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Some Things Cannot Be Taught, Only Experienced

Stephanie Brolsma

"You have brains in our head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. You are the guy who'll decide where to go.'' -Dr. Seuss


Once I graduated high school, I think this quote became the foundation of who I wanted to be as I pursued the next journey in my life. At this point, I knew that traveling the world was not only something I dreamed of doing, but also something I believed in. I felt that exposing myself to new experiences and immersing myself into other cultures would make me a more responsible individual and someone who recognized the endless possibilities the world can offer a person. I would gain new perspectives that would shape and change my values and I would learn to appreciate others for their differences, strengthening my respect for the world's diversity. 

In the spring of my freshman year of college, I began to inquire about studying abroad options through Concordia's Office of Global Education. The program offered in Australia was immediately of interest to me and I took the initial steps to determine if taking a semester in Australia would be a possibility. However, the path I had chosen to take, in terms of my education at Concordia, prevented me from taking any action beyond those initial steps. With a major in biology and double minors in chemistry and neuroscience, the available classes offered at the university would not satisfy the classes I needed to take as a sophomore the following year. The school I was looking into was better suited for business students rather than students pursuing careers in science, and as I was required to take a full year of organic chemistry the next year, I regretfully realized I would not be able to go to Australia. After making this decision, I became afraid that the educational path I had chosen to follow was going to prevent me from taking advantage of Concordia's study abroad programs. However, that following autumn, I nervously decided to try again. This time, I chose to look into a different program, one that would better fit my particular educational situation. After considerable investigation, the National University of Ireland- Galway (NUIG) caught my eye. The university had its own medical school, which meant it had an extensive array of science classes that I would hopefully be able to take. Furthermore, classes were taught in English - a very important factor for me, as I wasn't sure I was capable of taking physics in Spanish.


Despite this initial, positive outlook, my final decision was not an easy one to make. In fact, I spent almost the entire school year debating if l should, and could, go to Ireland or not. The decision making experience was a rollercoaster of emotions. It felt like I faced disappointment and excitement every other week. The logistics for me were not easy and this meant that I had what seemed like endless factors to look into before making my final decision. With my chosen majors and minors and plans for medical school after Concordia, there were multiple technical pieces I had to figure out. A big problem was making sure I could get into the physics class offered at NUIG even though it was not offered to visiting students, and that the lab associated with that class would transfer back for credit at Concordia. If not, I would need to take a separate lab course at one of the nearby schools when I returned. It was also necessary that I had other options for taking biochemistry if I chose not to take it the fall semester of my junior year. Although NUIG offered biochemistry to visiting students, taking both physics and biochemistry would require that I pay around three thousand dollars more in tuition. This was an expense I did not think I could afford on top of the initial expenses I was responsible for in studying abroad. I was climbing an endless ladder. Every time I felt I was nearing the top, I would slip back down and have to rework my strategy. I made many disheartening calls to my parents during those months informing them that Ireland wasn't going to work for me, only to call them a few days later with a new sense of hope.

During this difficult time, I was presented with another opportunity for global exploration. A friend of mine informed me of a group of Concordia students and local community members who were traveling to Ecuador over Concordia's spring break to work in an orphanage called La Casa de Fe (The House of Faith). This orphanage resides in Shell, Ecuador: a small, jungle town established in the 1950s after a team of Christian missionaries were murdered by members of an indigenous tribe from the Ecuadorian rainforest. An American woman, Patti Sue, started the orphanage years ago. After falling in love with Ecuador, she chose to make it her home and has continued to dedicate her life to saving the "unwanted children" of the rainforest. Just last year, Patti Sue moved her orphanage, comprised of approximately fifty children and ten staff members, from a tiny, four bedroom home to a newly constructed building on the outskirts of town. The difference between these two buildings was incredible! Walking to this new building, you could see its immensity and liveliness from afar, with its bright green siding and vivid orange windows. Although this new building was temporarily housing all the children as well as being used as a kitchen, a place for physical therapy, and a church, the size of the building in comparison had tripled. However, the most amazing part was that Patti Sue's vision went beyond this one building. Eventually, the building would strictly be used as a multi-purpose building. Patti Sue was, and still is, in the process of creating her own little village for the children, complete with a school and "little homes'' that would house five to seven children each. Our team's job was to build the foundation for the school that Patti Sue would be using to educate the children.


