Life Coming Full Circle at the White House Travel Blogger Summit

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.

Can you find me standing next to TV's Samantha Brown in this group photo taken at the White House Travel Bloggers Summit?

Can you find me standing next to the Travel Channel's Samantha Brown in this group photo taken at the White House Travel Bloggers Summit? (Photo credit: Turkish Airlines)

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!”

Lincoln Memorial, White House Travel Bloggers Summit

The Lincoln Memorial was worth the long walk from my hotel (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

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.

Korean War Memorial, Washington DC

The striking Korean War Memorial (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

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).

Jacqueline Kennedy's gown at the Smithsonian Museum of American History

Jacqueline Kennedy's gown at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

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.

Julia Child's kitchen at the Smithsonian

I almost teared up when I saw Julia Child's kitchen at the Smithsonian (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

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.

View of the Washington Monument from the W Hotel (

Our breakfast view of the Washington Monument from the W Hotel Washington DC (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

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.

Standing in front the White House during the White House Travel Bloggers Summit on Global Citizenship and Study Abroad

Standing in front the White House during the White House Travel Bloggers Summit on Global Citizenship and Study Abroad

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.

Global-themed centerpiece at the White House Travel Bloggers Summit luncheon at the National Press Club (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Global-themed centerpiece at the White House Travel Bloggers Summit luncheon at the National Press Club (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

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.)

The Eisenhower Executive Building dolled up for the holidays

The Eisenhower Executive Building dolled up for the holidays (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

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.

Chief of Staff Denis McDonough speaking at the White House Travel Blogger Summit on Study Abroad and Global Exchange

Chief of Staff Denis McDonough speaking at the White House Travel Blogger Summit on Study Abroad and Global Exchange (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

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.”

These presidential Hershey Kisses were waiting for me on my chair at the White House Travel Blogger Summit

These presidential Hershey Kisses were waiting for me on my chair at the White House Travel Blogger Summit (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

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.)

Before heading to the Newseum reception, all 100 of us travel bloggers were scooted behind a gate by a secret service agent to let some VIP zip past

Before heading to the Newseum reception, all 100 of us travel bloggers were scooted behind a gate by a secret service agent to let some VIP zip past (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Newseum reception

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.

Posing for a photo with the Travel Channel's Samantha Brown

Posing for a photo with the travel show host Samantha Brown (Photo credit: Travel Mamas)

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!”

A tray of Turkish delight sweets at the White House Travel Bloggers Summit Newseum reception

A tray of Turkish delight sweets at the White House Travel Bloggers Summit Newseum reception (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

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 studied abroad? Know someone who has? Why should students study abroad? Chime in and let your voice be heard. Click the ADD ME button to add yourself to the #StudyAbroadBecause mosaic.
Patent pending, Hyperactivate

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.

About Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama

Colleen Lanin is the founder/editor-in-chief of TravelMamas.com. As the author of her book, "The Travel Mamas' Guide," she teaches parents not only how to survive a trip with children, but also how to love exploring the world with their offspring. Her stories have appeared online and in print for such outlets as the "Today" show, NBCNews.com, Parenting Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, Expedia, San Diego Family Magazine, and more. Colleen gives tips on television, radio, and as a public speaker. She has a master’s degree in business administration with a background in marketing. She lives in Arizona with her husband and two kids.

Comments

  1. Debbie Ferm says:

    So excited for you, Colleen:) A hard won honor! Congrats.

  2. Incredible opportunity! I did a study abroad to the Middle East (Israel, Egypt and Jordan) and it was life-changing. I’m already encouraging my kiddos to do the same.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Amber – Study abroad was life-changing for me as well. I can imagine that studying in the Middle East would be such an amazing eye-opening experience.

  3. Such an honor!! Congratulations on the first, and now the return trip to the White House! I can’t wait to hear about that experience as well.

  4. Wahoo! Psyched to see you back in DC lady! Can’t wait to get the low down on your 2nd visit!

  5. Wow… I really like your blog. You deserved to have an invitation from the White House. More power!

  6. I love exploring cities by myself and Washington looks like a great one. I would’ve loved to see the Jackie dresses!

  7. I took a school trip to Washington DC in the 8th Grade too. I can relate to your memories, and appreciate what an exciting opportunity it was to be invited to the Blogger Summit! I’m so happy too that you’ve been invited to return. What an honor.

  8. How so very exciting?! Turkey, Sam Brown, White House x 2! Awesome and congrats!

    I didn’t do study abroad in college but I just shared in a recent blog post how it was one of my bigger regrets. Luckily, I did have the opportunityopportunity to spend a summer in Alaska that provided a similar experience.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Casey – What a wonderful experience to live and learn in Alaska. No use having regrets – sounds like you found just what you were looking for!

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