I have wanted to travel to Africa since I was 14 years old, and this past winter break I was able to finally fulfill that dream. I traveled to Sierra Leone, where I, and nine other students, did work with the World Fish Foundation, educating farmers about how to grow their fisheries and supply better fish to customers and their families. This tied in with the nutritional aspect of the trip, which was focused on educating farmers and villagers about the importance of adequate protein intake. Traveling to Sierra Leone was a life-changing experience that I find difficult to sum up in words; however, as I reflect more deeply on this experience, there are some key take-aways I would like to share.
First, I learned from the people of Sierra Leone that time needs to be less worshipped than it is in western culture. Our professors were sure to warn us of how long the waits may be in certain establishments, and how we would need to be flexible, but I think it is hard to fully fathom until you are actually waiting five hours for your food. The thing that surprised me most about being forced to wait so long was how relaxed I started to feel when time was nothing more than a construct. I began to realize most of the day I didn’t know what time it was, but that put me at ease, compared to how I feel back home when I feel like I’m “running late”.
I also learned how there is so much more to life than the petty things I often stress about back home. I am naturally an anxious person, so being put into an environment that forced me to continuously step outside my comfort zone really helped me appreciate how great my life is back home. Granted, I loved the challenges we faced; everything from having to take bucket showers to camping outside every night, to going to the bathroom in random holes along the road while three tarantulas watch you. To me, those are the lively memories I will always cherish and laugh about when I think back to how insane some of the stuff we did really was. That also ties into how much confidence I have gained from this trip.
On day 8 of the trip, I wrote this in my journal:
“I have begun to become more confident with who I am while here. I’ve done things I never would have imagined doing, such as peeing in holes, showering with spiders the size of my head, and eating crazy new foods. I’ve showed myself throughout this trip that I am much stronger, smarter, and more amazing than I ever fathomed prior to traveling here. When I come home, I hope to keep this feeling alive in me and try to remember I am so much more than what other people think of me. I am not just Riley the ‘sub-par’ runner, I am Riley who is passionate about dietetics and will one day be an amazing dietitian; I am Riley, someone who is interested in global development; and I am Riley, who is extraordinary and amazing in all the best ways.”
Simply reading that back to myself now makes me very happy. I love that I was able to discover my true interests on this trip without any outside sources telling me what I should or should not like. I learned I really want to educate myself more on international news, so I have started listening to non-biased news podcasts. Additionally, a large part of my becoming more confident was the wonderful people I was able to travel with. I also noted in my journal that this trip taught me that I need to surround myself with more people who value me for who I really am. All my friends from this trip still hang out weekly, and we all agree that it is amazing how close we became in such a short amount of time. If you really think about it, with all the things we had to go through together and all the time we had to talk deeply and intellectually with one another, maybe it’s not all that surprising. Regardless, I will forever be grateful I was able to study abroad with such a smart, compassionate, fearless, and overall phenomenal group of people.
My last remark as I reflect on my trip to Sierra Leone would be that everyone should study abroad. EVERYONE. Whether it’s Africa, or even just Europe, take yourself outside the bubble of the United States to experience a world unlike anything you could ever fathom. I understand people study abroad for different reasons, but I wish more people would truly soak up their experience and savor the culture and knowledge they can obtain. I will forever be thankful I had this opportunity, so from the bottom of my heart, thank you ACES for supplying me with a scholarship to travel to my dream destination. I will never be the same after it, and I will always be grateful for that.