Reflections on a Global Citizen Year: Indianapolis

Since the class of 2011 Fellows returned from their country posts in May, they have been, by all accounts, overflowing – with stories and anecdotes, insights and observations, and – most of all – with excitement for all they’ve done, learned, and accomplished over the course of their Global Citizen Year.  After a week spent together at Re-Entry training here in northern California, they headed back to their hometowns to spend a final month working on capstone projects, communicating their experience back to a wider audience and inspiring others to get involved.  Most recently, our newest alums have joined the 2010 Founding Fellows, along with Global Citizen Year staff, for a series of events across the Midwest, East Coast, and Bay Area – and have taken them all by storm.

What follows is a series of excerpts from these recently-returned Fellows, alums, and even their parents on what a Global Citizen Year is, and what it’s meant to them.   We begin in Indianapolis, where three 2011 Fellows planned, organized, and successfully hosted their first Global Citizen Year event, and where Fellow Emily Hess brought down the house with her reflections on a Global Citizen Year:

Before Global Citizen Year, I’d never traveled to another country. I’d never been to a coast of the US. In fact, I’d never been on an airplane. Ever.

So, around this time last year, I was finishing high school and I got an acceptance letter to Ball State University. And I told them “no”. For the sole reason that at the time, I wasn’t ready to leave home. The school was an hour away, but it somehow seemed like too much to handle. I wasn’t ready to pick up my life and move to a place I didn’t know, with people I didn’t know. So I said no. I decided instead to stay in Indianapolis. It felt comfortable, but I also knew I wasn’t excited about it. Or remotely inspired.

The very last day of school my favorite teacher at Warren Central pulled me aside and gave me a Global Citizen Year brochure and said the magic words, “This is an opportunity that will change your life.” When he said it I was skeptical, I didn’t want to believe him. But as I read more, I learned about a program that was going to send me farther than I’d ever been, and immerse me in a new life.

One voice – the little child in me that yearned to travel – was giddy. “This is the most amazing thing,” she said. “You have to do this.” But the louder voice was still saying no. You are too scared. You are not ready. You are staying right here.

Can you guess which voice won?

Before I knew it, I had filled out the application. Finished my interviews. And before the louder voice had time to stop me, I had become “Emily Hess, 2011 Global Citizen Year Fellow”.

As the summer passed, I raised money. I rallied my community. I mobilized supporters. And while one part was brave, there was another part that was still so scared, and it kept taunting me: “You’re not going to be able to do this. Why have you decided to do something you can’t succeed at?”

At the end of the summer, I took my very first flight out of Indianapolis. I must have been the person breathing the loudest on the entire flight.

I landed in California and remember feeling scared on arrival. I had never been to the coast, and I was about to meet all these people I didn’t know. I was more aware than ever that I’m an introvert – and I was scared.

During the US Training Institute, I sat back. I turned inward. I sheltered myself, and let my fear prevent me from getting too close to any of the other Fellows. I remember writing in my diary that maybe I’d made a mistake. Maybe I really shouldn’t be here. Maybe I should just go home.

But there was still a voice that knew this was important. There was something to be discovered that was beyond the fear. And I needed to find the strength to understand what that something was.

We landed in Dakar, where we were going to be for our Orientation month. It was the craziest, scariest, most insane month of my life. There were people speaking new languages, everything looked different, tasted different, sounded different, and I could see the ocean…which for a girl from Indianapolis, felt somehow unsettling.

I’ll never forget the experience of getting off the plane and driving to the hostel. It was like I was looking at a television screen and seeing things I’d only ever seen in two dimensions. And as I looked longer, I began to realize something massive: that the rest of the world is not “somewhere out there”. The rest of the world is here. And you, Emily Hess, are in it.

As the month went on, I started getting a little bit more used to what was going on around me…but overall, I was still turned inward. At my core, I was still scared.

Then I learned that my apprenticeship was going to be teaching English in a school. Talk about fear – I’ve never been more scared. I was so sure I couldn’t do it that I told everyone around me – “Honestly, I don’t think I can do this. I’m terrified. I have no experience. There is no way I can succeed.”

The first day in the classroom, I stood in front of my students and I flashed on all the things about the experience that had scared me. Being on a plane, leaving the country, arriving in another world. But in that moment, I also realized that for some reason, there was one thing I was not scared of at all – and it was being in front of my students.

For the next six months, I gave these kids all I had. And, despite the language barriers, I helped teach them English. I’m not saying it was easy. I found help. I worked with other teachers. I stuck it out. I persevered. And when I would think back to my first days in Senegal, and all my doubts and fears about my ability to teach – I realized I was totally wrong. And I was so glad to be wrong! I had proven that I could do something that had seemed like the hardest thing in the world.

By the end of my 6 months in the village. My kids were speaking English with me, and with each other. The teachers had become my best friends. I had overcome my fear.

And at the same time, the story in my diary had changed. I wasn’t writing “I’m afraid, I don’t know what to do, I don’t believe in myself…” Instead, it was as though I was simply writing in my diary from my home in Indianapolis. As if my real life, was now simply taking place in Senegal. As though there had never been anything else. And I realized, I was no longer afraid.

During my last week in Senegal, it was incredibly hard to say goodbye and particularly hard to leave my new friends, and my new family. But there came that voice again. Just as it had told me to get on the plane to go to Senegal, it was telling me that I had to get on the plane to come back home.

So here I am. One year later. And this year, instead of saying “no” to Ball State, out of fear of the unknown, I am committed to saying “yes”. Yes to opportunity. Yes to possibility. Yes to being an active part of the world. Because the world is not just something distant we see on TV.

It is right here.  And I’m going to be a part of it.