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America is great, but there’s a transformative power in traveling abroad

PETERSBURG, W.Va. — There are times in our lives when the scales fall from our eyes and the world is revealed in an entirely new light. At these moments, we see things clearly for the first time, and suddenly returning to the old way of living seems unimaginable.

Earlier this year I was privileged to meet Elizabeth Ours shortly after she had experienced one of these moments.

Ours, then a senior at Petersburg High School in West Virginia, had recently returned from a transformative two-week excursion to South Africa, her first trip abroad.

As a state officer for the Future Farmers of America, Ours joined other American teens to learn about South African agricultural techniques and practices. They visited farms across the country and went on several safaris.

Ours said everything about South Africa shocked her, particularly the diversity and generosity of the people she met, who left her with an intense desire to return. “I just love them so much,” she said. “I feel like I left part of myself there, because I love it there. I would move there in a heartbeat.”

Ours said that her classmates teased her for traveling to South Africa. “I got so many nasty comments from people here,” she said. “So many. You wouldn’t believe it.”

Some classmates asked why she hadn’t returned home black. Others assumed her excursion was a mission trip. “That’s a big thing for people around here,” she said. “You only leave the country if you’re going on a mission trip. That’s the only reason you would ever leave. And so people could not understand. They were like, ‘So how many children did you feed?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not feeding children.’”

“I wanted to go feed African children and build orphanages until I went there, until I met people there,” she continued. “But no one went and asked them what kind of help they wanted, they just assumed. If I want to go help children in Africa, I want to go and see what they need first. It’s important. You don’t destroy culture.”

Something transformative happens when we travel. Our lives open up, our prejudices are challenged, and the way we see the world is altered. This is what happened to Ours during her trip to South Africa.

Through the Future Farmers of America, Ours has also traveled extensively in the United States, offering her a glimpse of the possibilities that lie outside her hometown and the problems inherent in never venturing beyond it.

“I’d never met a Muslim person before this year,” she said. “West Virginia has put a stereotype in my head” that Muslims are backward and intrinsically prone to violence. “I didn’t even think I was prejudiced, until now,” she said. “Now I think, ‘Why did I think those things?’”

Ours sometimes finds herself acting as an ambassador for her own state, to add context and nuance to the stereotypes many people attach to West Virginia. “When I go to other states, I see we are so behind on technological advancements,” she said.

“But I explain to them, people in West Virginia are very proud of where they come from. They don’t really need material things to make them happy. It’s a beautiful state. It’s a great place to retire or if you want to feel safe and if you like quiet.”

Ours’ political views have changed as she’s traveled. Growing up, she’d always imitated the political views and behavior of her father, a local Republican politician. But that’s changing. “I wouldn’t say I have too many different opinions from my dad, but I’m very open-minded. He has formed his own opinions, and now it’s my chance,” she said. “To see his daughter kind of stray away and form her own opinions is difficult for him.”

Grant County is one of the most staunchly Republican counties in America. Nearly nine in ten residents voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

Grant County’s political and cultural conservatism explains why Ours finds it to be so insular. Research has found that conservative/pro-Trump areas of the country are also the areas where residents are least likely to own a passport. Polling also shows that Republicans are more than twice as likely as Democrats to believe “the U.S. stands above other countries.”

The thinking is that if the U.S. is the greatest country God ever created, what’s the point in traveling elsewhere? What could the rest of the world possibly have to offer?

Ours believes the world has much to offer, which is why she is in a hurry to leave West Virginia.

But before a return visit to South Africa or wished-for trips to Thailand, Australia, and Ireland, Ours will move to Laramie, Wyo., where she’ll begin studying agroecology this fall at the University of Wyoming. She is the only student she knows of from her graduating class who is leaving the area for college, forgoing in-state tuition to pay $23,000 a year to study in another state.

But the money doesn’t matter as much to her as the opportunity to expand her horizons. “I just want out,” she said. “I can’t wait to see the world.”

Daniel Allott (@DanielAllott) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is the author of Into Trump‘s America and former deputy commentary editor at the Washington Examiner.