Travel as a Political Act (and take students!)

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Faculty travel to Cuba. Source: Tammy Castle.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” – Mark Twain

The first time I traveled outside of Eastern Kentucky was for a school trip to Washington DC. The only thing I recall from that trip was a group of bored 12-year olds paraded in front of memorials. At that age, it was difficult to understand the symbolism of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier when the family members who had been in wars didn’t talk about them, and you hadn’t learned anything about war in school.

The second time though was a very different experience. There were no memorials to visit, and the culture shock of New York City, though unsettling, ignited my curiosity—the “power of culture,” as Jeff Ferrell would say. This experience fueled my wanderlust, but it would be a college study abroad program that afforded me my first international travel opportunity—thanks to the assistance of financial aid. It would be that first trip abroad, along with my desire for educational travel experiences that would ultimately lead to an interest in comparative studies.

In the last decade, the number of international/comparative criminology courses offered in traditional criminal justice programs in American universities has increased substantially. However, comparative criminology remains a specialization. Few PhD programs offer doctoral level courses on the subject, and the ones that do include it as one of many elective options. In general, students are not required to understand criminology in an international context for graduate-level studies.

Lacking that background themselves, criminology/criminal justice professors may be hesitant to engage students in discussions of comparative issues. Yet, it is vital that we help them understand the provincial and universal benefits of comparative analyses. As professors educating future practitioners, we can also address the ethnocentrism of American criminology in a variety of ways: one of which is through travel.

Although the research on the impact of study abroad programs is mixed, there are documented benefits. Long-term immersion programs correlate with the most significant changes in ethnorelative worldviews, but short-term programs still impact students’ polarization of cultural differences (Pederson, 2009).

Students at Interpol
Students at Interpol. Source: Tammy Castle.

Related to criminology/criminal justice, students learn how crime is constructed in other cultures, as well as ‘best practices’ models. Furthermore, in developing a student’s ethnorelative criminology, professors can engage students on assumptions of popular criminological theories—developed primarily from quantitative studies with American populations—as they examine cultural similarities/differences.

Short-term study abroad courses also give students with limited financial means the chance to travel. For those who work at regional state universities, which draw heavily from local populations, you’re likely to encounter students who have never been on a plane. These future practitioners may benefit the most from opportunities to reflect on visceral notions of American exceptionalism and cultural imperialism, while also studying criminology abroad.

Students visit the International Criminal Court at the Hague
Students visit the International Criminal Court at the Hague. Source: Tammy Castle

But it’s not just the opportunity to travel that is important. It’s also the way we travel, and the educational component. As my favorite travel writer Rick Steves (2009) discussed in his book, we hope that travel “broadens our perspectives personally, culturally, and politically,” but it only does so if you’re open to the experience (p. 4).

People passionate about this kind of travel are full of anecdotes, and I have a few as well. I recall my first experience with a foreign religion in another country. As I sat in silent meditation seated below the monks, my thoughts drifted home to Eastern Kentucky. As I was experiencing this novel situation, I was struck by the similarities to the churches of my youth: a service followed by a communal meal, cleanup, and fellowship (not to mention my inability to focus thoughts during prayer or meditation).

I reflected on the role of those small churches in Appalachian culture more generally, but also in the survival of my family. I’m not sure I would have made those connections had I not been washing our after-lunch dishes in the kitchen of a Buddhist monastery over 8000 miles from home.

But even though location is important to learning objectives, Steves argues that “you don’t need to visit refugee camps to gain political insight,” and neither should we given the ethical concerns of doing so just to expand one’s worldview (p. 4). Sometimes it’s enough to shake one’s cultural foundations just by getting out of your comfort zone.

That being said, I agree with Steves’ assertion that “Travel becomes a political act only if you actually do something with your broadened perspective once you return home.” He encourages travelers to be advocates for those without a voice outside the U.S. who are impacted by our policies, and to “afflict the comfortable in order to comfort the afflicted” (p. 198-9).

As a human and a traveler, I acknowledge my role in global citizenship in experiences both at home and abroad. As an educator, it is these experiences I wish to share with my students. Ideally, they return to the U.S. with broadened cultural and political perspectives, while also understanding criminology/criminal justice in a global context.

1) Special shout out to Dr. Chuck Fields of Eastern Kentucky University, who routinely engages students outside of their comfort zone in places such as Finland, Estonia, Cuba, and Slovenia.

2) Although the goal of this post was not to provide a how to guide on developing and executing a short-term study abroad program, questions of this nature should be directed to my friend Diana Falco at Diana has worked tirelessly the last four years raising money to take students abroad, and will happily share her expertise on designing short-term study abroad programs for criminology/criminal justice.

Pedersen, P. J. (2009). Teaching towards an ethnorelative worldview through psychology study abroad. Intercultural Education, 20(1): 73–86.

Steves, R. (2009). Travel as a political act. New York: Nation Books.

Tammy Castle, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Justice Studies
James Madison University


  1. I’ll second this emotion. My first out-of-country experience was with Dr. Fields’ Crime and Justice in Scandinavia course. Without a doubt one of the most educational experiences of my life.

  2. Indeed, Carl! If not for professors like Dr. Chuck Fields, it would have been much later in life before I could travel internationally and get out of Eastern Kentucky. 🙂

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