by Hope Pavich, Greenheart Travel High School Abroad Program Manager
As I stood around the circle early Saturday morning, listening to the coaches prep and encourage us to enjoy the process, go with the flow and be ready for anything, I realized that I heard these words before-not from them, but from myself. They were similar to what I mention to my participants during their pre-departure orientation before embarking on their Greenheart Travel high school abroad programs.
This parallel was one of many between my participants preparing to study abroad and me training for my first LifeTime Chicago Triathlon.
The decision to sign up and train was based on several reasons. Some were more personal, some were professional, and some were a combination of both.
I was beginning to feel like a hypocrite when preparing my participants to go abroad. How easy is it for me to sit at my cozy desk, with my lovely cup of coffee and tell teenagers that they “should take advantage of every opportunity, push past their wall of discomfort, speak the local language every chance they had, and to embrace the differences?” Sure, I had gone abroad and taken the same advice. I understood how difficult it was to remove yourself from the comfort and support of what you have always known and transplant yourself into an entirely new environment, but my personal travels had taken place years ago.
It was time for me to take action on the inspiration I receive daily from the students and their families. When you get older it becomes harder to put yourself into situations that force you to grow and change. You get set into a routine, see the same wonderful people, allow yourself to just be; without seeking what else life has to offer. The triathlon provided me with the chance to put myself back in the shoes of the participants by doing something that was scary, but still in Chicago.
I am a runner, not a cyclist and definitely not a swimmer. Besides the curse of the flat tire, cycling came rather easy and has been quite fun. Swimming, on the other hand, was my nemesis and offered a plethora of parallels between my training experience and my participants’ perseverance to navigate a new culture. The Thursday night open water swims, when all I wanted to do was go home but instead tugged on my wet suit, were eerily similar to the days my students just want to speak English, but instead force themselves to speak the host country language.
The moments in Lake Michigan when it feels like I am the only one fighting against the waves, are similar to the waves of homesickness participants experience. We know there are people who support what we are doing, but they can’t do it for us-and that can be incredibly isolating and lonely. That first, terrifying step into the water reminds me of the first, terrifying step away from loved ones and toward a country of unknowns. That wonderful step out of the water is as big of a relief as when you look around and notice that country of unknowns has become what is now familiar.
Swimming and I have come to a détente, but it took a lot of hard work and patience- just like it will take participants to push pass the second stage of culture shock. It will happen, but it will take a lot of effort.
The race day is fast approaching and I am at once excited and nervous. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but I take great comfort in knowing that I have done my best up to this point. The same can be said for the the Greenheart Travel participants that have already returned from their exchange program, the ones who are currently studying abroad, and the ones who are about to depart for an adventure they will never forget.
So this is a big, warm thank you to all of my participants and their families-past and present- for being the push and inspiration I needed to get out of my comfort zone. I wish you all the best of luck and congratulate you on what you have already accomplished.