This is Chapter Nine of my book-in-process, Eight Minutes of Advice. If you have not read the the Prologue and Chapter One, click here. At the bottom of that post is a link back to this page.
[When I was first driven to draft these Messages, I quickly penned eighteen thoughts. I accomplished that tasks in eight minutes (hence the proposed title.) Now, as I expound on each topic to create the book, I don’t feel the need to write in any specific order. This is Message #9. I could generate enough content on this topic to create a book of its own. For this blog entry, I offer what I’ve written thus far.]
I consider my year in South Africa as a foreign exchange student to be the most influential of my life. That’s a fairly substantial remark since I am nearly sixty years old. I feel fortunate to have lived an interesting life – although, I would understand if someone thought it was quite boring compared to their adventures and achievements. Everything is relative.
In just a couple of years, I could attend my forty-year college reunion, if I were the reunion sort of person.
While it was happening, there were times in my life that seemed like mere survival. But, looking back I can say that I’ve accomplished many personal and professional goals over the years. Yet, I cannot think of a more persuasive time in my life than my tour as an American Field Service (AFS) student.
I can quickly count five highly significant outcomes from participating in a foreign exchange program – and by that I mean outside your circle of influence, not necessarily outside your country. A kids from Bronx, New York might experience something very similar to foreign travel by living with a family in Appalachia for a summer.
First, there’s separation.
The sort of disconnection to which I am referring is not damaging. It is advantageous, even though it may feel uncomfortable at times. It offers the opportunity to unplug from overly influential individuals. For me, that was my father.
My dad wasn’t overly domineering or controlling, although as a teenager I would have considered him to be. Rather, my father possessed an intense desire to steer his children towards their greatest chance for success. The problem was that he had his own opinion regarding what might make us triumph in life.
My father was attentive. He asked us questions about school, sports and hobbies. He taught his three daughters how to change a tire, fix a leaky faucet and put up wallpaper. He showed up at our music recitals and other scholarly endeavors. For example, in 1976, as a sophomore in High School I competed in the Bi-Centennial Youth Debates. I won the Oration category at my school, my county and I took third in the State of Illinois. In exchange for my efforts, I received a certificate and metal medallion from President Gerald Ford. I believe it impressed my father, as he had them framed for me.
I also acted. I recall participating in a One Act Play festival and winning a trophy for the effort. Although I was a very shy youngster, my self-confidence grew as I participated in those school activities.
As result of my achievements in public speaking, my father deduced that my chosen major in college should be communications. I suppose he thought that, if you are going to spend all that money for education, it was prudent to choose a field where some level of success had already been proven.
In December of my senior year of high school there was quite a bit of speculation that I would be selected for a prominent role in the upcoming musical, The Sound of Music. Before the decision was published, however, I learned that I had been selected to travel to South Africa. Some of my peers were very surprised that I would walk away from the opportunity to belt out Climb Ev’ry Mountain on the high school stage. Remember, everything is relative to a person’s perspective.
We were kids from a small town. For some, a major role in a school musical was, quite possibly, the only perceived way to achieve fifteen minutes of fame. I wanted to be more than that. So, of course, I chose Africa.
Before I left, I worked hard to tie up any loose ends regarding my collage plans. In 1977, every correspondence was accomplished via snail mail. The college sent the application. I filled it out and send it back. Under “Major” I checked, Communications because that is what my father suggested would be my best path towards financial prosperity. At the time, I had no other ruler with which to measure future success than my father’s words.
Fast forward six months. By that time I had stood on the banks of the restless Limpopo river where crocodiles and hippos lay in wait to turn into their own fortune the misfortune of one wrong step upon its rocky banks. I had been on safari to Kruger National Park where the worrying cries of spotted hyenas at dawn left no question about where I roused from slumber. I had tasted a mopane worm (yeah, look that baby up!) And, quite remarkably, I had spent the Easter weekend at a private game farm where I found myself walking back to base camp in the absolute darkness of a total lunar eclipse after our vehicle broke an axle during a sunset trek. I had been baptized by Africa. It was in my bones. I believe it’s impossible to know that sensation unless you have been there. And, if you have been there, it’s probably impossible to avoid absorbing the feeling, and holding it for life.
Back in the fancy house in Johannesburg, I was asked by a friend of my host family, “what are your future plans? Are you going to college?”
Thoughts swirled in my head. I hadn’t actually had the time to contemplate my life back home. I was busy learning Afrikaans and inhaling all that was my destiny to experience. The question reeled me back to a place that I had buried. I was supposed to answer confidently, “yes, I have been accepted into college and my major is…” What is my major? I could not remember the word. For a brief moment I wondered if learning a new language was affecting my ability to recall my own. But, I quickly acquiesced that I could not recollect my future studies because I didn’t have a clue what “communications” was. What does someone with a communications major do for a living? I couldn’t answer my own headtalk.
Before that evening came to an end and the family friend departed, I was able to answer her question.
The next day I wrote a letter to the admissions department at Coe College.
“My plans have changed. I am no longer going to wait until the fall to enroll. Upon my return to the States in January, I would like to begin my studies at the beginning of the second semester. I have decided to change my major. Please send me all of the information you have about your science programs, specifically biology, so that I can decide whether I can still study at Coe.”
Only after I received the correspondence back from the college and read through the Sciences Program pamphlet, did I send a note to my parents proclaiming my new agenda. It meant that I would be home for a mere two weeks before I would leave again for college. I felt strong and powerful in my actions. Of course, years later I realized how pompous it was of me, especially since my parents had agreed to pay for my tuition! Fortunately, deep down I believe that they recognized the value of raising their daughters to be independent, confident and capable. They permitted me to display my emboldened character mostly without criticizing the manner in which I did so.
Separation from those things or individuals which maintain a powerful, magnetic force over one’s autonomy is essential. Using the experience that foreign travel offers is often a highly effective means to that end. While my father fretted about my decision – after all, the only biologists that he knew of were Jaques Cousteau and Jane Goodall –he was able to recognize that I made the right decision for myself, and by myself. It took years, but, he got there.
The next significant outcome from intimate travel abroad is connection.
[Blog readers – this is where I will end this chapter, for now. Below is the outline of additional discussion which I will create to finish my perspective on this Message.. Hopefully, you will read the final version of the book in order to experience the full meaning behind this Message.]
The Benefits of Living in Another Culture