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Lucas Pennock Essay

Upon returning to Morocco after journeying through Africa and Asia, noted 14th century explorer Ibn Battuta remarked, “Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”  Though Battuta accurately describes the effect of traveling on most of us, he clearly didn’t know any historians.  I doubt they have ever been left speechless by much of anything.  However, Battuta does generally point to an important role of the historian.  After all, what is history if not a story and the historian if not its storyteller?  Historians bring to light the triumphs, chronicle the struggles, and expose the misdeeds of ordinary and extraordinary people throughout the centuries.  But specifically, as The Question indicates, history is not just any story; it’s our story.  Fundamental aspects of our identity as human beings are our relationships with others, both past and present.  Moreover, these relationships are forged through human interaction facilitated by many activities, including travel.

            When I first visited WVU as a high school senior in 2009, one student I met described the undergraduate experience as a series of ever-expanding circles.  Essentially, you enter college with few friends and contacts, but gradually your circle grows as you meet people and incorporate yourself into other circles.  Studying abroad is a natural extension of that concept.  As a graduate student in the History Department’s Atlantis Program, I had the opportunity to spend most of 2014 studying in Poland and Estonia in addition to traveling to some other places around Europe.  I saw some amazing sights and learned a great deal that is now aiding me in my own research on the European Union, but traveling really impacted me not through what I saw, but who I met.  In addition to beginning lifelong friendships, I found that interacting with other young people from around the world forced me to reevaluate my own worldview.  Moreover, though we didn’t agree on everything, nearly all of my experiences with international students ended in a feeling of mutual understanding, a phenomenon I also observed around me.  Having grown up in a post-Schengen Europe, college-aged Europeans today have spent most of their lives interacting with their foreign peers in everyday situations.  This normalization is a remarkable departure from the fear and paranoia that pervaded the continent for most of the 20th century.  Student exchange programs like the Erasmus Program have enabled young Europeans to live and study in countries like Poland and Estonia with relative ease, a prospect that would have been nearly impossible during the Cold War.  Moreover, the social impact of Erasmus is undeniable.  In a study published in 2014, the European Commission found that more than a quarter of Erasmus participants met their long-term partner during their stay abroad, ultimately resulting in the births of an estimated one million babies since the program’s inception in 1987.[1] 

            It is clear that travel shapes history in dramatic ways, for both better and worse.  European exploration from the Vikings to Henry Morton Stanley has impacted the cultural makeup and economic fortunes of the peoples of every other continent, the consequences of which can still be felt today.  However, The Question refers not to history, but to our history.  Travel has shaped the personal histories of thousands of young European who have grown up in a connected Europe, resulting in greater transnational understanding, even to the point of long-term companionship.  However, the personal effect of travel on our lives is not always immediately felt.  I am confident that my own experiences abroad have changed me in significant ways, but it’s difficult to say exactly how just yet.  In that, The Question reveals a certain irony.  Travel does not really shape our histories at all, but rather impacts our future yet to be written.        


[1] European Commission, “Erasmus Impact Study confirms EU student exchange scheme boosts employability and job mobility,” (Brussels, September 22, 2014),