So it’s my last post.* I won’t go into the obvious stuff like the culture shock (airport bathrooms in D.C. with auto water, soap, and towel…needless to say running water!), or even how blessed I feel to be from this great country of ours. And I’m not even going to talk about poverty.
That’s because poverty is not what this fellowship was about. It never was intended to be, but I didn’t know that at the beginning. Thinking back to Bangladesh, I can recall sitting in one of the few modern cafés of Dhaka, racking my brain over tea after tea, trying to figure out what I was going to produce from this fellowship. What tangible thing was going to be the outcome? Along the way I would explain to expats what I was doing, and of course, one of their first questions would be, “So what do you have to do? Is this for a degree? Do you have to write a report?” When I told them, no, I only had to blog, they didn’t get it. Their next question was, “No, I mean, don’t you have turn something in?”
Even though I knew I didn’t have to create anything, I still, for some reason, felt I did.
And so, I sat in Dhaka, thinking that if I was going to do something, it needed to be comparative and a consistent theme, and so it needed to start here, country number one. Would it be a book? A photo journal? What would be the angle? Mega slums? Social enterprise? Big aid? The fellowship proposal I had written seemed like a guideline enough when I composed it, but now that I was actually carrying it out on the ground, it became more of a tenuous concept than a clear roadmap. Time was running out – I had to leave Bangladesh soon.
I was consumed with self-doubt. I really couldn’t think of anything – I was interested in all the areas of poverty and all the areas of development. Since I knew I wouldn’t be able to cover it comprehensively, I couldn’t tie it together. Here I was, I felt, with this golden opportunity that so many people would kill to have, and it looked like, if I didn’t act soon, I was just going to wing it.
And that’s pretty much what I did.
I tried to set things up along the way in terms of volunteering or some sort of network in each country of which I could be a part, but these plans really had no consistent theme except it was all stuff I was just really interested in. Often, such as in South Africa, I would just hitchhike around a country doing outdoors activities or, like in Zimbabwe, I’d just walk up to the border and see if I could get across to talk to people and see what was going on with the farmer situation.
This is when I started to think. Smashed between sweating Malawians in the back of a minibus that never seemed to move. Speeding through rice fields in southern China on a mountain bike under clear blue skies. Spending New Year’s Eve alone in northern Mozambique, knowing really no one in the city. Though not all of these were the most pleasant experiences, they are some of my fondest memories.
It was during times like these that I really started to understand myself and how I see the world, as cliché as it sounds. My thoughts rather exploded – I had scraps of paper with ideas to explore and write about a later date when I was not traveling. Even now, back home and not completely back in the mix, my corkboard has become a holding pen for notes bearing one random thought or another.
All throughout college, and my life in fact, I’d been producing, pushing, trying to get to the next level. College entrance. Scholarship applications. Getting internships. Admission to societies. Meeting after meeting. Rinse and repeat.
But I never really stopped to think about what it all meant, or how I fit into the bigger picture. Of course, much of this was self imposed, but I’d wager to say that many people, especially those at top-20 colleges, have had similar experiences at some point. A lot of this, I think, has to do with the way the system is set up: to value lines on a resume much more than creative thought.
When I got back Stateside, I was able to catch up with the other Keegan Fellow from my year, Kathryn Moreadith. It was shocking how similar our reflections were. Talking over Skype, the essence of our conversation was as if we were both saying, at the same time, “Can you believe what just happened?! It never was supposed to be about the project!” The creeping feeling of failure that I felt, even after I was back, was something she could understand. But now, having had time to reflect, that feeling of failure is gone. I realize I’ve succeeded in ways valuable beyond measure.
*I will technically post a few more of my thoughts from the trip on my main fellowship site. In fact, I’ve already published one about Chinese social enterprise, a piece I was working on while abroad but never published. Go here to see this first piece.