Why I went abroad alone at 16

I was 16. It was the time in my life when I was an angsty teenager. I didn’t want to be at home. I didn’t want to be in school. I wanted a break from my life. I needed to do something out-of-the-ordinary for the average high school girl.

So, I sat myself down and tried to figure out what that crazy thing was going to be.

After some online research, I became intrigued about taking a trip abroad. I had never been out of the country before, with my family or alone, but it felt like putting my feet on foreign soil was what the universe was telling me to do.

Realistically, at 16, there wasn’t going to be much I could do alone, and I worried I would most likely end up lost or kidnapped if I were to attempt such a thing. However, there were still ways for me to travel and do good in the process.

Enter Global Leadership Adventures. GLA is a teen travel and volunteer abroad organization that promotes service, leadership and exploration. If I wanted to escape my dreary high school life, what better way than to channel the teenage angst into something bigger than myself?

The GLA program offers a lot of different locations and programs to take a part in, but its two-week program in Thailand caught my eye. It involved volunteering at a home for previously-abused mothers and children, an orphanage for children living with HIV, and an elephant shelter – all things that sounded both worthwhile and most rewarding to me.

I could have chosen someplace more popular at the time, like a country in Europe and other more touristy locations, but I have never been one to shy from an adventure. After all, I wanted to do something that would set me apart. I wanted to do something that I could really learn from.

The hardest part of this process wasn’t deciding where to go, but convincing my parents to allow me to go.

“How are you going to afford this?” “Is it safe?” “Who will you be with?”

It took a lot of research and reassurance and eventually they gave in. They had realized how important it was to me.

So, with money that I had saved up through my own work, I bought myself a plane ticket, paid the program fees, got a passport, and prepared for the unknown to come.

Looking back at it now, it was the best decision I could have made at 16. I learned so much through the process. I was surrounded by other teenagers like myself looking for make a difference within themselves, but also the world around them. The mentors were considerate and full of helpful knowledge.

While I loved the connections I made with my group, I loved even more the connection I made with the land and the Thai people. I learned about the bigger topics of cultural differences, human rights, land rights and how to communicate with others despite language barriers.

Angsty, 16-year-old me was looking for an escape from my oh-so dramatic life, and I found way more than I could have ever imagined. I discovered a deeper purpose within me and a passion for seeing the world that will stay with me forever.

When you’re growing up, it can feel like the world is against you. For a young adult, it is suffocating. By going abroad alone at 16, I found out just how little I knew about life and just how much the world was for me.

Photo courtesy of Yicong Chen

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