Since he graduated from the University of Michigan in May 2014, Louis Mirante has hitchhiked via cargo ship in the Maldives, attended a class taught by the Dalai Lama on Tibetan Buddhism and spent a month living in Chile.
Before Easter, the LSA graduate plans to live in Southern India for a month or more before he heads to Northern India and, most likely, to Nepal to live and teach at a monastery.
Mirante is traveling the world, but not on his own dime: he is a part of the inaugural class of the LSA Bonderman Travel Fellowship, and was given $20,000 to travel the world for eight months or more.
Piloted with the class of 2014, the LSA Bonderman Travel Fellowship grants four LSA graduates each year the chance to travel the world. They can go wherever they want, when they want for eight months or more.
The only restrictions?
Fellows must travel independently and can only be with friends or family from home or a travel group for up to 10 days. They must go to at least two regions of the world and six countries and are discouraged from traveling to westernized countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada and nations in Western Europe.
2014 LSA graduates Tyler Mesman, Erin Busbee, Ashline Hermiz and Mirante make up the first class of fellows, selected from a pool of about 100 applicants in the spring of 2014.
Since leaving the U.S. on or before Aug. 31, collectively, they have traveled to Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Croatia, Hungary, Jordan, Turkey, Cyprus, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Malaysia.
The program is the brainchild of David Bonderman, an investment adviser and businessman who graduated in 1963 from the University of Washington, which has hosted a similar program for about two decades.
After graduating from Harvard University’s law school, Bonderman received a Sheldon Fellowship, which gave him the opportunity to travel the globe. The experience had such a profound impact on his life that he was inspired to start the Bonderman Travel Fellowship at the University of Washington in 1995. Today, Washington’s Bonderman fellowship is awarded to seven undergraduates and seven graduate students each year.
Bonderman’s daughter and her husband are both University graduates, and it was their idea to start the fellowship in Bonderman’s name. Plans for the pilot program began in September 2013, and the first class of fellows was notified in April 2014.
Mesman, who is from Grand Rapids, began his travels in Istanbul on Aug. 25 and has since gone to Turkey, Cyprus, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, South Africa and, for the past month, India. He originally planned on going to Israel as well, but had to change his plans after it was placed on the University travel restriction list.
Which brings up another program rule: fellows cannot visit anywhere that is restricted according to the University’s Travel Warning and Travel Restriction Destinations. When they applied to the program, all applicants submitted a sample itinerary, and must work with Rachel Reuter, the University’s Center for Global and Intercultural Study’s Health & Safety Coordinator, to ensure their final itinerary is realistic and doable.
In recent years, two Washington Bonderman fellows have died abroad — Jennifer Caldwell traveled with the Fellowship in 2007 and died in a 2009 car accident in South Africa, and Alena Suazo was traveling with the fellowship in Guatemala when became ill and died in 2011. Jordan said they encourage fellows to extensively research any place they plan to travel to, and fellows must e-mail the CGIS office every other week with updates on their whereabouts. Additionally, if fellows want to make changes to their approved itinerary after the program begins, these changes must be approved by CGIS.
“It’s a hands off program,” Reuter said. “But we’re certainly there if they need it.”
After India, Mesman plans on going to Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. He also wants to try to go to Burma and Laos.
“Each country and culture has its own surprises that come along with it and eventually you kind of learn to go with the flow,” Mesman wrote in an e-mail — Internet where he was staying in India was not strong enough to support a video call. “I have actually been more surprised by how similar people are rather than the differences. I’ve been surprised by the culture shocks between each country though — going from Turkey to Zimbabwe is quite the physical and cultural leap. I don’t have the opportunity to go back to the U.S. and push the ‘cultural reset button’.”
In addition to the basic stipulations, Bonderman fellows budget their travels themselves. They are given $8,000 up front, and starting one month after they leave the United States, they are given $1,500 a month. Within their budget, they must purchase University travel insurance.
Reuter said managing a budget is part of what makes the program a great learning experience. $20,000 may seem like a lot, but over eight months expenses can add up fast.
“Seeking out things that they wouldn’t typically do if they had more money is part of the experience,” Reuter said.
Hermiz said she was initially very careful about budgeting her money, but has found that travel is cheaper than she expected.
“In the beginning I thought $1,000 per country would be appropriate,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Hermiz has been to Turkey, Croatia, Hungary, Jordan, Cambodia and Malaysia.
“I have found that I spend much less than that and I really pay attention to ways of saving money as well as when it is OK to splurge,” she said.
During the first application cycle for the program, around 100 seniors applied. A selection committee consisting of CGIS staff and faculty reviewed 18 finalists, and nine candidates were interviewed. CGIS director Michael Jordan said they hope to expand the program gradually in the future, although Bonderman’s daughter and her husband plan to keep it as an undergraduate LSA program.
Jordan said they look for students who haven’t had significant international travel or study abroad experiences, who are open to new experiences and the kind of people who would make good connections and reflect on their experiences.
Before the fellowship, Mesman had only been outside of the United States once: to Spain in 2010 on an organized high school trip. He described this experience as “insulated” because he stayed with a group the entire time and didn’t interact with locals or plan his own travels.
“Even though I’m traveling independently I am never truly alone,” he said. “(There are) always new people to meet in hostels and around.”
Mesman said the hardest part of the experience, for him, has been the “impermanence” of relationships with the people he’s met while traveling.
“These relationships are temporary. At some point either they or I have to say goodbye and keep traveling,” he said. “Wash, Rinse, Repeat. I’m really a people person and I like having a sense of community — so I miss the way it felt to walk around campus and just run into people that you already know instead of just walking around as another face in the crowd.”
