Yasmine El Baggari
Photo: Courtesy of Yasmine El Baggari
Master’s student Yasmine El Baggari has been to all 50 states. And she hasn’t just “been” to them in a casual, check-off-the-box way. She has been to them, for extended trips, staying in the homes of more than 250 families, riding countless Greyhound buses, and fostering thousands of genuine connections across cultures.
Originally from Morocco, El Baggari decided that she wanted to travel the United States by bus when she was 17, starting from Kansas where she was living while taking part in the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange — a state-department exchange program that seeks to dismantle stereotypes about Morocco, Africa, and the Middle East in the United States. “I told myself, if I can break down stereotypes in Kansas, I can do it in all 50 states,’’ says El Baggari. She continued her travels across the U.S. through college and beyond, visiting her final state — Alaska — in 2019.
Her commitment to the interpersonal and cross-cultural benefits of travel only grew from there, with additional visits to 50 countries. Six years ago, El Baggari founded Voyaj, an international exchange company that seeks to break down cultural stereotypes and foster a sense of global interconnectedness through travel experiences. Voyaj connects people of all ages with others in their destination country who share their interests and values, “in order to have a deeper cultural experience through their lens,” El Baggari explains.
The program, currently being piloted with select communities, has facilitated journeys for its clients to more than 40 countries, including France, Morocco, and the United States. Hosts open their homes to travelers, who then open their hearts and minds to embrace new cultures. The Voyaj process is planned to work through the Voyaj website, where travelers will be able to sign-up, arrange homestays, and share stories about their journeys.
El Baggari’s work at Voyaj, which is currently a venture at the Harvard iLab, is grounded in the belief that when humans from different backgrounds form authentic connections, our increased global understanding can help lead to a more peaceful world. Learning more about how the human mind works while at the Ed School has given her insight into the factors at play when two strangers sit down and form a deep bond, despite their different social contexts — factors she learned anecdotally from her travel experiences. This developmental knowledge, El Baggari believes, will help her understand cross-cultural connections, even when stereotypes, walls, and borders stand in the way.
“It is so important to realize that we aren’t really that different, and that we can embrace any perceived or real differences and identify our commonalities,” she explains.
When COVID-19 restricted travel, Voyaj created remote opportunities for connection, facilitating online experiences for people around the globe. While these gatherings lack the allure of an international, in-person experience, they have addressed some of the social ills exacerbated by the pandemic like loneliness and isolation. “That’s one of the positive sides of COVID: More communities are looking to connect and to do so more deeply,” says El Baggari. “Because of the isolation, people are eager to meet. These virtual experiences have proven meaningful.”
El Baggari expects the evolution of Voyaj to continue — even as she concurrently focuses on her ultimate travel goal: becoming an astronaut through Space For Humanity’s sponsored citizen astronaut mission. With the support of her global team, she is running pilots for the upcoming Voyaj app, as well working to form partnerships with other exchange and travel organizations in the United States, New Zealand, Morocco, and elsewhere.
El Baggari believes that travel is about more than place. It is about people: the people you see, the people you meet, and the people who change you along the way. “I believe we have the opportunity to learn at every moment from every encounter,” says El Baggari. “We’re here, and alive! We’ve got to connect, to open and share our cultures, and realize who we truly are.”