Travel and Service in the Formation of Leadership

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Young adults who have either the foresight or the good fortune to have a time of sustained travel service before they embark upon their careers are making a good decision. Genuine travel, as opposed to tourism, augments leadership skills. Leaders such as Benjamin Franklin, John Quincy Adams, Jane Addams, Frederick Douglass, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, John Muir, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all had significant travel experiences as young adults that prepared them with experience, perspective, vision and leadership skills that went beyond the dictates and opportunities of their culture. In my case studies of the impact of service and travel in leadership formation, I have discovered three traits shown by young adults who have had significant travel and service experience that takes them outside their home culture. These three traits are perspective, adaptability and credibility. These traits lead to a transformation in young people's lives that will fit them to become contributors to the well-being of others around them.

First, a young adult who travels abroad gains perspective on his or her home culture. By living in different conditions, experiencing community differently and simply eating and negotiating in another culture, whether it is abroad or in the inner city, a young adult realizes both the strengths and limitations of his or her own culture. The sojourner, after a period of travel or sustained service, sees that home culture through new, discerning eyes.

As young women in the 1830s, the Grimke sisters left their home in Charleston, South Carolina, and moved north, seeking a more supportive environment for their abolitionist efforts. Their intimate experiences with slavery equipped them to become forceful critics of slavery and the restrictions on women's rights. Their move north gave perspective on the cultural entanglements of the South with slavery and afforded them opportunities to become more dynamic critics than they would have become had they chosen to live in the South. Perspective added intensity to their leadership.

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James Hunt, Ph.D. is a professor of History at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington and President of the Board of The Krista Foundation. In addition to how travel and service impact leadership development in young adults, his academic interests are early and 19th-century American history, American biographies, and Latin American history. He has been deeply involved in leading groups of college students for study, service and travel in Central America since 1981.


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