I’ve ridden my rusty blue road bike to work everyday for the past six weeks. My bike has not only served as transportation to work but my tour guide of the city as well. Through my daily bike rides to work I gradually learned the best routes to take — the shortcuts, the dead ends, and one way streets. Day by day I not only came to know Austin a little better but also learned a lot about myself, my ambitions, and goals for my professional life.
Yesterday, like anyone other day, I left the SOW office at 5:00 p.m. I unlocked my bike from its usual spot against the little tree outside the office, mentally preparing for the brutal Texas heat and sweaty bike ride that awaited me. As I cruised down the now familiar streets of Austin, I thought back to the string of circumstances that brought me to Texas, a state I never imagined I’d end up in. I traced the string of events back in my mind and discovered that I can attribute my being here today to a profile picture.
Just last spring, I was flipping through a former SOWer’s Facebook pictures. I came across a vibrant picture of a dancing African woman accompanied with a simple caption: Students of the World — Shining a Light on Progress. I couldn’t say why, but I was curious. I wanted to find out more so I called upon my trusty friend Google. As I browsed through the Students of the World website, I thought, “This is exactly what I’ve been looking for!” I was thrilled to have found an organization that combines my passion for purposeful travel and humanitarian aid with multimedia production. My heart sank when I saw that I had missed the application deadline by a month. I quickly drafted an email to the UNC SOW fellow, Blair Warren, imploring that she accept my late application. Students of the World accepted my application. Weeks later I was delighted to learn that I had been accepted to the program.
After arriving back at school after winter break, we had our first team meeting. We experienced an unusually warm winter this year, and, even though it was January, we spent our first meeting on Angie’s front porch awkwardly getting to know each other and snacking on delicious sugary chocolately globs of heaven Angie made for us. We met weekly for the rest of the semester (I was disappointed to find that Angie hadn’t planned on catering all of our meetings). The group’s excitement and anticipation grew as we rapidly approached our departure date.
Though we’d had our weekly meetings and training weekend, it wasn’t until take off that we truly felt like a team. At that moment, we all knew that we were in this together and there was no turning back. After 30 hours of kids playing tag in the aisles, exceptionally beautiful Ethiopian flight attendants, and a seemingly never-ending supply of airplane meals (not kidding, we had six meals interspersed with snacks), we landed in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital. After piling our bags in the trunk of a big white van, we sped off towards the hostel. I balled up my sweatshirt and tried to find a comfortable headrest as we bounced along the dirt road into the city. I looked out the window, fascinated that just meters from the airport laid little plots of farmland and Malawians busily tending to their daily chores. For me, this is the most memorable moment of any trip because it represents the first baby toe you dip into a sea of unknown — everything is so foreign. It’s such a great feeling to have the wind blowing in your face as you breathe fresh air of a new continent.
We arrived at the lodge and eventually that unique high you get from the combination of severe lack of sleep and excitement wore off. Though we promised ourselves we were just going to close our eyes for a second, we all crashed in our dorm-style room for the next 18 hours. Recharged, we prepared for the month ahead. The rest of the trip was a blur. Everyday brought new adventures — new people, sights, experiences, foods, ways of life, and challenges.
We were fortunate to spend a week of our travels in the company of Courtney Irving, SOW Director of Programs and Operations, as well as Dr. Greg Allgood, director of P&G’s Children’s Safe Drinking Water. We had so much fun getting to know Courtney and Greg. When I think back to Malawi, I am reminded of the night we all lounged around the campfire while Greg regaled us with hilarious stories of his hike up Mount Kilimanjaro. I think of how goofy we must have looked as the girls of the team laid on our dorm beds and did “Jane Fondas,” an intense (and extremely painful) glute workout Courtney taught us.
Most of our days were jam-packed with interviews, but we also found time to play. We saw the foggy peak of Mount Mulanje. We hiked the lush Zomba Plateau. We snorkeled in the lake and laid on the beach. We played with kids and learned Chichewa. We bought way too many bracelets and wood carvings. We rode in the back of a pick-up truck with a broken exhaust pipe. We learned how to play Bao, a Malawian version of Mancala. We explored the bustling marketplace. We cruised the lake in a boat that constantly filled with water and had to be bailed out. We swam in “croc-infested” waters to an island. We ate like the locals, trying nsima (Malawian cream of maize) and goat meat. We made friends with people from across the world, from Australia to Tennessee, everywhere we went.
Through all of our experiences, both work and play, we encountered stories of progress. We are now telling those stories. We’ve told stories about HIV positive mothers whose lives have been changed by access to clean drinking water. Stories about children who are no longer absent from school due to waterborne illnesses. Stories of doctors and surgeons who’ve given up the comforts of the states to provide quality health care to Malawians. And while we’ve heard and shared stories, we’ve created a story of our own. A tale of seven strangers who set out to change the world and became the best of friends in so doing.
Today we said goodbye to Eric Pait, the first of our team to head back to UNC. My flight back to UNC is on Friday, and, when I think about it, I get butterflies. I’ve fallen so in love with these people and this city. I love working in a team of young, talented, and creative minds, and I am going to miss all of my coworkers terribly. In the past six weeks, I’ve not only found a home in Austin, I’ve found a family in Students of the World.