*True author of the post chooses to remain anonymous*
As a child, I was always fascinated by the world around me. The way people interacted with one another. The way leaves crunched on the street under my rain boots. The way people’s eyes got red and puffy when they laughed so hard they cried. My knowledge was the culmination of my observations.
Growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta was amazing. I was exposed to a diverse array of cultural, religious, and socioeconomic lifestyles from a young age, and those things also molded my perspective of the world. I grew up with Indian, African-American, Chinese, Korean, Mexican, and plain old American friends by my side. I didn’t even put any brain power into thinking about this because I thought it was how everyone grew up.
I attended a big SEC school full of totally new cultures. I was exposed to something I had never seen or experienced before: racism. Coming of age right beside the historic center of the civil rights movement, I’d of course heard stories of racial discrimination, but I never really saw or understood what that really meant.
I joined AIESEC at my university in order to feel like I could be surrounded by globally-minded individuals, rather than the right wing conservatives I had been meeting, but in fact I wasn’t so sure that I was even globally-minded myself. The organization I was in seemed culturally inclusive and great, but who was I to even talk about the world if I only knew my own backyard? I decided then that the solution to these issues I was encountering at my university was to leave and learn in a new environment instead.
Last semester, I made the decision to travel abroad, and I picked just about the most comfort-zone destination I could have chosen: London, England. Now before you judge me, let me explain. I grew up on Harry Potter. This decision was just ingrained in my blood. I had to go.
I spent a wonderful five months in England, and I had the opportunity to travel to a few other countries in Western Europe. I made some of the best friends of my life and had so many incredible adventures.
But beautiful, clean, safe, London wasn’t so heavenly after all. While there, I had the chance to experience an election season. During this time, I learned a decent amount about the UK’s political history of systemic racism. There wasn’t a black MP until very recent history.
The melting pot of cultures present in London can be at times subject to racist scrutiny from those with native English blood. The Syrian refugee crisis tested the cultural acceptance of Great Britain.
For this reason, coming home to the USA was a turning point for me. I realized that there was no way that I could solve the world’s problems before solving those in my own community. I decided to run for the national staff of AIESEC in the United States to do a marketing role, and here I am. The reason why I’m here is because I believe that leadership is the solution. The skills and understanding that I developed in AIESEC before and during the time I spent abroad are directly correlated to my desire and ability to make a difference as a young person.
Recently, an alumni of AIESEC in the United States, Jonathan Butler, started a youth movement at The University of Missouri. He peacefully protested the systemic racism of his schools’ administration and he succeeded in removing two of the main instigators of the issues. The university’s environment is by no means fixed, but what he has done is channeled his anger and passion into change. He stood with his peers to change things on his campus, and he caused real, tangible decisions to be made.
I saw a racist community back home so I fled. When I arrived, I found the same issues in my so-called safe haven. Young people need to realize that the issues they face here are the same issues that young people face all across the world. Facilitating those spaces and channels of communication may seem easy via social media, but the power of young people standing together is unquestionable. If I can play a part in facilitating that global connection and turning it into action, I’ll feel like I did something worthwhile.
And that’s why I do what I do.
Sitting in the airport awaiting my 5’o’clock flight I was anxious, nervous, and totally unaware of the adventure about to take place. I arrived in Florence unsure.
Unsure about what I was doing, unsure about spending 4 months in a foreign country without my closest people, unsure about my relationships and myself. It took me a while to realize I had this giant opportunity at my feet and it was up to me and me alone to make it either the greatest lesson of all time or a measly, elongated vacation. I chose the first.
I found a home in a dated apartment with 7 other girls all on the same journey. At nights I planned my weekends away, filling my calendar with trips to places I had no idea would leave such an impact on me. I met the most wonderful people and experienced first-hand the most beautiful cultures. Strangers taught me more about life than my entire school curriculum ever has. (But I promise I still learned school things mom and dad.)
However, every day wasn’t picture perfect like it was portrayed via social media. I experienced some of my toughest battles while abroad, and being thousands of miles away from my support system was not ideal then. But that’s when I learned the most. Time and conflict are not compatible.
It was then that I learned how strong I really am. I learned that I couldn’t control other people, but I could control how I let them affect me. So I refused to let the bad ones get to me, not when I was surrounded by so much beauty and opportunity. I had the opportunity to waste my days abroad in a fumbled mess trying to put back the pieces of something so broken, but instead I chose to build something new.
I convinced myself that there was something so good to be seen in every single day, I just had to go find it. Whether it was something big like riding ATV’s along the coast of Santorini, or just eating a really awesome Panini, it was there, and it was important. My mind and my heart were stretched to new lengths. I found new wonders and treasures I will cherish forever, like my hideaway church on top of a lonely hill in Italy, or that hole in the wall restaurant where the owners know you by name. So sitting here throwing out my worn out shoes, I’m actually proud.
It came and went faster than it should have. There were so many pictures taken and “storage too full notifications”, so many 40 euro flights I wasn’t convinced were going to ever reach the ground again, and so, so many new friends and new memories that would be showcased on social media but would never actually reveal the true depth of the moment. Many feelings came to play throughout my months, but the one I found most consistent was gratitude. Every day I thank my lucky stars that I had this opportunity to see the moon from a new side of the world, to fulfill a part of me that’s been missing for a while, I just had to go find it.
I’ll never truly be able to properly put into words how much this experience meant to me, but if I tried to sum it up I’d do it with my favorite over-used quote of the trip:
“This just doesn’t do it justice.”