here at The Pitt News all held a place in my preoccupied mind. But something I was surprised to discover, as twilight turned to night and signs began to herald Cleveland, was a sort of relief at returning to the challenges in my life with a newness and freshness that had been absent before.

There’s something to be said for traveling, even without accounting for personal enlightenment. It can be helpful to remember that other people, in other places, are facing similar problems to you. But whether you drive across five states to get there or you find it right here in Oakland, perspective is among the most important aspects of success.

Talking to friends about a prospective road trip usually leads to more or less the same questions. Why waste so much time driving? Why not travel by plane? And while ignoring the difficulties of flying on a multi-destination trip, the question also seems to assume that the process of getting to a place is irrelevant to the experience of the place itself.

Determined to enjoy the trip, I pushed my preoccupations to the back of my mind. Worries about the upcoming semester temporarily faded as I drove farther from their physical origins in Pittsburgh, but they didn’t disappear completely.

As late afternoon arrived on the first day out from Pittsburgh, I crossed the highway out of Indiana and into Illinois. The golden afternoon light slanted into my eyes as gusts of wind and a faint skyline over Lake Michigan announced proximity to Chicago.

For me, driving as a means of long-distance travel has always had much more significance than flying. On a plane, you take your seat and simply reappear at your destination in a few hours. The road makes you feel connected to your destination, like there’s something concrete attaching this new place to a place you know already. What you find there is real and, to an extent, more relatable.

Spending only one night in Chicago made the city’s character difficult to figure out. As a lifelong Pittsburgher, I’ve always found the energetic charge of really large cities both puzzling and enticing. We visited rooftop hangouts at the zenith of skyscrapers — despite being priced out of virtually every drink on the menu — and watched well-dressed Chicagoans socialize. Inevitably, the majestic setting and the obviously important bar patrons made my own worries feel petty and forgettable.

I’ve spent much of my college career bouncing between taking everything too seriously and not taking things seriously enough. I can remember the monumentally important finals — and the disappointed crushes that, at the time, seemed life-ending — just as well as the homework assignments begun an hour before they were due.

It’s easy to fall into a pattern of switching back and forth between these two. Mistaking the magnitude of your problems and how to respond to them is even harder to avoid when you have no context with which to evaluate them.

For a lot of Pitt students who come from out of town, the geographical distance between home and school can give at least some means of distinguishing between the ephemeral and the truly important. With my family, my childhood and teenage friends and my collegiate career all in the same city, it can sometimes be hard for me to determine which experiences will stay with me because they’re truly important and which are still with me simply because of proximity.

My enthusiasm for traveling — especially road trips — comes partially out of a desire to resolve this ambiguity. Being able to see the lives of other people in other cities parallel my own in some ways and differ in others helps give a clearer window into how to look at my priorities.

The Twin Cities of Minnesota provided an experience in this respect I hadn’t really had much of before. Usually, you travel to a place that’s exceptionally different from your home — whether that’s Hawaii, France or New York. Minneapolis, for its distance, bore an unmistakable resemblance to a colder Pittsburgh.

What made the city fascinating wasn’t so much its environment, but its people. For all their outward similarity, Minnesotans live their lives with a markedly different attitude than what I’m familiar with here at home in western Pennsylvania. The stereotypes painting Minnesotans as aggressively friendly to strangers, literate and almost uncannily extroverted were confirmed with an alarming directness.

For all the cities’ attractions and institutes, little stood out in my mind as we began the long drive home than this quality of Minneapolis and St. Paul — the people. I imagined how my life would be different if I or the people around me acted the way they did there. And while you won’t hear me adopting an Upper Midwestern accent any time soon, I decided that I could learn something from this alternate approach to living.

Traveling is an experience that’s often too difficult for college students to undertake outside of the occasional spring break fling. However, that doesn’t mean that the benefits that come with experiencing another perspective on life are or should be out of the question.

Immerse yourself in a worldview not your own — see what there is to see.

Henry is the Opinions Editor of The Pitt News. Write to Henry at

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