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An Open Letter to Malia Obama - Gap Year Advice from a Travel CEO

05/05/2016 03:54pm ET | Updated May 6, 2017
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Malia Obama
The White House
Washington DC 20050

Dear Malia,

I wanted to extend a congratulations and my sheer enthusiasm for your decision to take a gap year! As someone who has made a career out of travel - borne from my own sabbatical abroad - I can attest this is about to change your life in ways you can't imagine.

With an open mind and few bucks in your pocket, you'll find endless opportunities to discover an assortment of places, people and cultures breathtaking in their variety, ultimately finding your best day ever. As a role model for young adults everywhere, you have the priceless opportunity to be living proof that travel can be affordable and attainable for everyone.

The spark that inspired Hostelling International USA (HI USA) to reach out to the White House and cohost the first White House Travel Bloggers Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citizenship was because of something your mother said: she stayed in a hostel on her first trip overseas.

I hope you too experience the benefits of trading luxury for the sense of belonging you can only feel when surrounded by a diverse community of travelers immersed in the transformational power of travel. For $5-50 per night - depending on where in the world you are - you will have travel mates for the day or longer, locally inspired activities to choose from, and a sense of anonymity you might enjoy.

If you're looking to make a lasting impact at any point during your journey, there are many affordable programs to choose from, ranging from 10 days to 1 year. Here are a few possibilities:

Merit 360
This program brings together 360 young adults from almost every single country in the world for 2 weeks to take on the United Nation's 17 Sustainable Development Goals. This year's program will be held in New York from August 27-September 11, and it ends with a presentation to the UN on the collective recommendations about how to improve the world. Selected applicants must fundraise $1,000 to assist with program costs, but everything else is covered throughout the 2 weeks. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis.

IOU Respect
Hosted by Hostelling International, this is a 2-week facilitated cultural exchange with young adults, ages 18-23, from Egypt, France, Germany, Lebanon, Tunisia, and the US to learn more about one another's cultures. From politics to religion to gender inequality, no topic is off limits! This year it is taking place July 24-August 6, in Cairo and Ismailia, Egypt, and 4 Americans will be selected to attend. All costs are covered throughout the 2 weeks, and American participants receive a $500 stipend to assist with travel costs. Application deadline is May 15.

Volunteers for Peace
This site allows you to choose a volunteer project in any of 90 different countries based on your interests. Varying from 10 days to several months, your project will include volunteers from around the world. Sharing meals and accommodations, working as a team, and touring around together, you'll also build friendships that break down cultural barriers. With an average cost of $500 per project, which includes food and lodging, this is one of the most reasonably priced international volunteer opportunities you'll find, and it's open to all ages.

Whatever path you choose, I have a few predictions. I predict the people you meet will be the most memorable part of each place you visit. I predict where you see yourself in 5 years will change in new and profound ways. And I predict that you will inspire a new generation of young adults to step out of their comfort zone and explore all the gifts the world as to offer. And for the latter, I thank you!

As a gift for your journey, I'd like to offer you a 1-year membership to Hostelling International, providing discounts at 3,500 hostels worldwide. Is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue the place to send it?

Happy travels and good luck!