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After nearly six months away studying abroad in Australia, and two weeks adventuring in New Zealand, I got off the plane in San Francisco. I planned to stay a couple of days with my brother before I returned home to Colorado to finish my sophomore year at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
I was wearing a brightly colored sundress and sandals, with a straw hat in my hands. It was January. It was a cold ride in his jeep to my brother's place in Santa Cruz. When we arrived at his house, I walked straight into his room, my sandals slipped off my feet, and I collapsed on my stomach on his bed. Traveling back from New Zealand took two full days, though the calendar hadn't changed. I left on January 7th, traveled for nearly 48 hours, and arrived on January 7th.
Get your filthy feet off my bed! Go wash them right now!
I turned over, puzzled. I had been wearing shoes for the entire return trip, so when I looked down at my feet, leaning forward off the edge of the bed, I was a little surprised. They did look filthy, but they weren't. Both of the bottoms of my feet were dark brown, solid calluses. Gross. That's what your feet look like when you hitchhike barefoot through New Zealand for two weeks.
We had a nice couple of days together swapping study abroad stories. He had spent a year in France a couple of years before I left for my adventure. I was grateful to spend a few days with someone who had done something similar and understood what it was like to come back to the US after a trip like that. Even though I was living in an English-speaking country, the culture shock was pretty intense.
Those first few months back were really hard. Re-immersing myself into the Colorado culture should have been easier. The language was (mostly) the same, many foods were similar, and many of my friends were there when I returned. So why was re-entry such a challenge?
My cousin recently returned from two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cambodia. As I think about her re-entry, I'm reminded of some of the emotions and difficulty I had coming back from Australia. It's not the same; she was gone for two full years, in a country without indoor plumbing (generally), completely different foods & culture, and a difficult language barrier. I'm guessing, though, that most people returning from overseas after a few months or more have a hard time, regardless of where they spent that time.
When I was in Australia and New Zealand, I shifted from being independent to being fiercely independent. As a woman, particularly a small woman, people assume I need help with things like luggage, reaching things from high shelves, and car maintenance. As an adult I take advantage of offers of help; back then, especially after my study abroad experience, I found myself bristling, indignant, and somewhat defensive with any offer of assistance. Through gritted teeth:
"I can do it myself."
Looking back, I see things much more clearly. Isn't that always the way? I realize now that part of my difficulty came from fear. In my time away, I had changed. I had grown up in a different way from my friends who didn't leave. I had the travel bug; I was even more independent. And I was afraid that after a while I'd regress and lose the gains I made when I was away. I knew I had changed, and I didn't want to give in and go back to that sense of entitlement, safety, and the desire for comfort at the cost of adventure, curiosity, and compassion. Those are the characteristics I observed around me when I returned to my cozy, spoiled life.
I was afraid that I would lose my sparkle.
It would have been easy to fall back into the routines of my life before living abroad. My family and friends were there to fall back on; life is easier when we allow ourselves to regress to where people expect us to be.
But I didn't. That fear motivated me to keep moving forward. Those observations of the people around me were enough to keep me grounded and motivated to live my life with integrity & consistent growth. Those observations continue to motivate me to be curious and spontaneous. For some people, comfort = happiness. That equation just doesn't fit me.
After my study abroad experience, every day I worked toward something bigger, something that felt like the right next step. Even a small adjustment to each day improved my motivation and kept me from stagnating in my old routine. I changed my walking route to classes each day, sat up front in every class and made sure my instructors knew who I was, set a goal to meet at least 3 new people each week, and kept my eyes open for opportunities -- especially the ones I thought might be out of reach. (That's my internship story, coming in the next couple of weeks.)
I'm so proud of my cousin; she's independent, kind, smart, curious, and adventurous. I know she'll struggle with re-entry, we all do. I also know she'll come out of this part of her life even more motivated to help our communities around the globe. She'll find ways to make her mark in improving the lives of the people around her. She most certainly will not lose her sparkle.
When you get really excited about a possibility, about the world around you, do you let the people around you talk you out of your ideas and dreams? When you return from a great conference, where you were full of energy, do you let the people you come back to pull you back into the groove, losing that momentum?
Have you lost your sparkle lately? It's never too late to find it again. Surround yourself with people who believe in you. Surround yourself with people, when they hear what you dream of doing, say "how can I help?"