Mesman doesn’t currently have a plan to return home. After the eight months of the fellowship ends, he hopes to travel for as long as possible. He is also making plans to travel with his mother after the fellowship to wherever she chooses.
Like Mesman, Erin Busbee, who majored in anthropology, rarely traveled outside of the United States before the fellowship. A varsity track athlete at the University, she spent so much time practicing and competing that she wasn’t able to study abroad either.
Busbee has been in South America for almost five months, but she nearly didn’t apply for the fellowship in the first place. Two of her friends sent her information about the program months in advance, but she glossed it over while applying to policy fellowships in the United States.
She always dreamed of traveling but never thought something like the Bonderman fellowship would become a reality.
“It kind of came naturally,” she said. “Traveling is something I’ve always wanted to do.”
Busbee said her experiences so far have been greatly enriched by the people she’s met in Santiago, Chile; Mendoza, Argentina; Cordoba, Argentina; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Montevideo, Uruguay; Salvador, Bahia in Brazil; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“Most of my experience has been made by the people that I’ve met,” she said. “Going to so many places is nice. I’ve enjoyed experience different places, but after a certain point, being in Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, everything begins to look the same to me and the languages are similar. The people I’ve met and the things I’ve done have stood out.”
Once Busbee leaves South America, she will travel to South Africa and then the Phillipines and Thailand. She also hopes to add another country — if her visa allows her to, she would like to go to Mozambique after South Africa. If not, she might try to go to Japan.
Busbee said, the fellowship has opened her mind to a host of opportunities she had never thought she would experience before. It has been a learning experience in every sense of the word.
“I’m thinking about things like living abroad for a few years whereas I always shied away from this sort of thing before,” Busbee said. “I’m definitely more open to not being in the United States and not quite having an exact career path. I can’t imagine being back and going to work every day.”
Louis Mirante also said the fellowship, for him, has been about meeting and learning from the groups of people he has met. He had previously traveled in Europe and Mexico, but never to Asia or South America, and said that going to countries that aren’t dominated by the European way of thinking was one of the best experiences he had.
“You learn new ways of thinking,” he said. “Internalizing these new ways of thinking can help you learn about problems in new ways and think about solutions to things you might not even have considered to be problems.”
At the time of his interview, Mirante was in the Maldives, a small island nation off the coast of Sri Lanka that wasn’t originally on his itinerary. He decided to travel here after finding cheap round trip tickets for a four-day trip — but stayed for a month.
Mirante was in the Maldives when he found himself in the middle of a water crisis. After a fire at the country’s main water plant, the entire northern part of the country had no running water. Mirante was in the Maldives the entire time, and he saw how they responded to the crisis, rationing out water from public buildings and eventually, Sri Lanka and India.
“The way that they distributed it was from their main cultural centers, which are the mosques,” he said. “I stood in line for water at mosques with everyone else so I could have something to drink. That was definitely a really interesting experience.”
Mirante said he realized how much more he engages with a place when he does not set himself a date on when he is leaving.
“When you have an expiration date for an experience or a place, it really limits how you think about traveling there,” Mirante said. “I really go with the flow. If I feel like its time for me to leave a place, I leave. If I feel like I should stay longer, I stay longer.”
Before the Fellowship began, Hermiz’s only international travel was to France with her high school French class. She said the most surprising thing was how prevalent Western culture is internationally.
“In some places I was not expecting to see Starbucks or KFCs everywhere,” she said. “And it is not something that really surprised me, but it saddens me to see so many products that encourage skin whitening and to hear many young Cambodian girls state that they do not like their skin because it is darker. I know how pervasive the white beauty standard is, but it is really crushing to see just how ingrained it is and how normative it is in both western and non-western cultures.”
Though study abroad programs at the University can be expensive, the Bonderman Fellowship is free for all applicants. Mesman transferred to the University from a community college and only spent three years on campus. He always dreamed of traveling, but didn’t study abroad for financial reasons and to make the most of his time in Ann Arbor. When he discovered the Fellowship, he said it was “too good to be true” and dropped all of his job applications at the time so he could focus on applying.
“I knew I would regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t at least apply,” he said. “And now here I am.”
Mesman studied political science and philosophy at the University. He originally planned on going into domestic U.S. politics, but after traveling since August, his plans have changed.
“I’ve been looking into careers that are more internationally focused so I can combine my passion for travel with my work,” he wrote in an e-mail. “(I’m) not exactly sure what that looks like for me yet but I’ll begin exploring more options once I get back to the U.S.”
All four fellows agreed that the fellowship has been a life changing experience, but in different ways. Hermiz said she has grown immensely because of her travels. She plans on going into Social Work, but said her experiences have helped her understand that international issues are just as important as social inequality in the U.S.
“I feel so much more independent now than I did before I left,” she said. “I take more risks and I am much more outgoing and patient. I am also constantly able to reflect on my experiences, but also analyze social issues in broader context.”
Mesman said the impacts of the Fellowship on his life have forever changed him.
“I don’t think I’ll fully understand how it’s changed my life until it’s over and even some months beyond that,” Mesman said. “But right now I can say that I feel like the Fellowship has made me a more authentic me and tapped into my passion for exploration and learning. It’s simultaneously made me more confident and more humble about my understanding of the world and my place in it. It’s definitely shifted my perspective. There truly is nothing else like it.”
The 2015 application is open to anyone who will have graduated between December 2014 and May 2015. The application requires a trip itinerary, three essays and two recommendations. Recipients will be notified by mid-February.