Returning to Chicago after eight, life-changing weeks has been very awkward. It is not awkward in the sense that I no longer feel comfortable at home, but I am hungry from my experience abroad to live more simply and with purpose. Being away gave me an opportunity to self-reflect on my core values and reconsider my academic and professional paths. When people ask me about my experience abroad, I find it very difficult to translate my thoughts and feelings into intelligible, relative words. After all, how could they possibly understand such a transformative experience? I’ll ponder better ways to explain this to others in the future; but, for now, I’ll just describe some valuable lessons learned.
1. History is not something of the past.
Throughout the process of learning about public health structures and local culture, it was very clear that the wars that erupted in the Balkans were responsible for the current living conditions in both Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Although, we often think of past events of something in the distant past, the effects of such events have living,eternal consequences that can be felt in the present. Therefore, it is always important to acknowledge events continuously and actively work to promote justice for a tragic past in the present.
2. Be audacious and persistent.
We were fortunate enough to be instructed by very passionate, dedicated intellectuals who were always reminding us to be critical and active with our knowledge. After hearing personal stories of some of our instructors who lived through the aftermath of wars, I was inspired to approach my studies and daily life with courage and the burning fire to help create change in my community. The path to our goals is never easy but the work we do along the way is worth it.
3. Be a better community member.
The kindness and generosity I encountered while abroad inspired me to be a better community member. In times of struggle and need it is important to take care of one another and stand for each others’ rights. When visiting the War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo, there were many gifts that neighbors gave to one another including hand-made clothes and toys. There were many recounts of people more generous and kind during the war than before and many people continued to be more kind afterwards. It is really easy to give up kindness in the middle of tragedies and only focus on the self but it is better be helpful, selfless and supportive towards others. Also you never know another person’s struggle, so just be kind.
4. Use your privilege purposefully.
I realized the weight of my privilege through my mere presence in another country and being able to be taught my powerful leaders in a foreign space. Because this is not an experience everyone gets to have, it humbles me to be appreciative of the efforts that went into this program. It is very normal for Americans to be demanding and detached in foreign spaces. I recognized that it was a privilege to be where I was which made me want to be more engaging and progressive with building relationships with those around me rather than just consuming whatever they were providing and being dismissive. I am privileged to have learned and had meaningful conversations that will help me reassess my position and use my talents to serve others.