6 months ago I received a call that completely changed my life. There are those epic events that you anticipate such as graduating, getting married or having a baby (of which I have ironically only done the first) however there are those unexpected life changing moments that come as a complete shock and somehow you know your life will never be the same again.
I applied for the Bonderman Fellowship through the University of Washington on a whim. I had heard of the fellowship which was kind of like an urban legend as it grants 7 graduate students university wide $20,000 to travel the world for 8 months. The catch? You must travel independently to 6 different countries in two regions of the world and be gone for a minimum of 8 months. Kind of too good to be true right? Well, after a little nudging from my friends to apply, I wrote a 4 page essay about the various intersections of my identity and my desire to see how my identity will shift, change and grow in each region of the world I visit. I also wrote about my work with immigrant families and how my personal and family’s experiences of displacement allows me to relate to others with similar stories.
About two months before I graduated from my masters in social work, as I was frantically obsessing about what I would do post-graduation, I got a phone call and all I remember is a voice on the other line saying, “Roxana, you are going to see the world!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and honestly, for the first month, thought that the selection committee had made a mistake or would take the fellowship away from me – it seemed unreal. Fearing this, I quickly signed a contract committing to “wander and wonder” while traveling independently (and write a thank you note to David Bonderman the millionaire who funds this fellowship) and it was a done deal.
Over the course of the past 6 months, the reality of this trip has settled in and I have realized the difficulties of not only planning this trip but also accepting that it is in fact a reality. Though I anticipated dealing with many ups and downs and complexities during my travels, I didn’t realize that this would also be the case during the days leading up to the trip.
This trip in nature is a little contradictory. It requires you to be flexible, fluid, and open to spontaneity and not married to any theme or idea however structured and planned at the same time. I struggled with this and had to find a balance between feeling prepared and focused while also letting this trip evolve as I go. You experience a certain loss of control even in the planning process as well as learning how to trust your gut and instinct (which is often hard for me). In the end I have realized that no matter how much I plan or prepare, by nature, there will always be an element of unknown and unexpectedness about this experience which is what makes it both terrifying and invigorating.
The other major difficulty for me has been actually determining my itinerary. You think wow $20,000 and 8 months to travel… I would go everywhere. I have obsessed and obsessed some more (and will probably continue to obsess) about the BEST places to go and the BEST itinerary. Throughout this, I have realized that similar to the trip, there is so much that is out of my control. I can plan, read and research but I know that ultimately, my experience in each place will be shaped by those I meet and the unexpected. And really, how can you go wrong?
Over the next 8 months, I know I will experience a range of emotions, highs and lows, excitements and hardships as well as things that I cannot even imagine or anticipate right now. As I am sitting in my living room on an unusually sunny day in October in Seattle, I am realizing that I am about to dive head-first into a pool of cold water and really, I have no idea what I am getting into. I know that although it will be amazing, fun and so inspirational, this journey will also be difficult, emotionally draining, physically tolling and completely disruptive of the comforts of my life. As I attempt to pack my life for the next 8 months into a small backpack (which you all know is VERY difficult for me) I know there will be moments where I regret my decision to accept this fellowship and just want to come home. However, I also know that if I don’t have these struggles, I will feel cheated and robbed. I know that the hard times are actually the essence of this experience and where I think the most growth and learning will come from for me. I take comfort in knowing that throughout my life, I have never done the easy thing or taken the simple, straight path. I have always chosen to do things that are difficult and complicated and break away from the mold of society. This has become a part of who I am so instead of being scared to struggle, I feel prepared and ready to grapple with the difficulties I encounter. In a sense, although I am so extremely lucky and fortunate for this opportunity, and never take that for granted for a second (especially during an economic crisis) I’ve realized that I have primed myself for this opportunity and set my life up in a way that makes a trip of this magnitude at this specific time in my life possible. Although I have no idea what this year has in store for me, I know that I am ready to take things as they come and use each moment to push me along my journey towards growth, learning and self-awareness.
Most importantly, I would never have the strength to take on this trip without the support, love, and encouragement of all my friends and family. There are so many people who have been such an integral part of making this trip happen from my graduate school friends who pushed me to apply for this fellowship, constantly told me I am the perfect fit and wrote my ideas down on a post-it note when I felt stuck, to my sister, cousins and many friends who have patiently helped me work through my cual OCD with picking countries (as well as holding my hand through those overwhelming REI trips), to my mom and dad for so unselfishly supporting me in my decision to travel to countries that are not the most stable regardless of how frightening this is to them and allowing me to evolve into the person I am today and finally my dear grandmother and all the strong, courageous woman in my family who have sacrificed so much and paved the way for me to take a different path in life. Saying goodbye over these last few days has made me realize how much I rely on the people in my life and my relationships to feel fulfilled and alive. My relationships are what make me who I am. I cherish this so much and am terrified to leave it behind to spend close to a year alone however, I know that no matter where I am in the world, I will take our bonds, connections and all the encouragement each and every one of you has given me and transfer this to the people I meet along the road, making all of you a unique part of my experience. I could never have the strength, willpower or courage to do this without you so I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Here I go…next stop Beirut!