Nicholas Kristof is offering some lucky college student the opportunity of a lifetime. I'm tempted to re-enroll in some institution of higher education myself, just to qualify for a shot at the prize.
Hey, maybe Kristof oughta let Bushie take part in the competition--though I'm not sure Georgie-boy can write 700 words all by himself. Whatever. Haliburton could pay his way, saving the NY Times a little moolah.
And, let's be honest, if anyone needs the benefit of a real world, "life transforming" experience--George W. Bush does.
What do you say, Nick?
On the Road, You and Me
By Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times
Where's the best place to get an education? Some might say Harvard or Yale, Oxford or the Sorbonne. But maybe you should add Ndjamena to the list.
Universities are — oh so slowly — recognizing that they need to prepare students to survive globalization. But most overseas studies programs are both too short and too tame. They typically involve sending a herd of students for a term in France or Italy, where they study a little and drink a lot together, amid occasional sightings of locals.
That's why I bring up Ndjamena, this dusty capital of one of the poorest countries in the world. A student living independently here could learn French and Arabic, and would emerge with a much richer understanding of the world than could be taught in any classroom.
Traditionally, many young Britons, Irish, Australians and New Zealanders take a year to travel around the world on a shoestring, getting menial jobs when they run out of money. We should try to inculcate the custom of such a "gap year" in this country by offering university credit for such experiences.
So here's my proposal. Universities should grant a semester's credit to any incoming freshman who has taken a gap year to travel around the world. In the longer term, universities should move to a three-year academic program, and require all students to live abroad for a fourth year. In that year, each student would ideally live for three months in each of four continents: Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe.
A student might, for example, start off teaching English and studying Latin American history in Ecuador, then learn Chinese intensively in Chengdu, then work at an AIDS clinic in Botswana while reading African literature on the side, and finish up by studying Islamic history in Istanbul. In each place, the students would live with local families.
Since the best way to learn about public health challenges is to endure them, I would also suggest offering extra credit for any student who gets malaria.
The cost of a year of travel would be far less than the annual cost of attending many colleges in the U.S. Third-class trains and buses are incredibly cheap; you can sometimes ride free on top of the trains. As a student backpacker myself in India two decades ago, I once lined up with the beggars and lepers of Amritsar to get free gruel from a Sikh temple — but that embarrassed even me.
In any case, all this suffering builds character. And students would get far more out of a year of travel than a year in classrooms.
Meanwhile, there's no need for universities to take the first step. Spring break season is upon us, and university students are dashing off to party in Mexico and Florida. So, you student readers, how about dashing off instead to Mongolia, where you'll find plenty of sand — the Gobi Desert — and get a truly exotic alcoholic drink: fermented mare's milk.
As for parents, if you have a child graduating from high school or college this year, forget about a conventional graduation present. Instead, send him or her off with a friend with a one-way ticket to Timbuktu.
Over a year or so, the kids would figure out how to catch rides with trucks north over the Sahara, then hitchhike through the Middle East and across Central Asia. After a temporary job in Calcutta to earn a few rupees, they could migrate through East Asia and then make enough money as tutors teaching English in China to buy cheap air tickets home.
Now, that would be an education!
You may not know that one of the most cosmopolitan states is Utah. That's because so many young Mormons spend two years abroad as missionaries. They learn languages, live as the locals do and bring back a worldliness that stays with them forever.
All this has been throat-clearing for my own announcement: In an effort to put my company's money where my mouth is, I'm sponsoring a contest in which I'll take a university student with me on a reporting trip to a remote part of Africa. We'll visit schools, clinics and villages, perhaps chatting with presidents in their villas and Pygmies in the rain forest. The winner will write a Weblog for nytimes.com and prepare a video blog that will be shown on mtvU.
So if you're a masochistic student — or if you have an ex you want to send into a malarial jungle — you can find out more information at nytimes.com/winatrip.
And even if you don't win, you can do this kind of thing on your own. So I'll hope to see you hanging out in Ndjamena by the Chari River, as the hippos bellow nearby.
Photo credit: Nicholas D. Kristof. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)