29 Jul 2016 Bagpipes, Watermelon & Mindfulness: An Interview with Sophia Richter
Sophia Richter, Senegal ’15, Alma College
Catch us up on what you’ve been doing since you returned from Senegal last year.
My family lives in Rhode Island, which is where I am currently for the summer. I attend a liberal arts college in central Michigan called Alma College. Since I only have a year under my belt, I can’t be sure what I’ll come out of school with in terms of a degree. But I am currently pursuing an Economics and French double major.
This summer I’ve had a few different jobs. Most notably, I worked on an organic farm that grows native fruits and vegetables and produces compost that is used by much of Rhode Island. In addition to working, I was able to attend a conference in Moscow, Idaho, USA with the program Break Away that addressed Native American nationhood, and culture and land preservation. It was a weeklong training that covered issues of social justice and how to personally become and inspire other college students in becoming active citizens.
In addition to this, I have been taking summer classes, playing bagpipes at Highland Games competitions, and have challenged myself to read 5 books this summer (so far, I’ve read ‘Winter of our Discontent’ by John Steinbeck and ‘Feminist Theory, from margin to center’ by bell hooks…three to go!).
What is a favorite memory from your Global Citizen Year?
That is an incredibly difficult question to articulate concisely! Most of my favorite memories don’t have stories behind them. My favorite memories are the simple ones; the routines, the faces, the sensations. Like how the hot sand would slide between my dried out feet and the thin rubbery sandals and like what yaay’s (my host mother’s) laughter sounded like. We used to laugh a lot.
But one that comes to mind on this hot summer day is a time when sama papa (my host father) brought home a khale (watermelon). My siblings and I were pretty excited to eat it immediately but yaay wanted it to chill a bit first (which entailed cutting it up into quarters and setting it in the fridge). So we had to wait. Like I said, we were excited and while we waited, we came up with a song about the watermelon. It went something like ‘khale, khale, dama begg khale, khale, khale, beggnaa ko lekk!’ It had this catchy tune to it, and I still find myself mumbling it at the most random times. After a while, we took the watermelon outside and began splitting it up amongst us all. But when I took a bite, my teeth did that shivering thing like when you bite into ice cream. The watermelon was so so cold, like frozen. I will never forget the scene of all seven of us standing around the kitchen door laughing partly at the frigid oral discomfort of it all but laughing mostly at each other’s scrunched facial expressions.
Looking back on your Global Citizen Year, what part of your experience has had the greatest impact on you ?
The first things that come to mind are the aspects of my experience that I hold closest to my heart. My Senegalese family played an intense and central role in my year and I will never be able to (nor would wish to!) separate my Global Citizen Year from my Senegal cohort or from the global cohort. And I also think about the aspects of my experience that I had not anticipated like learning Wolof and thus having my eyes opened by the power of being able to communicate with people in their own languages. But there is a singular lesson that has impacted me immensely. I’d say it took most of the year for me to fully come to terms with but it’s a lesson I began to unpack after the very first night spent in Dakar.
Two greats, Viktor Frankl and Fyodor Dostoevsky both spoke on the “last of man’s freedoms”, or the human “spiritual freedom”. It is “the ability to chose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” and is, according to them, what gives human life meaning and purpose. We have the ability to reframe our experiences and gut responses into something that gives us strength to persevere and into something that allows us to explore our situations from different perspectives.
One of many countless experiences that challenged and engaged me on this level was at my community engagement. Being able to internalize the discomfort I felt every day when I would go to the kindergarten allowed me to find the value in pushing myself into roles that challenged my preconceived values and levels of comfort. In the end, I found peace with my role there and was able to engage more deeply with the teachers and students I worked with.
Often we find ourselves in challenging situations. But, instead of letting what we cannot change be debilitating or letting what makes us uncomfortable push us to quit; we have the ability to control how we choose to frame and respond to our experiences.
Are you still in touch with other members of your cohort or other Global Citizen Year alumni?
The Global Citizen Year alumni network is really something special. I am endlessly grateful for the friendships that I developed and continually inspired by the wonderful things GCY alumni are up to. We share a common experience that we can build on and appreciate each other for. Whether it is with alumni of my Senegal cohort who I can check in with any time with a few creative texts in Wolof, or with alumni I only got to know during PDT and RET but share a couch with, or even with alumni I’ve never met with in person who I can exchange words of wisdom about our experiences over a video chat, this network has helped shape my post-Global Citizen Year life. It has given me a way to continue building relationships and has given me a way to continue to be inspired by and learn from these fellow budding global citizens.
How are you continuing to live life in your stretch zone?
It’s funny but while in Senegal, I realized that the times when I was most often in my stretch zone had very little to do with Senegal specifically. It was more a result of having personal weaknesses be exposed, of having your values be challenged, and of having your expectations wiped away and replaced with new experiences. I continue to make choices that put me in situations like Senegal that provide me with countless opportunities to stretch.
Committing to a four year college in Michigan when I’d only ever really lived on the east coast and am chronically afraid of commitment; signing up for bagpipe competitions when I had always shied away from anything competitive; and preparing for spending the next year studying and living in cultures completely different from what I am familiar with; these are all examples of some of the bigger choices I make to put myself in my stretch zone.
But the most important examples are those that happen every day. I have been developing a habit of being mindful of when I become uncomfortable and determining why I feel that way. By being more mindful, I have been able to establish smaller challenges that force me to confront these discomforts. Whether it is to challenge myself to call and catch up with friends more regularly or to greet people I sit next to on the train, I am building a habit of living actively in and remaining aware of my stretch zone in my daily life.
What advice do you have for current Global Citizen Year Fellows and for recent alumni?
My advice for current fellows is to be present. That may sound really simple but being mindful of yourself, aware of your surroundings, engaged with your environment, and accepting of the way things work out are all aspects of being present. By embracing the process, the path that you are on at every single step you take, you will end up spending less time dwelling on the future or fretting over the past.
And to all the recent alumni, my first word of advice is to take your habits of intentionality, mindfulness, curiosity, and active engagement to your next stage of life. Apply your bridge year approach to your life as a whole. And keep in mind, your bridge year with Global Citizen Year isn’t the end nor is it the climax. If you choose, this is just the very beginning.
Because of my Global Citizen Year I am headed in the right direction.