COLUMN: Not all who wander are lost

Sunday, August 22, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

There's a line from The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, that I've always adored: "Not all who wander are lost."

In its overuse it has become a cliche quote, the kind you see recreated on mass-produced journals, posters and greeting cards.

Yet, somehow, the saying embodies a certain poignancy in its challenge to a prominent stereotype about travel: that wanderlust must imply some personal discontent or a semi-irrational yearning for exoticism and change.

As most who have studied or lived abroad know, that's not necessarily what exploring is about. In fact, the notion of self-discovery largely misses the point.

Wandering abroad isn't always about finding ourselves. Now, more than ever, it is a journey toward understanding our own national identity in the scope of an increasingly global society.

This summer, my own study abroad experience took me to London. There, a professor of mine said it best: "We know what we are by what we are not."

My professor derived her argument from one made by Yale University professor Linda Colley in her 1992 work, "Britishness and Otherness: An Argument." In her book, Colley explores the idea of Britain as an "invented" nation, rather than a purely organic geopolitical creation.

The takeaway: National identity is, to begin with, a fragile and sometimes futile concept.

Before I studied abroad, "American" was a fluid notion for me. I grappled with the term's definition, often with little real success. Did it denote hot dogs on the Fourth of July or something more? I wasn't sure.

By living as an American among a sea of foreigners, I found the beginnings of answers.

My passport was different, of course, and my accent was a quick and easy mode of identification. But that which made me feel most American was seeing and interacting with other Americans in a very non-American setting and experiencing the instant camaraderie born of instant understanding.

Shared unique traits bring us together. Collective distinctions make us a nation.

It's a concept that was first explored beautifully more than 20 years ago by Benedict Anderson, a Columbia University professor who coined the idea of "imagined communities."

Anderson posited that nations are defined not by geographic borders, but instead by social constructions – imaginings, if you will.

Today, as the Internet continues to shrink the world through social media, international news coverage and instant communication, the idea is as pertinent as ever. Abroad, it was evident everywhere. I was an American wherever I went.

But many Americans have no idea because many Americans still do not study or travel abroad.

Last year the Institute of International Education, by way of a grant from the State Department, found that 262,416 students studied abroad in some form during the 2007-2008 school year. In a country with millions of university students, it is a dismal statistic.

Fortunately, it's not all bad news. An increasing number of U.S. students are studying abroad – up 8.5 percent from 2007 to 2008.

For those students who do choose to travel, it's not – as the stereotype sometimes implies – about partying across continents. It's not even about self-discovery. It's about having a change in perception.

In 2001, U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley told the BBC , "Many more American college students need to see the world with a new set of eyes. And the best way for them to see the world as it really is, is to study overseas."

Take my word for it: No one who wanders is truly lost. Live abroad, study abroad, or travel abroad, and you'll see what I mean.

Rebecca Berg is interning at CBS News and studying in London this summer through a Missouri School of Journalism study abroad program. She will return to the Missourian as an assistant city editor in the fall.

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