World ‘Walker’: Grad student shares backpacking adventures

Megan Hix

While studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, Devin Walker took a hike up Lion’s Head mountain. After making his way to the top, he was struck by the symbolism behind his journey. 

Walker, a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Education, said that while he stood atop the mountain, he came to the conclusion that he should help other minority students experience study abroad programs, especially to the lands of their families’ heritage. 

Today, he manages two study abroad programs at UT and helps recruit students — especially students of color — with events like Diversity Abroad each fall. He said traveling can especially benefit minorities because they gain the ability to see themselves through the eyes of another society.

“Specifically for traditionally oppressed groups in this country, we come to understand our own worth through the lens of the people who are oppressing you because they control the media, they control everything and they tell you who you’re supposed to be,” Walker said. “When you go abroad, you learn about yourself through another [group’s] eyes, which challenges a lot of those previous views and ideologies. I think it is very liberating.”

Walker researches other students’ experiences as part of his dissertation, which focuses on black student athletes and study abroad programs. He also teaches backpacking workshops in his spare time. 

Some of his class tips include researching the region, eating like a local and reading a fictional book that takes place in the area you’re visiting to help you get a feel for the culture. 

“I always learn hello and thank you and I have a big smile,” Walker said. “I generally think with those three things, you can get by.”

While he has visited about 30 different countries from Cambodia to Canada, Walker said his mission remains the same on each trip.

“My goal when I’m backpacking is to be invited into a house,” Walker said. “For me, that means I’m traveling the right way. I’m getting to know the locals, I’m talking to them, I’m spending time in local places and not in touristy areas.”

Throughout his travels, he’s made friends in hostels, spent a night on the streets after poor planning and eaten local delicacies like balut — or boiled bird embryo — in the Philippines.

Eight years after his own study abroad semester in South Africa, Walker returned with a new generation of young travelers and took them for a hike up the same mountain. He said he watched as many of them had their own moments of reflection and celebration.

Greg Grant, a UT alumnus, went with Walker as part of the Urban Economic Development study abroad program and said that like the trip itself, the hike was a journey. 

“I’d never climbed anything like that before — not an entire mountain,” Grant said. “I’ve been wanting to go back [to South Africa] ever since. It’s a great experience when you can study and learn from a perspective that’s not in America, where not everyone has the same outlook as you.”

All in all, Walker said his experiences studying, backpacking and living abroad have made him more confident and expanded his worldview, something he’d encourage all students to do.

“The hardest part is just getting started, buying the ticket,” Walker said. “When you start traveling internationally, you realize the world really is your oyster and you really can go and do whatever you want.”