An alum learns about his place in the world by exploring it.
When Andy Stoll couldn't choose just one thing to do after graduation, he decided to do it all: to study filmmaking in Hong Kong; teach English in Kazakhstan; farm maize in Zambia; bartend in the Australian Outback; search for wild orangutans in the jungles of Borneo; trade stories with poets in India; and demonstrate pie making on Armenian national television.
In short, he decided to take a trip around the world.
"The original plan was pretty simple," says Stoll, a 2003 graduate of The University of Iowa. "I wanted to go around the world for one year, visit as many places as I could, and explore my passions—things like filmmaking, social entrepreneurship, education, story telling, people, and food."
That one-year excursion turned into what looks to be a three-year journey that started with nine months based in Hong Kong promoting international peace and understanding as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, and continued with solo travel through Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and Australia. So far, Stoll's journey has taken him through 33 countries. If funds allow, he hopes to also visit the Americas before returning home later this year.
"The biggest goal of the trip has been to understand how people live in the world, and to really understand my place in it as a young American," Stoll says. "I grew up with the belief that I have a duty to contribute to the world, but I began to feel like I couldn't help the world effectively if I didn't understand it better."
Stoll grew up in Omaha, Neb., but now calls Iowa City home. As an undergraduate at Iowa, he served as student body president and vice president, and was executive director of the Bijou Theater, the University of Iowa's nonprofit, student-run cinema.
After graduating with degrees in management and communication studies, he spent three years in Iowa City working for the College of Public Health, enrolled in the entrepreneurial certificate program at the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, and cofounded and ran a community-building, social entrepreneurial incubator called The James Gang, which in 2005 was recognized by the Iowa City Press-Citizen as the group or individual that had the largest impact on the community.
During that time, Stoll built a travel fund by setting aside about $350 a month, and researched his trip by looking through travel magazines, talking with people, and making connections with friends of friends who lived abroad. Before setting off on his trip around the world in August 2006, he'd never been outside of the United States.
Throughout his travels, Stoll has recorded his experiences through writing, photography, and video. He keeps a travelogue on a personal web site, http://noboundaries.org/, and stays in touch with friends and family through e-mail, Skype (which allows users to make telephone calls over the Internet), and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
"Even five years ago, a trip like this would have been a completely different experience," Stoll says. "The advances in technology, particularly videoconferencing and Facebook, make traveling to distant lands not so distant at all. The Internet is ubiquitous."
Stoll strives to go beyond typical tourist destinations and get a taste of "normal, everyday, regular life." He befriends and stays with locals whenever he can, and uses family photographs, simple magic tricks, and homemade apple pie to break through the inevitable language barriers.
While he had some experiences planned and destinations mapped out when he began his trip, Stoll's journey is an organic one that changes direction as he meets new people and new opportunities arise.
"I move from one experience to the next, and have to sort of live in the moment, no time to look back or really to plan too far ahead," he says.
Each experience has been unique, but a common thread has drawn them all together: the people.
"The biggest lesson that I've learned from this trip is that, cultural and language differences aside, we are all much more similar than we're led to believe," Stoll says. "We laugh at the same things, cry at the same things, are amazed by the same things... It's through these similarities that people make connections."
Stoll says he's often urged to write a book about his trip—and that's something he'd like to do—but right now his goal is just to encourage other Americans to go beyond their borders and see other parts of the world.
"Travel offers amazing self-enriching opportunities," he says. "In the money rich and time poor culture of America, many of us don't take enough time just for ourselves, to do what we want to do. Long-term travel allows you that opportunity."
But it goes beyond personal gain. Every individual can impact the world simply by being out in it, Stoll says.
"Just having Americans out there, backpacking through the Middle East, for example, that's probably one of the best grassroots ways to restore faith in America," he says. "In the last 2½ years, I've seen first-hand that much of the world has lost faith in what America stands for, that the place that America once held in their dreams and aspirations has slipped. Getting Americans to travel to other countries, and meet the people who live there, is a small part of the process of remaking America in the eyes of the rest of the world.
"Beyond that," he adds, "It's a lot of fun."
Story by Anne Kapler; Photos courtesy of Andy Stoll.
March 9, 2009