One of the great blessings in my life is that I have traveled to a few developing countries. This has made me a better person – more open minded, flexible, accepting, and pretty consistently aware of how much I don’t know.
On one trip to Guatemala (San Lucas on the shores of Lake Atitlan, Solola), my students
and I were taken to a site to help lay the foundation for a house. One of the tasks was to mix up some cement, and then pour it over rebar. My students picked up the bag of dry concrete and started dumping it into the wheelbarrow (which would have been my instinct too) to mix with water nearby. The foreman of the crew and some of his workers ran over and gently told the students to stop – and proceeded to dump the dry mix on the ground. (??) Puzzled, we stepped back to watch as the men brought the hose over to the dry mix, and then started shoveling gravel into the mixture, slowly stirring it and adding bits as they went. Our translator explained – because the concrete needed to withstand earthquakes, gravel needed to be added for strength. Mixing it up on the ground was much easier than trying to get it all into a wheelbarrow and keep it contained as it was mixed.
No matter where I go, I bring with me my way of doing things; we all do this in every situation we encounter. But our world is vast and varied. I’ve learned different, and sometimes better, ways of doing things in each of the places I’ve been-how to cook in Jiangmen, China, how to be humbled in the Dumka district of India, how to navigate in Hong Kong, how to revere in Greece. My heart opened more and more as I learned, grew, learned, grew, learned.
My mother often worried about me traveling…wanted me to learn here in the United States. I can’t imagine it would have been the same transformation. Truly removing me from my comfort zone (my first trip abroad was to China) challenged me in immeasureable ways.
“Study Abroad” programs here in the States have different levels of challenge, depending on the institution (as this article states, foreign students studying abroad in the U.S. has increased). I know people who came back from studying abroad and talked mostly about the parties and the drinking. Others came back more contemplative. Each person and place will have different results, so there’s no prescription. In my opinion, it takes maturity, an open mind, and a willing heart to give yourself to true transformation. I wasn’t ready to do that until I was 27, and each experience was a piece of my “coming of age.” These trips would have been expensive, useless and unremarkable had I chosen to travel in college.
At any rate, traveling is such a beautiful experience. I wish everyone (as we are all students, aren’t we?) could experience the ways in which we can learn to do new and old things in interesting and transformative ways.