In 1988, wearing a High School letterman jacket one size too large and braces minus the wire that I habitually removed, I entered Lewis and Clark College. Carl Sagan's Cosmos yet ruled the universe and Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth was the preferred stocking stuffer for many a Lewis and Clark freshman.
Two of the most potent myths that Campbell propagated were: 1) there really is such a thing as a "good day to die" for many indigenous cultures; 2) when making life decisions, the greatest advice is to "follow your bliss."
The Liminal Experience
My undergraduate advisor echoed Campbell. “Take the courses you like,” he advised, “and major in the subject that you are best at.” I chose philosophy as a major and to make it even less palatable to future employers I chose religious studies as my minor.
With the decline in the economy, the rise in college tuitions, and double digit unemployment rates awaiting new graduates, some pundits are calling college an outright "scam." A Salon.com article all but summed it up: "Is it time to kill the Liberal Arts degree?" The age-old proverb that philosophy bakes no bread has new chefs in the kitchen.
As going abroad is intrinsic to the liberal arts mission, its value is under siege. At Lewis and Clark, 80% of students studied abroad. Indeed, this was our spirit quest: Joseph Campbell's "liminal experience." With USA Today reporting that student loan debt will soon exceed a trillion dollars, surpassing even credit card debt, some talking heads have suggested that going abroad is a bet on your bottom dollar (or the Chinese yuan should the government assume your debt).
Life as a Journey
According to Troy Peden, President of GoAbroad.com, "study abroad has remained steady, but intern abroad and volunteer abroad is going crazy! Through the roof." As the Director of an intern abroad company, I too have watched the numbers increase exponentially. The economy has spoken and students have answered. If they are forced to bake bread then by-God they are going to do it in foreign ovens.
Going abroad is something of a hedge fund for students. It allows them to follow their bliss while generating a resume-worthy experience. The main difference is their ROI may be the realization that life is a journey, not an investment. So, from a philosophy graduate to the men who have never left the kitchen, keep on baking: my backpack is full of your goodies.
The Inspiration of Innovation
Anna Lindjem, a former student of mine, had this to say about her Hawaii internship: "I'm not so interested in how a cell works anymore. I'd like to know how all things work together, like reef ecology and how humans affect their environment. I'm into the bigger picture now.”
Seeing the big picture is not mere self-exploration: it is good business. Many of the so-called “practical degrees” such as accounting and graphic design are heading to the equator. The survivors in an outsourced world will be those who can think out of the box, see the forest from the trees or the reef from the cell.
The evidence is no further than the palm of your hand. The latest juggernaut of Apple products were not based on pure technology, but a vision. Steve Jobs credits his travels to Asia and immersion into mystical religions for his perception of the human/technology interface. His ability to see the moon in a dewdrop and the synergy between the simple and the complex ushered us into a new world.
At this very moment, the next game changer may be sleeping under the stars with Bantu tribesmen or spinning cotton with Nepali factory workers. In the vast reaches between what we know and what we experience, inspiration is born. The kitchen will always have its bakers.
I say follow your bliss.