Don’t think twice, it’s alright

Friday the 15th marked the halfway point of our stay in Senegal. I’ve been keeping close track of the days, and feeling the halfway mark looming upon me was, frankly, kind of depressing.  A month ago, I had written a proposal detailing all the activities I wanted to initiate at the preschool. The director approved it the day I submitted it, and said he would explain it to the preschool teacher. After a week, I tried to organize a meeting between the three of us. While I waited for that meeting to take place, I continued what I’d been doing at the school – helping the kids color, opening snacks, handing out materials, and drawing the curricula on the boards. A month passed while I waited, and I decided to just explain it to the teacher myself on Wednesday. I launched into a long, painful speech in my stunted French, and she listened and nodded. Then she brought me a stack of 50 notebooks and told me to copy the same picture into all of them (I’ve been designated official artist, because they somehow think my atrocious drawing skills are fabulous) so that the kids in my group could color the next day. She had obviously missed my entire point – that coloring every day was getting them nowhere, that I was tired of being forced to draw pictures and make endless paper chains, that I was not accomplishing anything at this apprenticeship. As I sat there, drowning in a sea of empty, waiting notebooks, I could feel a scream rising rapidly inside my throat. I was perilously close to either letting it out or bursting into an absolute torrent of tears.

That was and will undoubtedly be my lowest point throughout this bridge year. That Saturday, there had been an extremely uncomfortable situation with my host family. Sunday, I got the news that my aunt had just succumbed to her fight with pancreatic cancer. I took some time off work to cry and calm myself down and when I returned, I was still pretty high-strung. When that conversation happened, the frustration and feeling of helplessness that had been building up over the past week completely took over. Luckily, I refrained from exploding, knowing that would distress the teachers to no end, and that moment became a pivotal one for me.

I truly love GCY. I think the program is absolutely phenomenal and plan on being one of the loudest, most enthusiastic voices promoting the GCY experience when I return to the States. However, if there is one flaw in GCY’s modus operandi, I think it’s an overemphasis on the “changing the world” aspect of the bridge year. Discussion with the other Fellows revealed that they felt the same way – we all applied for this eager to run off and “save” a Third World village. But having those expectations made us all start feeling discouraged once the halfway point approached, and I’m now glad I had that near-breakdown because it prompted an invaluable conversation with Rachel and the other Fellows.

Thank goodness that the monthly meeting fell on the halfway day, because we all needed to remind each other of our “meaning” here. Every Fellow is, of course, making a difference just by being here, living in these communities, but I think we were still clinging to a certain vision of “making a difference,” in a semi-unrealistic way. We are supposed to be training ourselves to help “save the world” once we have a college education and some more life experiences under our belts. I’ve been saying this whole time that this GCY bridge year is more about me than the people of Senegal – after all, I was just a 17-year-old high school grad when I got here, what could I really offer them? I often repeated that I was going to learn much more than I could ever teach. There is no doubt that I am learning more about social development and different cultures this year than I have throughout my entire life. I am learning mostly, however, about myself – where my limits lie, how I best fit into the social work scene, and what genuinely makes me happy. I’ve been saying all along that was the point of taking this bridge year, but I guess I had kind of forgotten.

For the meeting, Rachel had us all write project plans for the remainder of our time here. We are so lucky to have that woman with us – she has been essential both to saving our sanity and pushing us to think critically and academically about everything we’re going through. I poured myself into that paper, reflecting on things I have already learned and setting realistic goals that will help me learn more. I’ve totally refocused on learning, learning, learning, so that I can be 100% better prepared for college and, hopefully, be able to come back after college and actually facilitate some of these great changes. Now that I’ve fully reminded myself of my reasons for taking this bridge year, I am so incredibly happy I have the next three and a half months to throw myself fully into the experience.