High school for me was mostly a matter of reaction. Test announced, I prepared. Something assigned, I did it. Bell rang, next class. Extracurricular, I showed up. Swim practice, I obeyed the coach. Social event, I socialized. In hindsight, I succeeded mainly because of that system of expectations. I let myself be dragged. I’m no longer in high school, however. I’m living in rural, coastal Brazil, doing foreign exchange and volunteer work through the program Global Citizen Year.
When I discovered the program, described as an intensive learning experience abroad, I immediately applied. Moreover, I applied expecting expectations. I expected a host family who would welcome me and expect acculturation, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that would demand extraordinary things, and to struggle with an overwhelming schedule. I expected the experience to shape me. What I found, however, was fundamentally different. My host family didn’t engage or expect much of me and the staff at the NGO gave me little to do. No one was telling me what to do; I was swamped in free time.
I was upset. I’d signed up for a life-changing experience, but no one pushed me to change. I’d signed up to help people, but my work seemed to help nobody. I blamed Global Citizen Year for failing to give me an engaging placement and I blamed myself for choosing a gap year. I longed for the system of expectations I’d enjoyed in high school.
My situation has forced a frame shift. It’s not that I wasn’t being pushed, just no longer being dragged. I now create my own opportunities. There are 400 inhabitants of the village, which means there are 400 people to meet. There are skills to acquire, things to learn to cook, and language barriers to overcome. There are people with problems that perhaps my unique background can help solve. I realized that those things won’t call out to me. I have to seek them.
Just recently, I started offering free English classes. The town has moderate tourism, but the locals are often unable to take advantage of it because educated outsiders are more business savvy. My English classes are a way to give locals a potential leg up. No one asked me for English classes; it was an opportunity I recognized.
The English classes symbolize my new attitude toward life in Diogo. In the social, private, educational, and volunteer facets of my life, I’ve begun acting with the assertiveness of someone who isn’t waiting on the world to demand something of him, but is demanding things of the world. I have four more months here, four months of incredible possibility.
High school dragged me along, and perhaps my freshman year of college would have too, but I’ve realized now that there’s a much better way to go forward. Through my college years and my career, I plan to carry with me the lesson I learned here: that to do something worthwhile and complete, I cannot wait for anything or anyone but myself.