Why am I here?

Throughout my three months here in Senegal on SST, I have gotten this question from a wide range of people in a variety of forms. My place here doesn’t fit into any of the pre-existing, easily understood boxes; I am not a traditional exchange student, I am not a missionary, I am not moving here permanently. My answers to these queries of my reason for being in Senegal have never quite satisfied my listeners, and have not satisfied me either.

Why am I here?

Why have I spent the last 3 months in a foreign, developing nation where both the languages and culture were previously unfamiliar to me? In my first week or two, my only answer was that I was fulfilling a graduation requirement and expanding my worldview. I vowed to continue to ponder this puzzle, and while I am still thinking, I believe I have arrived at much more of a response. 

I am here to be. I am here to be a listener, be a participant, and be open to learning and growth. It is difficult at times to accept that I have the privilege to live a different life for 3 months and then return to my comfort. It is difficult to accept that I have spent this much time here but have not done anything visibly constructive to help this land that has welcomed me.

I have come to realize that there there is value in projects and action, but being able to act wisely and conscientiously first requires understanding. And wisdom and understanding are only gained through time, experience, and thoughtfulness. SST has opened this door of understanding wider for me, helping me to see and think more clearly without biases and assumptions. 

I have learned the value of seeing with my heart, turning the world inside-out so that it can be right-side up. I have found that all the reasoning and logic in the world mean nothing if they are not joined with caring for others and looking with love. All the cultural differences — religion, food, homes, dress, language — become beautiful in their diversity when you learn to connect with the intangibles of a place, such as hospitality, love of family, and emphasis on community.

My Sister’s Room

Out of my two families on SST, I connected the best with my study family, but especially with my little sister Julia. She was seven and speaks just about zero English, but despite the language barrier, I connected with my little sister almost immediately.

I was her jiejie (or “big sister” in Chinese) and we quickly became the best of playmates. We would sing Disney songs together, play with dolls, and practice her English on the weekends through games. Our greatest achievement together was building a Disney lego castle, which is pretty difficult when you are working in two different languages. Julia was — and is — the light of my life.

Three Little Letters

SST. These three little letters carry almost 50 years of memories for thousands of people. These three little letters evoke a wide range of emotions for many in the Goshen College community. When I hear these letters, a smile instantly comes to my face.

In the spring of 2013, I travelled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for three months. It was my first time out of the country, and I was more than a little anxious about what I was getting myself into. As I stepped on the plane with my fellow classmates, I had no idea that I was about to travel to a place that would eventually become a second home for me.

The first few weeks were hard for me; I have a hard time with transitions. However, after the first few days with my family, I started to feel at home. My host family was a little unconventional in that I did not live with host parents. I lived with a brother who was close to my age and a sister who was ten years older than me. I immediately felt like I was part of their family. Although there were times of homesickness and tears, my host family gifted me with many times of smiles and laughter.

Out of the Classroom, Into the World

In his opening remarks at a service-learning conference a quarter century ago, Goshen College president emeritus J. Lawrence Burkholder said he claimed only one credential for speaking at the event: He was a “born again” believer in international education.

As one who has co-led nine SSTs — in Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Cuba, China, and Cambodia — I write today as one similarly reborn. And in the spirit of some Dominican evangelicals, I’ll testify to a series of rebirths during my years of teaching in a small, Mennonite, liberal arts college — recommitments to graceful living as well as to international education, and to service or experiential learning. God knows, I’m a believer.

But even back when I was a pagan, in my undergraduate years at a college that had no international education program, I intuitively recognized the need for and value of cross-cultural education and experiential learning. In my sophomore year, a friend and I spent six weeks of the Christmas break and January interterm backpacking and train-hopping our way through western Europe. We lived off of oranges and bread; toured museums, cathedrals and other historical sites; bedded down in the homes of any family that would take us in, or in youth hostels; and communicated in our halting French and German, smiling and gesturing profusely when we traversed Italy and Spain.

Todo El Mundo Me Da Miedo

I was walking my wonderful 4-year-old host sister to school, holding her hand as we walked along a street on a steep hill. There was a little drop-off by the side of the road. I carefully helped guide her as she walked on the curb between the street and where the road dropped off. She looked down, and I asked her if she was scared. She replied, “Todo el mundo me da miedo” — the whole world scares me.