Three days into living with my host family in Senegal, I had my first weekly language class, where Tiffany—a then stranger who later became my saving grace—made the comment: “I need more time to process these past two days than my entire life”. The more time I spend back home, the more I realize the truth of Tiff’s statement. Understanding what happened while I lived abroad, and it’s lasting impact, is a daunting challenge that lies ahead of everyone in the global cohort. I’ll be the first to admit that the thought of processing my experience has been so overwhelming I’ve been avoiding it all together.

Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on how you look at it—GCY’s requirement of a capstone project upon returning home makes avoiding my last 7ish months impossible. I’m not sure I’m ready to talk about the pounds of rice I consumed or how many men told me they wanted to marry me, but then again I’m not sure I ever will truly feel “ready”.  Such is life. 

As I’ve been putting off my own capstone project, I have been enjoying watching videos and reading blogs created by other members of the Senegal cohort (if you are a friend or family member who is sorely disappointed by the lack of content on my blog and want to know more about my experience, I highly recommend you do the same. None of our experiences were the same, but they were often very similar). In reading their processing, I find it helps myself to do the same; not to mention it’s a good reminder that despite practically no one in my hometown having ever heard of Senegal before, I’m not alone. Reading one of them this morning, I found a phrase from Elise that perfectly captures how I feel about Senegal, which I’m shamelessly copying/quoting:

“My reality is this: there are aspects of my Senegal I loved enough to bring tears to my eyes, and parts I am glad to have left behind and an ocean away”

When I got on that plane in September, I was fully expecting to fall in love with Senegal. I was ready to gain a new culture, a new language, and a new home. I couldn’t wait to have a second life that would make me so much cooler than all of my classmates who went straight to work or college after graduating high school.  I didn’t realize it wouldn’t be that simple. Senegal is a real place, not some African version of Neverland.  It’s not a magical, isolated country that exists to teach spoiled white girls like myself how to be decent human beings, and then provide them with conversation starters at cocktail parties for the rest of their lives.

Yes, Senegal’s history and culture differs dramatically from that of the USA, but I believe that at their core both my host country and my home country are the same: a bunch of people trying to build a life for themselves while (more or less) working together. Senegal has friendly people and rude people, rich people and poor people, selfless people and selfish people—just like anywhere else in the world. There are aspects of Senegal I love and aspects of Senegal I hate. There are aspects of the United States that I love and aspects of the United States I hate. Countries are countries and people are people; personal growth doesn’t automatically come from traveling halfway across the world.

That being said, I think it is important to clarify that I don’t regret going to Senegal for a second. The lessons I learned while I was there were lessons I could have learned at home or anywhere else, but I learned them in Senegal, and I believe that was for a reason. Even if I don’t really know what that reason is right now. 

Before I finish, there are multiple people who I need to thank for their love and support over these past months: GCY’s Senegal in-country team, especially James, the most patient and trustworthy team leader ever. Sin Bi Jalo, who made it possible for me to communicate in Wolof as well as maneuver through Senegal without being culturally clueless, and also opened his home and heart to our language class. The Senegal cohort—you guys are the reason I didn’t go home early. Thank you to everyone who read and left comments on my blog, or who sent me emails updating on life back home, they meant more to me than I ever let on. Last but not least are my parents: I love you both more than words can say.