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I am taking a short rest from Tokyo-telling. I was eating my daily breakfast of rice, egg and a soy sauce splash, and got to thinking that your college guidance counselor and showy and nosy neighbor are right, a point that even I continue to harp upon, the strange importance of travel. Between you and me, I don’t even think you have to do much once you do travel to get anything out of it. You certainly won’t learn as much as you can, but if you were to sit on a couch in a different country or a different time zone for just a week or so, I bet you’d see something differently. Don’t think this type of experiential learning requires great lengths.

Still, the grandness of so-labeled “study abroad” is exceptionally altering. I can tell you. I can tell you because I sit writing this at a university in Tokyo, Japan. I can tell you because I took classes at the University of Ghana in West Africa. I can tell you because I even did more than just sit on a couch at these places.

Chances are, if it wasn’t you, then you knew someone or you knew someone who knew someone who took some classes when they weren’t eating croissants in Paris or learning about ecology in a Costa Rican rain forest. They always came back with the same clichés, how it changed their lives. Funny thing about clichés is that sometimes they’re pretty dead on accurate.

For me it wasn’t as clear. I didn’t foam at the mouth or start carrying books of obscure authors. It was a spewing out of my mouth and a crawling on my back of information and ideas and ideals and questions and my own post-teenage sense of answers. I walked off a plane returning from a different continent and I went to work finding a new way to find a new continent.

I can tell you because I sit writing this at a university in Tokyo, Japan.

I am twenty-years-old, I am a proud Temple University Owl and an even prouder American. But, I wasn’t as proud and I couldn’t defend or understand any of those geographical bounds or textbook readings until I had seen them from the outside. Or as close to the outside as an insider can get.

And other Americans, especially American universities, are starting to understand that.

Close to 50 million Americans travel abroad annually and that number seems to be on the rise a bit. Moreover, since 1991, the population of American students studying abroad for credit has well more than doubled, from some 70,000 to numbers nearing 180,000 through 2004, according to statistics released by the Institute of International Education.

In late July, an act was introduced in the U.S. Senate aimed at increasing numbers of American study abroad students to 1 million in a decade. As it makes its slow way through Congress, I keep thinking that we might actually be at a point when study abroad will become a norm for college students, not an exception. When studying abroad increases, so too, it is fair to believe, will totals for all Americans traveling to other countries.

Though the numbers are rising, I still far more regularly see European foreigners than American foreigners here in Nihon. I can’t help but believe we’re missing something.

Well over 300 heads of state and world leaders graduated from American universities, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Alwi Shihab, the former Indonesian Minster of Foreign Affairs and persistent defender of Islam as a moderate religion, graduated from my own Temple University. The United States certainly has some of the finest schools in the world, but it would be absurd to not recognize American students could similarly benefit from studies at foreign universities.

You go somewhere, you not only learn about that somewhere but you better understand nearby somewheres and even better appreciate all the somwheres. Knowing about somewheres is terribly important in foreign relations.

Yet, still, some in the U.S. think of studying abroad as a semester off, a joke, four or five months to get drunk off a different type of domestic beer. I wonder if that has anything to do with the opinions some think the world holds about us Americans.

I was in Accra, the capital of Ghana, and I learned some Twi. I’m in Tokyo and have taught myself how to distinguish the Hiragana in elevators. I have a 6 foot by 4 foot American flag hanging in my apartment, but I carry my stars and stripes with as much respect for wherever I travel as I can.

The world needs to see more bright, engaging Americans who want to learn about different cultures and challenge themselves. The world needs more Americans who know the feeling of being thousands of miles away from home. The world needs more Americans who can speak more languages and more Americans who are proud of being American because they know the alternatives. The world needs more Americans studying and traveling abroad.

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