Travel is in Gabrielle Beckford’s blood, but it took her a while to embrace it. With a Marine born in Jamaica as a father and a travel agent as a mother, she had many opportunities to see the world. She lived in Okinawa, Japan—one of the first places to see the sun rise each day—between the ages of 7 and 10, while her father was stationed there.

And she hated it.

“I did not appreciate it at all,” Beckford said, laughing, adding that she just wanted to get out of the hot weather and come home to Virginia and snow.

Having since outgrown any reluctance to travel—and her dislike of the heat—the 2013 Brooke Point High School graduate has scored another opportunity, and she has no intention of wasting it.

Now 20 and a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, the math major will spend the next year at American University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, learning Arabic as the recipient of a $20,000 David L. Boren Scholarship through the National Security Education Program.

The scholarship, named for the former U.S. senator who led the creation of the program, supports the acquisition of language and cultural skills and experience in “countries critical to the future security and stability” of the United States, according to information from the organization. Boren is now the president of the University of Oklahoma.

Recipients pledge to pursue employment with the federal government, although placement is not guaranteed. But for Beckford, the opportunity is largely a chance to keep breaking out of her comfort zone and feeding her hunger for experiences.

She also started a blog,, in the hopes of inspiring fellow young people—especially Stafford teenagers— to travel.

Despite her childhood desire to come home, she sometimes felt stifled growing up in Stafford. She felt something was missing—she just didn’t know what.

Almost on a whim, she applied for a program that would let her backpack in Iceland the summer before beginning college. She was the youngest person on the trip, which was mostly college juniors and seniors—and the only one who didn’t bring a sleeping bag.

“I did not realize what I was getting myself into until I got on the bus,” she said, adding that she thinks Dubai may be similar. “I think I’m just the type of person where it’ll hit me on the plane.”

Now, with travels across Australia, Europe and Africa, she has found strategies to stay safe and prepared—learning to seek out trustworthy local friends, to avoid demonstrations or other volatile gatherings, and to dress in neutral, modest clothing so as not to stand out.

She’s not afraid of traveling to the Middle East, she said.

“Bad things happen everywhere in the world,” she said. “I just like experiences. I just don’t want to go home like I was too scared.”

Imagining how much she would regret having missed the chance drove her to go through with tandem skydiving—strapped to a more experienced partner—in Australia, something she hopes to do again, maybe solo, in Dubai.

But the thrill of an adrenaline rush pales in comparison to the people she has gotten to meet, she said.

“Once you hear someone’s story, you can’t hate them. Everyone has a reason to feel the way they do,” she said. “It’s easy when you don’t travel to get caught up in your bubble. … Once you travel, you realize how similar we all are.”

Beckford acknowledged that traveling seems out of reach to many, but said that’s why she hopes to inspire others, especially when they’re young.

Much of her travel has been funded through programs she’s found on the Internet, and even so, she doesn’t get 99 percent of the opportunities she applies for. Research on ways to travel inexpensively is another key to her globetrotting.

“It’s scary, but it’s not impossible. I think everyone has the power to travel,” she said.

The commitment to seek government employment doesn’t faze her either, she said.

“I’ve grown up around government my whole life,” she said. “It’s more than you …. It’s bigger than any one person.”

What does make her a little nervous is the idea of her last semester of school. As a result of her travel, Beckford will graduate a year later than she planned, in December 2017. She will have to return for just one semester after spending a year away, and the idea of trying to settle back into the same routines with her classes and friends is a little daunting.

“That will be a weird semester,” she said. “But you can’t stop living your life. You have to keep moving on …. This is important to me.”

It’s easy when you don’t travel
to get caught up in your bubble. . . .
Once you travel, you realize how
similar we all are. —gabrielle beckford,

Katrina Dix: 540/374-5403