Two weeks ago I was heading off to Arizona not really knowing what to expect. Part of me wished I was going to some beach spot in Cancun with all my friends for one last senior hurrah. Another part of me longed to visit my ailing Grandfather, since time is precious. And yet another part of me was ready for a new adventure, ready to be shaken and confused. But what I wasn’t ready for was an experience that would cause me to struggle with the person I have become, a person almost 22 years in the making.
I began the trip eager to be active and to be involved – at the beginning of the trip we did just that. We went to the 99¢ Store and purchased $1,000 worth of laundry detergent, bar soap, feminine products and toilet paper by the cartload. The group was bonding, the work made us feel apart of something bigger than ourselves and the joy of giving back was contagious – but this was not this experience that changed me.
We met with refugee families and individuals from all over the world (Burma, Bhutan, Thailand, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Somalia), listened to their stories, their struggles, their woes – but this was not the experience that changed me.
We bonded with the Lost Boys of Sudan, chatted as if we were best friends, listened to their stories, taught two of their elders – but this alone was not the experience that changed me.
The entire week I wanted to join in the reflection and say I have changed, grown, been hit by a title wave of understanding and compassion, but it never came. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs and jump up and down because the culmination of experiences or even one experience changed me so greatly that it was worth sharing, but I didn’t feel any differently. Making even worse I couldn’t join in the conversation when my fellow service learners stated that they were out of their comfort zone, but the experience was rewarding and changed them. I felt vastly alone and frustrated in myself, one night I broke down, I cried and cried so furious with myself that I was not able to share in what my classmates discussed, was I not seeing what everyone else was seeing?
I came back to Virginia, ready to relax, decompress and sleep in my own bed (although the ten bunk bed room was an adventure). But my journey was not over, for it was the next several days that brought my long awaited wave of change.
Hanging out with my pals, making dinner, going out for a night on the town, typical weekly activities that were a part of me before Arizona. But after Arizona those experiences weren’t the same. My friends would ask me about my spring break and I would attempt to spit something out about refugees and the Lost Boys of Sudan and they would quickly move on to how wasted they got on the beach, or how they met a cute boy and did I want to see a picture? This was the experience that changed me.
All of a sudden it dawned on me, no one will truly understand what I am trying to say. No matter how hard I try to explain my week in Phoenix, no one will understand for they weren’t there with me. Now it was I, not the refugees that was having the language barrier, and I spoke the language!
Like being hit over the head, my change struck me. Coming back to my friends and trying to connect and share was the experience that changed me. Fueled by week in Arizona, I realized that learning and listening are wonderful tools that help to gain insight, but at the end of the day, no matter how many stories you’ve listened to or books you’ve read, you can never be truly prepared to understand where someone is coming from or what they are trying to say, this changed me.