Baylor alumna shares stories, lessons from spontaneous travels abroad

After quitting her desk job, Baylor alumna Julie Copenhaver packed up and began her journey across the world with her camera. After trips to Europe, Australia and Africa, Copenhaver looks forward to many more trips and photo opportunities. Photo courtesy of Julie Copenhaver

Thomas Moran | Arts and Life Editor

One evening in October 2016, an idea crossed the mind of Baylor alumna Julie Copenhaver that would change her life forever. After a successful start to her career with the Baylor Alumni Association and later the Office of Career and Professional Development, Copenhaver found herself at a crossroads. She could either continue on her current path or she could pack up and travel the world with her camera in pursuit of a more fulfilling life.

“I was on my couch in Brazos Park Apartments,” Copenhaver said. “I was sitting there, and I did have an epiphany moment, which was absolutely the coming together of the past, present and future in the thought of ‘What am I doing with this? I know I can do more.’”

With her longtime passion for photography and a desire for adventure, Copenhaver began to consider for the first time the cost and benefits of quitting her job, putting her belongings in storage and traveling the world with her camera.

“The fear has been there, but I was more fearful of basically staying stagnant and not doing something with my life,” Copenhaver said. “I knew I could do more, and so the desire and the will and the curiosity to do something more was bigger than the fear.”

Before making a decision, Copenhaver reached out to many in the Waco photography and design communities for counsel. Among them was Adjunct Professor of Media Photography Rod Aydelotte.

“When Julie first told us the idea of quitting her job, she reached out to a lot of people to see what feedback she’d get,” Aydellote said. “Everybody said just do it because it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We thought if she didn’t do it, she’d have too many regrets.”

Having saved up about a year of salary, she quit her day job in July 2017, packed up her belongings, began a blog called Workday Wanderlust and headed out on the first leg of her journey of undefined length. For two weeks, Copenhaver hiked around Scotland with friends before visiting Ireland and England by herself.

At one point in Ireland on the Cliffs of Moher, Copenhaver ran into Baylor students who recognized her Food for Thought shirt.

Soon after the trip, Copenhaver set out on the second leg of her journey, consisting of two road trips. The first involved a 9,000 mile round-trip drive up to Maine to see the Northeast in the fall, a trip on which she learned many lessons.

“What I learned is as you’re driving and traveling, if you see a shot, turn around and go get it,” Copenhaver said. “Because I’ve learned that, if you keep going and think, ‘Oh, I’ll come back and get that later,” no you won’t. You’ll be on some totally different road somewhere else. If it captures your attention right there, stop and get it. It’ll be worth it.”

The second road trip involved a long roundabout trip, from Texas to Colorado and back. After a few more mini trips, Copenhaver began the next international portion of her trip which started in Hawaii and paused in New Zealand and Australia. The primary lesson she learned on that trip was to take more pictures of people, Copenhaver said.

“People don’t want to see that back of people’s heads in a crowd,” Copenhaver said. “Walk to the front and get in front of them and take their photo. Confidence is key. Fake it until you make it. I try to be polite about it and act like you know what you’re doing. Just own it.”

Copenhaver spent New Years in Sydney — something she had heard was quite the celebration.

After returning from her trip, Copenhaver had a quick turn around before heading out again to the Netherlands, France, Germany and Switzerland. With countless stories from the trip, there is one that stands out from the rest — Copenhaver was strangled in Amsterdam.

After making friends with some of the people staying a hostel with her, Copenhaver decided to go out on the town together to see the Red Light District safely. The night started well, but quickly took a turn for the worse when a man in the group started acting oddly.

“All of the sudden he started acting quiet and then became enraged,” Copenhaver said. “The rest of the girls were separated from us … We were walking down this alley. It was like a switch flipped. He snatched my wrist and immediately put me in a choke hold.”

She jabbed him in the wrist with her elbow, stopped on his foot and dug her nails into his arm, Copenhaver said. He finally released and she ran from him and jumped into a crowd, at which point a bouncer from a nearby bar grabbed him and stopped him. Though it was a frightening experience, it made for a great story and blog post, which caught the BBC’s attention last week.

“A friend from Austin contacted me, and said, ‘Hey, they’re doing a call for solo female travelers’ stories, and here’s the email address,’” Copenhaver said. “I sent a little blurb about who I am and where I’ve been. They immediately responded and said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is crazy. We’d love to know more. Are you free for an interview today?’”

By the end of her trip, Copenhaver had taken 67,000 photos, not including the 9,000 she took on her recent trip to Morocco and Kenya.

During her excursion to northern Africa, she visited a few major cities and encountered cultures she had never experienced previously, Copenhaver said. The biggest difference she noticed was the treatment of women who were afforded far less social privilege than men.

“Every time I tried to take a photo, the women and children would tell me no,” Copenhaver said. “There were so many wonderful photos that I either missed or couldn’t get.”

Looking forward, Copenhaver is continuing her journey next week on a trip to the Bahamas. After that, she is hoping to visit Greece.

“Julie is probably one of the most courageous, considerate, positive, people I know,” Aydelotte said. “It takes an extraordinary person to change their life like that.”