The first time I visited Washington DC, I flew there in an airplane with about 100 or so other noisy, excited eighth-graders…without our parents! We visited numerous museums, memorials and the Library of Congress. The one disappointment was not getting to visit the White House. The freedom, excitement and living history experienced on that trip as a 13-year-old sparked a passion for travel that eventually led to my career as a travel blogger.
An invitation from the White House
Back during that middle school trip I never would have thought of becoming a travel blogger. This took place, after all, during the pre-Internet 1980s. I certainly wouldn't have dreamed that someday I would be invited by the White House to return to Washington DC. But that's exactly what happened when I received an email invitation as one of the 100 most influential travel bloggers and digital media outlets to attend a White House Travel Blogger Summit on Study Abroad and Global Exchange.
At first I thought the invitation was a scam of some sort. They did request my social security number within the body of the email. After doing a little Internet research and checking in with my travel blogging buddies, I discovered it was legit. Travel expenses and lodging would not be covered and I worried my family couldn't afford to send me galavanting off to Washington DC. But my husband said, “When you're invited to the White House, I think you need to go!”
Exploring Washington DC solo
I arrived in Washington DC early to explore since I hadn't been back to my nation's capital since that middle school trip of long ago. When I asked friends and family what I should do with my one free day in DC, the Lincoln Memorial topped everyone's list. It was just as majestic as the first time I saw it as a young teen.
I walked along the National Mall, pausing to take photos of memorials like the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Women's Memorial. Although I love traveling with my family, sometimes it is so glorious to do and see exactly what I want, for as long or short as I want, without worrying about anyone else's wishes. All told, I walked over 12 miles in windy 30 degree weather that day (according to my trusty Fitbit).
I also spent a few hours wandering through the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The display of First Ladies' gowns (Jackie O's was the best, of course) and the exhibit on the office of the Presidency were impressive. But there was something especially thrilling about seeing slices of pop culture on display. Although I was disappointed to find Fonzie's leather jacket had been removed since my first visit, I was pleased to find Dorothy's red slippers, Archie Bunker's chair and, most importantly, Julia Child's kitchen. The movie, Julie and Julia, makes me cry every time I watch it. The film is all about two writers who followed their dreams, and their dreams came true. I can relate.
The Summit kick off
The following morning the White House Travel Blogger Summit kicked off with breakfast at the W Hotel, with its view of the Washington Monument in the not so far distance. It was funny to see my travel blogging compadres all dressed up in neckties and skirts. We tend to be a casual bunch, sporting sneakers and backpacks. Some of the guys even had to purchase or borrow suits just for the occasion.
Touring the White House
Next we were off to the actual White House portion of our summit. We had been told cameras weren't allowed in the President's home, but we were pleasantly surprised when we learned that photo-taking is permitted during the holiday season only. If you want to see my pictures of the White House all gussied up for the holidays, check out my White House Christmas Tour.
National Press Club luncheon
For lunch we dined at the National Press Club, courtesy of Hostelling International USA (HI USA). Since the White House tours went a little long, the vibe was hurry-up-and-eat while the HI USA CEO Russ Hedge talked about how their network of hostels help to foster goodwill between nations and often serve as a first step for students and other travelers going overseas. Indeed, some of my first and favorite travel experiences took place in hostels during my year abroad in Europe.
White House Travel Blogger Summit on Study Abroad and Global Exchange
Finally it was time for the real meat of the summit. After being sniffed down by security dogs and walking through x-ray machines, we gained entrance to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, just adjacent to the West Wing. (Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford, and George H. W. Bush all had offices in this building before becoming President.)
No, President Obama did not swing by to say, “Hi.” His Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, did, though. As did Tina Tchen, Chief of Staff to the First Lady as well as other important political muckety mucks. Also on panels were TV Host Samantha Brown and Lonely Planet's US Travel Editor Robert Reid.
The over-arching message? “Study abroad is important and study abroad is for everyone,” as Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Evan Ryan stated. As proof of their dedication to the cause, the government is launching a U.S. Study Abroad Office under the Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs to encourage all students to study abroad and to increase diversity among American foreign exchange students.
According to Penny Pritzker, Secretary of Commerce, 60% of Fortune 500 executives ranked global awareness as very important or essential to business success. She also talked about how travel diffuses prejudices, because traveling to other countries points out how, “our similarities vastly outweigh our differences.”
What was the point?
There was a lot of preaching to the choir going on, with speakers singing the praises of study abroad. At one point, a speaker asked how many of us had studied abroad. Not surprisingly, almost everyone in the room raised their hand, myself included.
What was the point, then? The point was to get us excited and talking, blogging and tweeting about the importance of studying abroad. Currently, less than 10% of American students study abroad. In order for the US to remain competitive, we need to increase that number.
Many people think study abroad is only for the wealthy, but there are several programs that make studying in another country more affordable and accessible. (My travel blogging friend, Kara Williams, shares a nice list of study abroad resources in her post about the White House Travel Bloggers Summit here.)
After three hours in a conference room without any water, our brains were full and our mouths were parched. We headed off on buses to the Newseum, a museum dedicated to bringing journalism and the world's news to life through interactive exhibits. Newseum employees tried to encourage us to wander through their newsy displays, but we all bee-lined for the bar. I guzzled a glass of water before diving into the wine and canapes. I wish I could tell you more about this museum, but my mind was swirling with too much information and I couldn't bring myself to explore much beyond the food and drink provided by our host, Turkish Airlines.
Meeting Samantha Brown
At the summit, I summoned the courage to introduce myself to Samantha Brown, star of numerous Travel Channel television shows and one of two celebrities I've always wanted to meet. (The other is Oprah Winfrey. Duh!) I even got my photo taken with Ms. Brown and met her sweet husband.
Turkish Airlines surprise
During our sit-down dinner at the Newseum, a representative from Turkish Airlines took the mic. Apparently they were going to give away business class round trip tickets to Turkey to 10 lucky travel bloggers but they changed their minds. Instead, they're sending ALL OF US to Turkey. We all jumped up and down feverishly, squealing and shrieking like Oprah's audience members during one of her holiday giveaway shows. Travel blogger Carol Cain of Girl Gone Travel assumed the role of Oprah, pointing at blogger after blogger, shouting, “You get to go to Turkey! You get to go to Turkey! You get to go to Turkey!”
Exhausted and overwhelmed by the day's events, I finally took a van back to my hotel…with none other than Samantha Brown.
I have always dreamed of returning to Washington DC and of going to the White House and of meeting Samantha Brown and of flying to Turkey. But this day exceeded my dreams. And it all started with a school trip to Washington DC as 13-year-old kid.
P.S. Another surprise from the White House!
I thought this post was done. Then I got another email from the White House today. At the summit breakfast, an announcement was made…something about the 10 most influential travel bloggers receiving a special surprise and a return visit to Washington DC. I was in a room with the 100 most influential travel bloggers; I knew there was no way I was winning this one so I piled my plate with more carbohydrates and didn't give it another thought. Today's email was an invitation to return to the White House…this time for a tour of the Oval Office! Apparently, I was one of the 10 most influential attendees in terms of encouraging people to weigh in on study abroad via the #StudyAbroadBecause mosaic below. Thank YOU if you were one of the people who added your picture and your thoughts to the mosaic!
Dream big, people! And throw your arms open to welcome unexpected dreams when they appear!
Have you ever experienced something during your travels that exceeded your expectations? Tell us about it in the comments below!
Thank you to the W Hotel, Hostelling International USA, Turkish Airlines, the Newseum and the National Press Club for hosting the White House Travel Bloggers Summit.