When you're getting your PhD, people constantly ask, "So, what do you want to do with that?" They usually mean where would I like to work. I struggle to answer, because before I even got into grad school, I decided I would live abroad after grad school, which is not the typical next step after you've spent four-plus years slaving over a data set.
(When I say "live abroad," I generally specify that I will apply to the Peace Corps or some nonprofit in the public health sector. I don't plan to Apparate into Portugal and find work as a taxi driver; I do want to use my degree.)
The person then inquires, "Where do you want to go?" followed by "Have you ever been?" Or I'm at some party chatting with an attractive world traveler who probably has bangles on her wrist, and she asks where have I visited.
This is when I bite my lip and mull whether to lie or be honest. You see, for someone who is dead set on living abroad, I have never left the United States. This is neither my shame nor my pride. It is what it is - and really, it bears little on whether I will live abroad one day (I think).
People like to ask (cough, my parents), "How do you know you'll like it if you've never done it?" Well, I assume you've never eaten dirt; how do you know you won't like that?
It's not for lack of trying that I haven't crossed national borders. I told myself I'd study abroad in college. My parents had a different opinion.
Some background on my 'rents: My dad has never been on a plane. My mom flew once - in her teens. Not to age her, but that was several decades ago. I'm not even sure she left the country, but if she did, it didn't leave much of an impression because she doesn't talk about the fountains of Florence or the greenery of New Zealand. Needless to say, neither prioritizes living/studying/breathing abroad.
One day in undergrad, I attended a study abroad session. Immediately afterward I called my mom. I wanted to spend four weeks of the summer in Florence. Initially, she seemed agreeable. Then I realized, while more expensive overall, it was a better rate if I spent the whole summer in Florence.
Dad: Hell no.
Okay, we can go back to the original plan of four weeks? But not only did Dad shut the door, he burned the bridge, too. No, no, and no.
Now my parents helped fund my education - a blessing that I fully appreciate, but that does not stop a dreamer. I offered to take out a loan on my own head for going abroad. Here my parents threatened me: If I went abroad, then I would forfeit all further financial support. Abruptly, ten thousand dollars ballooned to a hundred thousand - something I wasn't prepared to take on.
Cue the "But just do it," "You only live once," "What's some debt for the experience?," etc. Aka the millennial mantra – something I despise for its ignorance, impracticality, and impatience.
While you’re right, I do only have one life, no one needs to study abroad, so why take on debt that one can avoid? Wait until you've saved up - or, better yet, someone funds you. Don’t be a wanderlust brat living off credit card fumes doomed to be society’s burden when youth thins and odd jobs end.
And this belief that you have to do it right now – you know, you could die tomorrow? (You could also die or, more likely these days, go missing on the plane carrying you overseas) – cheats the virtue patience. I could do a lot of things right now – quit my internship, eat the whole chocolate cake, buy a second pair of Frye boots - but that doesn’t mean I should.
I will go abroad one day, and I might be a few years older, but that won't lessen the experience. In my old age (all of 24), I realize that a lot of this argument But you’ll be older just proxies for our generation’s preoccupation with alcohol and/or partying. But guess what? I was never going for French wines and Russian vodka. The sunset will look just the same at 27 as it will at 20 (minus global warming, air pollution, overpopulation, etc.).
Following undergrad and no longer under my parents' empire - aka their blackmail - I contemplated doing the abroad thing before grad school. I then decided my bachelor's offered nothing the international community didn't already have and I didn't want to take time off and have to relearn studying. I would try again post-PhD (if I ever make it there).
That was when I set my deadline: After grad school. Because I do believe that if I wait until after I lock down a job - you know, one behind a desk, eek! - I may never fulfill this dream. This is why I openly tell people I will live abroad. I set the expectation so that I have an audience who can't let me fail - or else will taunt me if I ever waver (which I don't think will happen).
In the meantime, I have considered traveling to foreign parts during downtime in school (if that exists). But as the type who once believed in soulmates, I hesitate to cheapen "my first time" with something like a five-day Groupon to Ireland. I recognize that I may be a bit too purist, so I'm willing to compromise. But no cruises.
I remember one of the fights my parents had back in undergrad when I told my dad he didn't understand (does any parent understand the teen-turned-twenty-something?). He said, “You think I didn’t have those dreams? I did, but you make sacrifices. I got married and had kids.” He wanted those things, and I want to experience the world. One is not better than the other. I will also make sacrifices. I am terrified of falling in love and regretting dreams not followed. And that is why you’ll probably find me single in three years - but I'll also be in Africa.