Stranger in a strange land

Lessons I brought home from my sabbatical’s 20-country adventure

Erica Plouffe Lazure
April 25, 2024

Boston Logan airport Terminal E, waiting on my flight to Munich for spring break, I think about the seniors in my travel writing class, who have spent the past few weeks plotting adventures to far-flung destinations like Chile, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The final project for ENG583: Stranger in a Strange Land invites each student to design a journey to anywhere in the world, with little more than $2,000, a travel buddy and a plane ticket. As I listened to them presenting their big plans during the last week of winter term, I recalled the adventure I’d recently taken for my own sabbatical, and I felt inspired all over again.

In the seven years I’ve taught this English elective about travel writing, ethics and privilege, my students’ plans have included bike riding through Laos, skiing in North Korea and taste-testing jollof rice in Ghana. Some have opted to hike in Patagonia, caravan through Namibia, or visit the still-radioactive remains of Chernobyl. As they figure out their (imagined) itineraries, they learn how to set a budget, consider travel logistics and account for safety factors, visa requirements and other limitations. They teach each other by presenting their findings, enticing us to put new destinations on our collective bucket list.

During our planning stages, I always remind my students about the relationship between what you value and how you spend your money. “When you’re paying your own way, you’ll find out pretty quickly what you value most,” I tell them. And the narratives they develop, based on whom they’re bringing, what they’re doing and what they value, never fail to entertain, and inspire: One student, impassioned by lemurs, sought to study them in Madagascar, while another opted to go to London, rent a chauffeured Rolls-Royce and spend a night at the Ritz. Another wanted to see for herself the so-called “snow monsters” in Mount Zao, Japan, while another let a random country generator decide that he’d plan a trip to Azerbaijan.

Beyond the immersive engagement and creativity in these trips, what I love most about this project is its capacity to give our students the tools and knowledge for turning their dreams into reality. How do you turn a “maybe, someday” idea into an actual plan?

It’s no wonder, then, that my students inspired my sabbatical in spring 2023, as I endeavored to realize my “maybe, someday” dream to travel around the world. I had experienced the benefits of traveling with colleagues while visiting different schools and regions of China in 2012; I had spent 2015 teaching English at School Year Abroad in Viterbo, Italy; and I had just returned from chaperoning the Stratford, UK, program in the fall.

I’d been ready to take my first sabbatical in March 2020 (I had lined up two writing residencies in Spain and Portugal), but the pandemic lockdown kept me in Hoyt Hall instead, teaching on Zoom and listening to podcasts while baking sourdough bread and growing a vegetable garden. When the world finally opened up, and I got the OK for my sabbatical in spring 2023, I decided it was time to think big.

In winter 2022, as my students discussed the ways travel transforms both travelers and the places they visit, I was busy spending my weekends hastily hatching my Boston-to-Boston itinerary. I had plans to be in Seattle in March for a writers’ conference, so the trick was figuring out how to get to Asia from the West Coast on a budget.

Following the literal path of least expensive flights, my itinerary brought me first to Hawaii, then Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan and Hong Kong. From there I went to the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore and Australia. Then I traveled to Bali, Thailand, Nepal, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Palestine. The last leg of my journey took me to Egypt, Albania and Germany, with a quick stopover in Iceland. In all, fueled by the Academy’s sabbatical stipend and my own savings and paycheck, I visited 20 countries from March through mid-July, 15 of which I’d never visited before. I returned home to Exeter in August, readjusting to my life on campus, teaching English, advising The Exonian and living in Dunbar Hall.

As far away as I was from campus during my travels, I’d often find a tie right back to Exeter. For example, a Japanese woman I’d met on the China faculty trip welcomed me to Tokyo, and we ventured around the city together to see the cherry blossoms. In Seoul, I was surprised to learn that a woman introduced to me through my cousin had sent her sons to Exeter Summer; in Manila, I had a chance to visit and lead a short workshop with the faculty at the Harkness-inspired Beacon School, founded by Mailin Paterno Locsin and her husband and PEA alum, Andy Locsin ’80, thanks to an introduction from their daughter, Adela Locsin ’13, whom I knew when I lived in Wheelwright. In Taipei, I was welcomed by relatives of my PEA colleague Dr. Szu-Hui Lee, and even the language barrier did not diminish a genuine feeling of mutual joy and care. Meanwhile, another Wheelie, Lily George ’14, and I crossed paths twice, once in Seattle and later in Taipei, where she was continuing to study Chinese. And in Singapore, Casey Lynn Siagian, who had participated in the Summer Writers’ Workshop at Exeter in 2013, met me for a lovely afternoon in the botanical gardens.

The sabbatical is just that: a pause from Exeter’s daily grind, a chance to recalibrate or strengthen why or how we teach.
Erica Plouffe Lazure

Sometimes, the Exeter ties were too random to fathom: On a late-night glowworm tour near Sydney, Australia, I was chatting in the dark on the ride back with a young couple, only to realize that I had been the young man’s first English teacher at Exeter 11 years earlier. (“We planted daffodil bulbs and wrote poems about them,” he recalled.)

Technically, I’d spent those five months traveling solo, but it rarely felt that way. Between my frequent updates on social media, the books I’d read by authors from almost every country, and the people I met along the way, I never felt alone. I felt a genuine sense of community and connection everywhere.

Lin Chi, for example, invited me to eat a banh xiao on my first night in Saigon, and we spent the next few days together. Several women doctors on a flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa arranged for my safe arrival to my hotel. A host of friends online offered to wire me cash when I lost my bank card. When I’d send off another some of them were right there with me. In those five months, I was never truly alone.

The sabbatical is just that: a pause from Exeter’s daily grind, a chance to recalibrate or strengthen why or how we teach, and an opportunity to learn something new. Beyond personal growth, one of the most exciting aspects of this journey was learning more about where many of our students, or their extended families, call home. Before I left, I met with members of the International Student Organization and invited them to follow me on my travels through Instagram (, and some of them did. Every so often I’d get a short note or recommendation for wherever I happened to be, and I loved sharing my journey with the community.

This past year, it’s been such a pleasure to meet some of our international students or colleagues and be able to chat with them about places they know well. It’s been a privilege to learn about different regions of the world by actually visiting them — eating the food, exploring different neighborhoods and meeting new people. After my trip, I feel more connected to both my students and colleagues who call these regions home.

When my seniors in English 583 dreamed and planned big, they gave me permission to do the same. Realizing I could puddle-jump my way around the world on a budget, with nothing more than a small carry-on and backpack, and find friends along the way, enabled me to experience in real time how connected we all are, or can be. Putting myself in a learner’s mindset for those five months — being both teacher and student, if you will — helped me to understand myself in ways I hadn’t expected. 

Now that I’m back on campus, I feel hardier, more capable and creative. As someone who still dislikes sharks and putting her face in the water, I’m now a certified open-water diver who encountered a shark in Bali. I rode scooters solo in Vietnam. I got stitches in Dubai. I learned about the history and legends of the Indigenous communities at Mossman Gorge, just outside Cairns, Australia, and taste tested more kinds of fried chicken than I care to admit. (Thailand and South Korea take the win, in a toss-up.) I have a host of new books to introduce to my students in the fall.

When I’m back in my classroom in Phillips Hall, I’m excited to continue to help our community members keep connecting with the wider world and to teach them to be responsible and caring travelers and explorers. As I’ve encountered firsthand, so much of the learning that happens while traveling cannot be taught; you’ve got to get out there and experience it.

While my next sabbatical is still a few years away, the learning continues as I head off to Bavaria for spring break. My plane is boarding. … I must be off!

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.

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