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Five Lessons from a Citizen of the World

Five Lessons from a Citizen of the World

Shannon O'Donnell, '06, has experienced more than 40 countries. Her book, The Volunteer Traveler's Handbook, helped the 29-year-old earn one of National Geographic Traveler magazine's 2013 Traveler of the Year awards.

Fall 2014

“In 2008 at Los Angeles International Airport, I watched out the window as the ground crew loaded my bag onto a plane that would take me on a one-way flight to Australia. It was the start of a yearlong around-the-world journey and the realization of my dream to see other places — to find a purpose by experiencing other cultures and countries. I didn’t know it, but that solo trip would evolve into six years of slowly working my way across the globe. Here are five things I’ve learned from a life of travel.”

The World Is Kind

“There are real dangers, but for me, traveling illustrated the inherent kindness in the world. In every corner of the globe, new friends welcomed me into their homes, helped me when I was sick, and generously shared their cultures. Travel affords the chance to approach each new place with curiosity and empathy — an approach that is echoed back manifold.”

Joy Is Everywhere

“In so many countries I’ve witnessed startling wealth disparities, vastly different educational systems, the effects of political and economic turmoil, and the hard work that goes into mere survival. Yet there was joy in even the most seemingly helpless situations. Long-term travel deepened my perspective on the world and instilled in me a daily practice of thankfulness.”

People Like Us

“I’ve spent hundreds of hours in deep conversations with strangers on buses, trains and planes. Each person offered a fascinating story, a nugget of wisdom or a nuance of the local culture. From each I learned a great respect for how different our lives can be, but even more for the shared commonalities. Laughter, love and community transcend culture and unite us.”

Safe Is Risky

“The idea of solo travel terrified me. Traveling pushed me into new situations where, at the moment of deepest fear, I realized the chance I was taking was the opportunity to live my life to the fullest. And I don’t mean fears like physical danger, but rather the fears that whisper [to] conform and take the safe path. Those fears prevent us from reaching our goals.”

Door Opener

“Smiling is a gift that transcends cultures. Though you should learn ‘thank you’ and ‘hello’ in the local tongue, language barriers are more easily dealt with than most people think. A simple smile has been the start of many amazing conversations over the years. That little gesture opened the door to offers of kindness because it made me more approachable. I count it among my most valuable possessions on the road.”

View Shannon’s travel photos:


At the Manjushri Di-Chen Buddhist Learning Center in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, O’Donnell used a of game Simon Says to teach English to young monks. 

Giving a native Asian elephant a bath in the Mekong River was a memorable experience in Laos.

Collecting fair trade coffee with a young girl from the Akha hill tribe at the remote mountain Maejantai village in Thailand.

Outside Luang Prabang, Laos, boats docked at sunset on the Mekong River, one of the most important waterways in Southeast Asia.

The ornate Vat Ho Pha Bang temple in Luang Prabang, Laos, was built to house the Phra Bang Buddha, an ancient and revered bronze statue covered in gold leaf. 

In Myanmar, O'Donnell and her niece Ana visited the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is covered in hundreds of gold plates and crowned with a 72-carat diamond.

The Bagan Archeological Zone in Burma features more than 2,000 temples dating back to the 11th century.

During a visit to Jordan, O'Donnell learned a centuries-old method to make bread from a Bedouin woman.

The nomadic Bedouin still use camels to cross the Wadi Rum valley in Jordan.

An aerial view of the ruins around the grounds of Blarney Castle, Ireland.

Shannon and her cousin at the Taj Mahal, India.

Donning the traditionally colorful dress of the Maasai people at Maji Moto village in Kenya.

Cape Agulhas is a rocky headland in the Western Cape of South Africa that forms the geographic southern tip of the continent.