In the summer of 2009, my life changed. It wasn’t a drastic change – it was only visible within myself – but there was a definitive “before” and “after.”
I don’t speak about this often. When I do, I downplay the impact this event had on my life, my values, my dreams. There is no way to sufficiently explain, but here’s my attempt.
It was the summer after my freshman year of college – a lackluster, miserable, ultimately forgettable year. (I will always sadly look back at it as “the Lost Year.”) I needed to do something that summer, something to make up for the lack of new experiences.
I wanted to travel.
But I didn’t have anyone to travel with. We had long forsaken family vacations, especially with the ongoing recession, and I couldn’t imagine asking a friend to travel with me. I was only eighteen, which wasn’t very young, but I knew I had lived a sheltered life and so traveling alone was out of the question. I started looking for ways that would allow me to travel alone, but I wouldn’t be left alone.
Somewhere along the way, I stumbled upon Volunteers for Peace. I was drawn to this organization for many reasons. It’s an international organization. There are short-, medium-, and long-term projects so I wouldn’t be tied to a long commitment. Most importantly for those traveling on a budget, it is VERY affordable with just a $350 registration fee (plus $30 membership fee) regardless of the project’s duration, although many countries will have extra fees. Housing and food is included in many projects, particularly in the USA, so all I needed to pay for was my transportation.
I discussed it with my parents, they half-listened but ultimately agreed, I signed up for a 2-week project in the UK (I forget where)…. I changed my mind. It so happened that the project I had been accepted to required a lot of pre-departure work, like obtaining a visa and going through an extensive background check, and the cost for the flight alone would have been enormous. So I paid the fee to be reassigned to a different local project, and by local I mean “somewhere within the US” since I still wanted to see a new place.
That place was Concord, New Hampshire.
The project: Two weeks spent working with other volunteers from the local church and community. All VFP projects relate to peace, and so the theme of this camp was “to demonstrate peace in the traditions and practices of Gandhi and Martin Luther King by living, working, learning and enjoying cultural and outdoor activities together.” (That’s a direct quote from my project acceptance form.)
Here’s a small taste of what we did…
By bringing different cultures together and learning from one another, we acted as a living example of peace. It was a wonderful two weeks together in Concord. Almost everyone continued on to visit Boston, and a few of us went to New York City as well. I maintain many of these friendships today, sending brief updates now and then, and I still continue to be inspired and amazed by the way ours individual lives have progressed since then.
When explaining this event to others, I didn’t discuss the impact it had on me because I couldn’t (and still can’t) quite put my finger on what “it” was. Maybe it was because this was the first real exposure I’d had in an international environment. The first time meeting people whose lives were immensely different from my own. The first time being out on my own, without my friends or my family – my support system, comfort zone, and safety net – and realizing I was okay. The first time I really considered American culture from another culture’s perspective. I can’t pinpoint the cause but I know that something within me changed then, and it was motivating me to make adjustments in my own life. These were the reasons that pushed me to eventually study abroad while in college (but more on that later).
The lesson of this story is: Do something different. Put yourself in situations that will challenge your character. You can never predict what will come of a new experience.