Signing up for the mission's trip, I was under the impression that I would be making an impact on the lives of the people I encountered while in Ecuador. Although I know I made a difference to those I helped and am so proud of the work my team members and I accomplished, I feel it was I who was impacted so immensely by the amazing adults and the children I was surrounded by. The way of life that the Ecuadorian people are accustomed to is so different from my own familiar culture, and I learned so much about life in these differences. The Ecuadorians live a far more carefree lifestyle than we do back in the States. They survive each day because of their faith in tomorrow, their love for their family, and their trust in each other. They depend on their own courage to fight for their survival and because of this, gratefulness is permanent in their lives. They do not have much, and yet, they seem to have it all, a reminder that happiness does not come from tangible items, but from the attitude with which we choose to face our realities. 

Looking back, this trip was a blessing in even more ways than I could realize at the time. The experience alone was an unforgettable one, but I think my trip to Ecuador gave me the encouragement and the determination to pursue Ireland even more. When I returned from Ecuador, I had a very short amount of time 'before I needed to make my final decision about whether or not I would be studying abroad the following fall. Ecuador made me hunger for more traveling of the world and crave for another learning experience such as the one I'd had in Shell. This hunger persuaded me to chase down my dream of studying abroad despite the difficulties I could encounter in the future as a result. Even though I was straying from the traditional educational path that I had been following with my peers, I finally made my decision and confirmed my attendance at the National University of Ireland-Galway for the following fall semester.


Those endless ups and downs brought me here. I have now been living in Galway, Ireland for two and a half months and will remain here for another month and a half. Although cliche, being here has been an experience of a lifetime. Living in another country is a very different experience from a short visit or even an extended vacation. Rather than simply viewing the Irish culture as I would on holiday, I have become a part of it. I carry myself more as a citizen of the country than a tourist because I feel I have the responsibility to do so.


Completely immersing myself into the Irish culture has given me the chance to develop and strengthen the person I hope to become. Frequent reflections on my experiences have given me a better ability to dissect their culture as well as the American culture, and I can appreciate the positives and the negatives that each country offers. I have learned that success does not exist without disappointments and that struggles, whether personal or nation-wide, are created and defeated each day around the world. I've learned that we are all human. We are simultaneously similar and completely different at the same time. We all fight for what we believe in and defend the places and people we love. We all strive for happiness and we all face frequent frustrations that make us fight even harder for the things we desire. However, within each person, whether Irish. American, or Ecuadorian, is a personal story that distinguishes us from one another. I think that life is about loving people, knowing that they have their own personal story and respecting how their story has shaped who they are. It is about recognizing and acknowledging differences among people and supporting each other when those differences hurt us. Letting go of assumptions and prejudices allows us to move forward, to face problems together, and to exponentially increase what we are capable of accomplishing.

Taking a semester to study in another country has been such a blessing to me. Pursuing an education in a setting so unfamiliar to the setting I was familiar with was initially very frightening. However, I quickly became adjusted and realized that what I would be learning in Ireland would far exceed what I could get out of any lecture here or back at home. The majority of my education this semester has come from my experiences outside of the classroom setting. It is this educational experience that I am so grateful for and will forever remember. As I started this reflection with a quote, I will similarly conclude with a quote from Jane Eyre, a character I deeply admire for he love of education and personal growth.


As Charlotte Bronte wrote in Jane Eyre, "Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by education: they grow there, firm as weeds among stones." What I have learned from these recent experiences has loosened the soils of my heart and helped to rid it of prejudices, and I hope that my experiences in college thus far are just the beginning of a lifetime of opportunities.

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