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  • Writer's pictureJessyca Stoepker

"Come back, but don't stay": Travel, education, and finding your sense of self

Like so many moms, mine was filled with a kind of hopeful sadness when I officially moved out of the house a few years ago. But she always told me how proud she was of my sister and I, and how glad she was that I was out on my own. We would always have a place to come back to, of course, but I remember her distinctly telling me one day: "You're always welcome to come back, but don't stay."

She wanted me to live my own life as I created it, without pressure or obligation to anyone or anything.

Those who know me also know that I'm a huge advocate for travel and exploration beyond one's familiar settings. Nowadays, many people find it much easier to leave home than ever before: availability of vehicles, increased public transportation, increased access to internet and travel hacks. Though expensive as hell, high education is more prevalent. As I've been told, "master's degrees are the new bachelor's degrees."

On the other hand, many people my age and older have never left home. Some went straight to work after high school, some went to community college and found a local job, some settled down with a family.

I want to make this clear: ALL of that is perfectly fine and admirable. Everyone has different priorities and goals in life based on how they were raised and what they believe. The main problem that I have with those individuals that have little, if any, interaction with the world outside their familiarity bubble is that some tend to be judgmental, close-minded, and/or unwilling to embrace difference.

I can already hear the rebuttals. "Another liberal activist throwing the diversity conversation at me!" Let's keep this civil. I grew up in a small, rural town myself, and I have plenty of family and friends still living there that I love dearly.

I never really understood the importance of these ideas myself--diversity, travel, education, etc.--until I left for college. You never realize everything you learn until you encounter others who have not yet had the opportunity. When I came back and restarted all my old conversations again with old friends and community members, I realized that I had changed. I started to notice misogyny and sexism. Racist undertones. Hate speech. Quick, blanket judgments and stereotypes. The exact things that my professors had pointed out to us in lectures that I brushed off as "unrealistic" to hear outside the classroom. Now I recognized them in everyday conversations, most without bad intentions or awareness that what they were insinuating was harmful.

  • The things my then-boyfriend would say about women began to shock me. When I called him out on something that made me uncomfortable, he chastised me for using such "big-girl college words."

  • While catching up over lunch one summer day, a best friend's religious views suddenly turned very homophobic, and she wasn't open for discussion about it.

  • I really started listening to the evening news. I began to see how events in the world were poorly-framed in the media to be misleading, and how easy it was to convince a group of people of a lie when they all shared the exact same experiences and beliefs (blatant groupthink).

It bothered (and scared) me. So when my beloved high school Spanish teacher put together a collection of voices from the community in a book called "Lakewood Voices," I made it a point to say my piece as gently as possible: that, for small hometowns like mine, there was a dire need to be more aware of our prejudices and to be more accepting of difference.

All of that requires more learning, whether that's re-learning basic rules of good communication or learning about lifestyles that may seem like blasphemy at first glance.

In my opinion, there are two main ways to learn about the world and where you stand in it.

One: continue your education. And no, that does not automatically mean college. It means you should read everything and anything you can. Go to community events you normally wouldn't. Take free courses online, like through Coursera. Get to know someone different than you. Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer. Immerse yourself in a different culture or neighborhood for a day. Fact-check everything, and learn how to tell a good source from a problematic one.

And two: leave home, even for a little bit. Study abroad. Live on campus. Live in an apartment across the state. If you can't afford to live somewhere else, save up from your summer job and travel to a different country. Stay for a week, a month, a year. Stay with your aunt in a different state, in a different city. Ride a bus to California and back. Live off the grid for a bit. Camp for a summer. Sleep in a car. Bike ride through a neighborhood you've never seen. Travel safe, but God, please travel.

This article by Vox explains the findings of some studies comparing individuals who stay in their hometown and those who leave. They go into detail about income levels and early-achievement levels and how this affects area job prospects or higher education. Their words and research go much further than what I can say here, so you should really give it a look (this is not a plug by any means, I just really like to have facts available to back-up my opinions).

Living away from the people and places that raised you also allows you time to develop on your own, to develop your own sense of self.

Do you truly like living in this area, or is it just familiar and comfortable to you? Do you feel like you have a purpose, or are you just following the path that others have paved for you? Are burgers and pizza really your favorite foods, or have you just never had the chance to try good Thai or Chinese? Are you actually a Christian, or is that just how you were raised and what your caretakers believed? Are you actually shy, or are you more expressive and true to yourself when you're around other groups of people?

My answers to all of these questions and more have changed once I stepped out of my comfort zone. Of course, it's okay to leave and then return to your original views. Sometimes travel or learning new things makes you realize how much you really do like your hometown, or that you really do feel happiest practicing your original faith.

But this way, you've figured that out for yourself.

I would love to have a discussion to anyone open to a respectful dialogue (this goes with all my posts, not just ones that may be deemed controversial!). Tell me your thoughts; I'm all ears.

All the best,


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