Travel is good for the mind, body, and soul. And thanks to the government’s Turing Scheme, it no longer has to be a luxury reserved for the wealthiest.
I am writing this on my way back from a weekend trip to the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. No, this was not an everyday occurrence. I am not the child of jet-setting parents, or the heir to a fortune, but in fact a first-generation university student who grew up in a low-income household. We did not partake in annual vacations unless it was a £9.50 Sun holiday, to a caravan in Scarborough or a school trip. And while I am extremely grateful for all of these adventures, this made it all the more exciting when I left for a year-long exchange programme in Santiago, Chile.
However, once I arrived at my host university, I quickly realised startlingly few students from similar backgrounds had made use of the opportunity. In fact, the resounding majority of exchange students here were privately educated. This, at first, seemed surprising, but upon later research it was clear this was reflective of a much larger economic divide. Astonishingly, only 1% of English residents are responsible for ⅕ of overseas flights. And, back in 2017, 48% of the population did not get to take a flight. Clearly, the pandemic has only exasperated a statistic. COVID-19 increased air travel inequality due to the larger economic impact on already lower income groups. The UK is divided between those who get to travel and those who don’t. Unfortunately, the mounting costs of flights, visas, and medical expenses has meant that poorer pupils are equally less likely to study abroad.
A lack of travel can create a lot of problems for society, much more than simply paler skin and a loathing for the wet British weather. For one, it widens the gap between the rich in poor in terms of foreign language learning. Already, pupils in poorer areas are three times less likely to participate at GCSE level due to staffing shortages and high grade boundaries. Without travel, their exposure to other dialects only decreases. This is a huge disadvantage as being bilingual has proven to be a key factor in determining employability, and salary. Not only do those with the ability to communicate in multiple languages earn more per hour on average, but they also are able to work throughout the world. Doing an exchange can open you up to a larger job market unrestricted by language barriers. And, furthermore, through the Turing Scheme, students can opt to do an internship in their chosen country. This provides them with invaluable experience that helps to secure a job straight out of graduation.
Secondly, studies have proven time and time again that travelling is good for one’s health. In regard to mental heatlh, relaxing in a foreign environment is extremely beneficial. With the rise of burnout, it seems ever more pertinent that everyone has an equal opportunity to de-stress via a holiday. Vacations can even strengthen antibodies and help protect the body from illness. It seems that being exposed to new terrains bolsters both the body and mind.
I, for one, know I have never felt more mentally and physically fit as I have with this time away. The semester has provided me with the chance to try surfing, partake in fun runs, and go hiking. Similarly, the flights over the Andes and the moments of silence in wondrous locations have allowed me to relax, meditate on life, and become my most authentic self. Moving across the world forces you to make new friends, overcome challenges, and engage in diverse activities; what better way to boost your confidence and prove to yourself the feats you are capable of?
For society as a whole, getting to know other cultures has the ability to bring us all closer together. Mark Twain once wrote “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”, and in a period marked by division, Brexit, and the rise of nationalism there was never an antidote needed more. Travelling to Latin America, I was aware of the media stereotypes of crime, illegality, and immigration perpetuated by figures such as Donald Trump. However, my experience has been nothing but positive and the society I encountered here in Chile was one that was safe and much like that of the UK. This view has been recounted back to friends, family, and more. Truly, travel can put in to question the dangerous rhetoric of far-right groups that we consume on a daily basis.
“But how can I access these benefits if I can’t afford it?” I hear you ask. The answer lies in the funding available. For one, there is The Turing Scheme, the UK government’s initiative to allocate funds for global educational and training opportunities. Through this grant, university students may be entitled up to £545 a month plus 70% of travel costs depending on the location and your institution. Moreover, the travel grant allows Student Finance England to reimburse you for multiple flights, visas, and more. Of course, first contact your year-abroad office to find out what you would be qualified for.
All this to say, the decision to go on a year abroad was the best thing I ever did, so please do not let income inequality hold you back.