As I write this article, I’m sitting in my friend’s living room in Rio de Janeiro, where I studied as a high school exchange student five years ago. I’m back, 30 countries later, surrounded by familiar faces in the neighborhood that started my love for travel. But now I embrace my experience here from a totally different perspective.
My 2016 started off with no electricity during a citywide blackout in the interior of Brazil. Instead of celebrating the New Year, I was editing an interview my film crew conducted earlier that day with a journalist covering the mudslides that occurred near our city of Mariana, in the state of Minas Gerais. The reality of travel and working abroad is not simple, and it’s certainly not as easy as many people fantasize it to be. Working productively in constantly changing environments and political situations requires flexibility and adaptability, which is contrary to the stable conditions that most people believe are necessary to work effectively. However, regardless of the many inconveniences and surprises, this is the most rewarding kind of job I can imagine.
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In late November of last year, toxic mudslides from a burst dam at an iron ore mine contaminated three major rivers that are the water source for more than 250,000 people. They also killed thousands of fish and displaced hundreds of families. Recovery of the Rio Doce and its dependent environments is expected to take more than 30 years.
In situations such as I faced here in Brazil, where film and photography are the tools used to convey messages and address global issues, travel and education are synched. Inevitably, while traveling, the truths of injustice, crisis, and poverty are also brought to the surface in our lens. In many countries I have been pulled to crisis, and local issues surfacing, and facing the fundamentals of human injustice in conflict.
As an international hospitality and tourism major, I remember sitting in class during my freshman year when a guest speaker spoke about his work in the Peruvian Amazon. I followed this dream to the rain forest. What was conceived as a three-month summer internship turned into a six-month project that enabled me to learn how to analyze cultural issues and how tourism interacted with culture all over Peru. My internship allowed me to travel with a professional purpose, push myself to the best of my abilities, and learn the power of image in our visual world.
We are taught in our courses to follow our dreams, as our passions will push us to excel. My professors and advisors encouraged the idea that a true understanding of the world exists outside the classroom, and the best education we can have is experiencing it. The purpose of university is to teach us to succeed in the real world.
“I’ve been detained at borders. I have also heard stories and met people I will never forget who taught me what it means to be human in the context of saying ‘I love you’ and ‘cheers’ in 15 languages.”
— Erin Skoczylas ’16
Among my university courses were business strategies and languages. However, my most valuable lessons in photography and travel were gained outside the classroom. My financial skills came from learning how to budget my travels and bargain for vital goods and services. My language skills were attained when I forced myself to survive in a foreign environment.
I have sailed across the world, hitchhiked on two continents, slept in the port of Hong Kong, camped in deserts, in jungles, and on the sides of a highway. I’ve been detained at borders. I have also heard stories and met people I will never forget who taught me what it means to be a human in the context of saying “I love you” and “cheers” in 15 languages. Who’s to say that education is not learning to climb Machu Picchu on my own, watching the sunrise over the ancient temples of Bagan, or learning to ride a motorbike in India? These are moments when I challenged myself as a person, as a traveler, and as a photographer. They have led to the most extraordinary experiences, and my best photos are the ones I have taken when I put myself at greatest risk.
University is not only a time to invest in your education, but to invest in yourself as a person and develop the mental skills you need to build your career. I am now in my final semester, finishing my courses online. In the real world at last, I will be working and learning more about the wetlands of Brazil and then interning in Costa Rica. You’ll find me somewhere in a jungle, in the mountains, or on a beach with a camera.