Self-awareness, cultural competency, environmental consciousness, and economic empathy are often achieved through study abroad travel experiences. This phenomenological study was intended to shed light on the inter’national backpacking study abroad experiences for college students, describing the phenomenon from the perspective of the participants and its meaning for those participants. The literature on international travel and study abroad experiences suggest that sojourners are often transformed from the travel experience through personal growth; gaining an alternative perspective to their current understanding of the world and also becoming more globally aware. The purpose of this study was to understand what kinds of personal experiences occurred for the individual travelers while participating on a short-term (two weeks to two months) international backpacking adventure travel experience. The focus of the study was the Mesa State College Outdoor Program’s International Learning Adventures (ILA), designed to provide participants with the opportunity to develop international understanding, cultural and global awareness, and personal transformation through adventure/experiential based education. Participants for the study were selected ILA team members from Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colorado, who participated in the program between 2003 and 2009.
Through a phenomenological study and photo elicitation interviews, the individual traveler’s experiences were explored to gain new insights on the backpacker travel study abroad phenomenon. The methodology, based on the descriptive phenomenological model, included in-depth individual photo elicitation interviews with 10 participants. Data was analyzed to determine emerging themes and describe the traveler’s experiences.
The research uncovered four main themes. First, backpacker style travel played a significant role that led to a sense of exploration, adventure, fun, and serendipity. Second, students increased their global perspective and awareness. Third, the participants experienced significant personal growth. And finally, the participants expressed feeling connected with the world and other cultures, leading to a kind of transformation in their thinking and attitude towards other cultures, themselves, the environment, and life in general.
The information gained from this study will help shed light on a new manner of study abroad experience that integrates backpacker style travel into short-term study abroad opportunities. Sustainability education requires that students see the connections between all things on this planet. By understanding and developing themes surrounding an ILA experience, perhaps this new research can help create awareness of sustainability issues on a personal and global level.
Keywords. backpacker travel, study abroad, transformation, sustainable education.