While her classmates were mailing invitations to their graduation parties, Anissa Wallingford was sending away for her passport.
“It’s actually happening! I’m going to Europe!” said Wallingford, a 17-year-old Hopkins High senior who plans to major in film studies at Minnesota State University, Moorhead this fall.
Rather than being the guest of honor at a high school graduation celebration, Wallingford decided to opt for a once-in-a-lifetime trip. In July, she’ll crisscross the continent by train with her mother and her older sister, who is graduating from college this spring.
“Everyone has a grad party. A party lasts a few hours; the memory of this trip will last forever,” said Wallingford, one of a growing number of graduates who are opting for travel over parties.
Wallingford’s mother, Stephanie McGuire, calculates that the airline tickets to Europe will cost only a little more than what the family paid for catering her older daughter’s graduation party four years ago, when 75 friends dropped by their Eden Prairie home to bring congratulatory cards and chow down on Chipotle.
“People don’t RSVP and you have to roll with a lot of variables for a party. I don’t mind the work, but this takes the pressure off,” said McGuire. “I think our trip will expand Anissa’s worldview more than a cake and a stream of people coming through the house.”
National pollster John Zogby isn’t surprised to see students opting for trips rather than parties.
“Travel for this generation is paramount,” he said. “They want to see it all.”
For decades, Zogby has surveyed young adults, documenting how they increasingly “value experiences over things.”
By the time they’re in high school, many young Americans are already experienced at packing their backpacks for school, mission or volunteer trips as well as family vacations abroad. Many, if not most, can count friends (in real life or online) in far-flung spots on the globe. And they have high expectations for going global themselves.
“We found that 46 percent of the young people we surveyed say they expect to live and work in a foreign capital sometime in their life — not hope to or wish to, but expect to,” he said.
With cheap flights, couch-surfing and a spiffier quality of youth hostels, international travel is an option even for graduates who come from households of modest means.
When pitching their parents on paying for a trip rather than footing the bill for a grad party, seniors can make the case that taking their show on the road as an alternative will provide its own educational value.
“Depending on the trip, this could impact their future,” said Kathleen Vohs, a professor at the Carlson School at the University of Minnesota. “There is a wealth of research that shows that traveling abroad makes people’s lives more creative and opens them up to new ways of living.”
It’s not just wanderlust that’s propelling students to hit the road rather than hanging picture boards full of school photos.
Some seniors are choosing trips because they have a small circle of friends, don’t have family nearby or are uncomfortable being the center of attention during a post-commencement wing-ding.
“As a generation, these young people are pragmatic. They know the next four years are going to be a lot of hard work. They want a unique experience before they get started,” said Skylar Werde, principal at Bridgeworks, a Minneapolis consulting agency that focuses on generational issues.
Today’s high school seniors are younger siblings of the millennials, part of Generation Z, the demographic cohort born between 1995 and 2010.
Werde expects that virtually all of the new graduates who take a trip will take flight armed with their smartphones.
A report on youthful travel trends conducted by Internet Marketing Inc. in 2016 found that 97 percent of those travelers said they would post their experiences on social media, with 75 percent planning a daily post.
In fact, Werde suspects those elaborately illustrated updates may be part of the motivation for today’s seniors to book a trip instead of a party. While millennials were in high school or college when they created their first Facebook profile or Twitter handle, the kids of Generation Z grew up with a social media presence.
“Every Gen Z’er wants to stand out. They cultivate and curate their image with their peer group, it’s how they connect,” he said. “On their Instagram feed they want pictures of their stay in that unique Airbnb or to capture that moment when they’re bungee jumping. That’s how they tell their story.”
Opting out of tradition
While some Minnesota families plan simple graduation gatherings, other families go all out, renting tents, tables and chairs for the backyard or bringing in food trucks, personalized decorations or video tributes to entertain an extensive guest list.
If anyone would know how to throw a graduation party, it would be Tami Cabrera.
The mother of four owns and operates Muddy Paws Cheesecake, which whips up 500 rich desserts every week for various parties and events in the Twin Cities.
“I’ve worked in the event world for 25 years,” said Cabrera. “My vendor friends in the hospitality industry would give me a great deal.”
But to celebrate her daughter Zoë Weinmann’s graduation, Cabrera will host a coffee-and-bagel breakfast at her bakery for a small circle of friends.
The real gift will be their joint trip to Paris.
“Ever since I was little I wanted to go to France,” said Weinmann, 18, a senior at St. Louis Park High. “I’m passionate about the culture and I want to see one of the fashion capitals of the world for myself.”
Weinmann taught herself to sew when she was in elementary school and has gone on to develop as a seamstress, designing her own prom dress and creating period costumes from scratch for theatrical productions at her high school.
In the fall, she will study apparel design at the University of Minnesota.
“I want to start my own ready-to-wear clothing business and I’m ready to be thinking about my career now,” she said.
While a graduation party gives parents the chance to bask in the glory of the graduate and share in the accomplishment of the rite of passage, Cabrera is not sorry to miss the role of host.
“It gives me a lot of personal tranquillity, that I don’t have that pressure of creating something perfect,” she said. “I enjoy her company so much. I can’t wait to look at her face when we’re seeing the sights.”
Cabrera may get another whack at foreign travel. Her second daughter, a year younger than Zoë, is already musing that she might prefer a trip to Germany or Hawaii over a party.
As more graduates choose travel, the trip trend may take the wind out of the once obligatory graduation party.
“We’re seeing a lot of long-standing traditions breaking down,” concludes pollster Zogby. “These kids just don’t get some of the familiar old rituals that have offered security and continuity in the past.
“From political parties to religious affiliations to something like a graduation party, they want to go their own way.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.