Have you ever looked back and wondered what led you to this exact moment in time? How your life might have turned out differently if not for that single, life-altering, ‘how did I get here’ experience? This transformation can take on a variety of forms, appearing to some as changes in career paths or maybe even in the guise of a developing personal relationship. For me, it happened when I was just a kid, ignorant of the world and all she offered. I was 15 and about to embark on a journey that would forever change the trajectory of my life.
In September of 2011, I, like most of my classmates in my sophomore German class, waited anxiously for the tell-tale ring of the school bell and the freedom it signaled. With only ten minutes left in class, I absentmindedly listened as my teacher droned on about an assignment due the next week, instead happily daydreaming about my plans for the upcoming weekend. All of a sudden, my thoughts were interrupted as I heard mention of an upcoming foreign exchange opportunity. She announced to the class that she had recently received information on a fully-funded study abroad scholarship for high school students. Here was the chance I was waiting for!
For all this to truly make sense, it might help to have a brief backstory on my time growing up overseas. I first went abroad when I was five. That was the year my father was stationed overseas and as a family, we moved to Germany. For the first time in my life, I was outside the familiar comforting ‘safety net’ of the U.S. Once back in the States, I found myself instantly drawn to my early memories of being overseas. From the minimalistic nature of the European lifestyle to the simple ease of traveling to different countries, Germany had become a second home and I longed to return.
From an outside perspective, studying abroad can be as simple as traveling to another country and learning a few foreign words and phrases. For me, however, it was an introduction to a new way of life where I discovered a sense of passion for the first time. I poured both my happiness and my angst into my time abroad, embracing every opportunity and loving every minute of it. For months, I was as helpless as a child, once again relying on gestures as a primary means of communication. Yet, the longer I spent with my host family and exploring the German culture around me, the more determined I became. Learning new vocabulary and doing tackling challenging grammar exercises became a natural part of my daily routine. I joyfully sought outlets in which I could increase my language skills, finding solace in German adaptations of the Harry Potter books and classic Disney movies from my youth. Learning no longer seemed like a chore; it was both a privilege and a delight to pursue what had become my deepest and purest joy.
I vividly remember the first time I started absentmindedly thinking and even dreaming in German. A tremendous sense of accomplishment surged through my mind as I realized how far I had come. Years later, this progress was once again brought to light while speaking with a hotel employee at the Frankfurt airport. During our conversation, I mentioned that I was from the U.S. and would, unfortunately, be flying back to the States early the next morning. He looked at me in shock, completely taken aback by the fact that I was an American, insisting that, if he hadn’t known better, I was just another German university student. This affirmation from a stranger stirred indescribable feelings of pride within me. From the shock and awe of landing on foreign soil as a young boy to my triumphant return decades later, the significance of these experiences continues to come forth in my life today. In retrospect, had it not been for my year abroad, I likely never would have discovered my lifelong desire to live and work in an international capacity. Without these experiences, I might not have found my way to the Bush School and a future in public service at all.