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After traveling to 193 countries, UNC professor Jim Kitchen sets his sights on space

"Even though we weren’t on his travels with him, he made us feel that we were along for the journey."

Jim Kitchen poses for a portrait in his office on Franklin Street on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. Kitchen has visited all 193 countries recognized by the United Nations and wants to go to space next.

Jim Kitchen didn’t set out to travel to every recognized country in the world.

But by the end of 2019, the UNC professor of the practice had visited all 193 United Nations-recognized countries — a journey that took more than 30 years to complete.

He recently finished writing a book detailing his travels, "A Bigger World," which is scheduled to release in mid-2021. And even after his travels across the globe, he still has dreams for more. 

'Kind of a journey'

As an undergraduate student, Kitchen said he took an introduction to entrepreneurship class that inspired him to open his own travel business. 

“It didn’t start off as 'I’d like to see every country in the world,' it started off as kind of a journey,” Kitchen said. “It was all very serendipitous, it was never by design.”

Kitchen said that when he was a travel company owner, he would often get sent tours to try out — taking him all over the world. 

“One day I woke up and I thought, how many are there, like how many places do I have left to travel?” Kitchen said. “What I found out was that there are 193 countries, and I was like, 'Huh, I wonder if anyone has ever been to all these countries?' And that was ten years ago.”

In the 10 years since, Kitchen has traveled to every UN-recognized country in the world. He planned trips a few times a year, traveling to seven or eight countries at a time.

Kitchen said that traveling the world allowed him to learn some very valuable lessons about himself and about life. 

“For me, travel was always a contest for me of kind of figuring out how to kind of evolve as a man, as a father, as a husband – and I learned some really interesting lessons along the way,” Kitchen said.

On one trip to Jordan, a country in Southwest Asia, Kitchen visited the ancient palace of a powerful Nabatean king. Kitchen said that sitting in the palace, he gained a new perspective on how wealth and fame are only temporary.

“This guy ruled the world, and now nobody even remembers his name,” Kitchen said. “Nobody knew anymore that that was the king’s palace. Nobody cares. So the point is that there’s more to life than being rich and famous and powerful.”

Kitchen said lessons like these, that he started to jot down in a journal, inspired him to write his book, "A Bigger World."

“It wasn’t like a slideshow of where I went, it was a little bit of a humorous retelling, or a not-so-serious story about a guy trying to figure his own life out, as illustrated through travel,” Kitchen said.

Jim Kitchen shows the stamps in one of his passports in his office on Franklin Street on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. Kitchen has visited all 193 United Nations-recognized countries and wants to go to space next.

Taking the journey to the classroom

As a professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School, Kitchen teaches the same class that inspired him years ago to current UNC students. 

Mary Laci Motley, a business major, took Kitchen’s entrepreneurship and business planning class her sophomore year. Motley said his experience with travel positively impacted how he interacted with his students. 

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“He’s so open and excited for whatever you pitch and whatever you want to come up with, and I think that comes with this travel mindset of how the world is so big,” Motley said. “You just kind of have to look up and be willing to find those opportunities and chase after them.”

Kitchen said that on his travels, he would always plan very detailed itineraries for the countries he visited. He’d try to see as much of a country as he could in a short amount of days. 

But sometimes, he said, he would abandon his plans to follow intuition toward new experiences, like picking carrots with farmers, or helping someone carry sacks of potatoes through a market. 

“I was always being guided by these little nudges that tell you 'hey, you should go try that,'” Kitchen said. “If you listen to those, if you’re mindful of those little nudges, they can really change your life.”

Senior business administration major Lindsey Allison took Kitchen’s entrepreneurship class in spring 2020, right when he finished his 193rd journey. She said that it was a really meaningful experience having a professor who had accomplished this goal. 

“When he got back, he actually had a flag and had all the students sign it, which was really special,” Allison said. “Even though we weren’t on his travels with him, he made us feel that we were along for the journey, and that we were able to support him.” 

Beyond Earth

After finally traveling to all 193 countries, Kitchen’s next goal is to make it to space. He thinks that being able to fly to space after visiting all the countries in the world would be an incredible experience to share with his students.

“Going to space isn’t about being the first person to travel to every country and then go into space,” Kitchen said. “But just to be able to see it, to be able to experience it, would just be so fantastic, and then to come back and be able to share that experience with people is where my heart is.”

He is currently entered in a contest to win a flight to space in fall 2021. To win, he is trying to get his video explaining his journey on Twitter to go viral.   

To do so, Kitchen said he is hoping people in his community will retweet his video with the hashtag #inspiration4contest

“I would love the UNC community to support me on this, I would be honored if they would,” Kitchen said. “I think it would be one of those cool, fun, hopeful things for students in the UNC community to have a UNC representative on that flight.”

Motley said that Kitchen’s drive for experience is one of the reasons his teaching has been so impactful to her.

“What he’s doing now with traveling and trying to go to space, he’s just willing to go for it, and that alone is just so inspirational,” Motley said. “I’m so thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to take a class with him and just get to know him as an incredible mentor, person, traveler and hopefully space cadet.”