Each month, the Student Journeys Series features a guest blog post by a former student of Vicki’s. They write about how their lives have been shaped through their global education experiences. This week’s Student Journey post is written by Reilly Bench.
I am a very proud Seattleite – my friends at Notre Dame often refer to me as “Seattle,” because I won’t shut up about it. Despite my love for home, I always keep my ear to the ground for interesting ways to leave – at least for a bit. My first opportunity to leave the country (besides Canada), was when I traveled with my mother and brother to Antigua, Guatemala to spend some time with a family we knew from Seattle. Being 11, and deprived of video games as a child, I was pretty attached to my friend’s Gameboy during that trip. Unfortunately, this isn’t the way to travel or experience new cultures.
It wasn’t until several years later that I really caught the travel bug while at the Makah Indian Reservation on the Olympic Peninsula. The Lakeside Middle School GSL program was founded when I was in seventh grade, and I decided, with the urging of a good friend, to put in an application. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. Over the two weeks we spent on the reservation, we learned about the native wildlife and vegetation; we fought valiantly to remove some invasive blackberries, (escaping with only a few scratches); we discussed the history of the tribe with its elders; we marveled at the enormous grey whale skeleton that dominates the main room of the reservation museum; and we ate fry bread and discussed the future of the tribe with some kids our own age. Through that trip, I realized that tradition is being threatened all over the world, and we are often dismissing or misunderstanding its value. Of course, not all tradition is good, but I know that it is difficult to determine that without getting as close to it as we can and discussing it with the people who live with it.
After a devastating phone call, informing me that I didn’t make my summer all-star baseball team, I was free to devote my summers to my newfound mission. Now that my summers were free, I committed to do just that. My French teacher told me that a French family wanted a student to spend time with their son at their home, and then show him a little about America. With my parents’ support, I agreed to participate in the exchange program, and I found myself in Sanary sur Mer, France 5 months later. Fred, the exchange student, and his family encouraged me to speak French fearlessly and patiently corrected my more than frequent errors. My comfort level and confidence improved with every conversation. In addition to my learning more about the French language, I found that locals appreciated my attempt to participate in their culture, and accepted any mistakes that came with it. Instead of spending my time in France buried in a Gameboy, I forced myself outside of my comfort zone and discovered opportunities to swim, play sports, and navigate a ropes course in the forest with new friends. I like to think it was through the success of that adventure that I gained the courage to seek out more opportunities like it.
The following year I found myself playing cards on the hood of a taxi in Kissidougou, Guinea with my brother, a Peace Corps Volunteer, and a bunch of local boys. My purpose in Guinea was to deliver clothes that I had collected in America to an orphanage in my brother’s village, yet the trip became much more. I ended up in the thick of my brother’s work setting up a banking and loans system in a nearby village, sitting in on NGO meetings, and generally learning the lifestyle of a volunteer in a foreign country. Of course it wasn’t all work – the countryside in Guinea is breathtaking and woke me up to how much of the world I want to see. I lived as a Peace Corps Volunteer for three weeks and through that, and the most important lesson I learned was that the value of travel in any capacity is the relationships formed through it. Knowing the people I work with makes the service something more meaningful for both parties.
The following summer, I returned to the GSL Program and spent a month building a school in Toufestalt, Morocco. Unfortunately, our Morocco group was confronted with a budgeting issue that kept us from completing our project while we were there. We decided to accept the challenge of raising the funds to finish back in Seattle by selling jewelry we bought from a women’s association. That was a great success, and reminded me that social efforts aren’t something you leave behind when you leave the country.
Since graduating high school, I have spent a semester abroad in Angers, France and led a couple of weeklong service trips to the Appalachian Mountains. All of this travel has shaped me in very special ways. We live in a world that revolves around the American flag, and rarely do we see the issues of the rest of the world firsthand – we see them only through the lens of a media we don’t trust. My experiences have made me feel like a citizen of the world, and have also shown me that the human spirit endures despite the massive social problems that exist on every continent. There is kindness, generosity, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship everywhere. I’ve been afforded access to an incredible education, and am motivated to apply the skills I’ve developed to improving opportunities for those less fortunate.