Saturday, September 6, 2014

Learning how this fellowship works...

All of my life I've been a student, and to be honest, I have gotten pretty good at it. I usually know how much time it will take to finish a paper, study for a test, or complete my reading. Until beginning this adventure, I didn't realize how comfortable I had grown in this role.

Now all of that has changed. Though I am still associated with an educational institution and my job is to learn, this is nothing like being a traditional student. Even my first few days have been humbling as I have realized that the next nine months are not at all going to be what I expected.

There are no assigned readings. There is no syllabus. There aren't even office hours to ask questions when I'm confused about a topic!

Instead, I must create the opportunities to learn. Not only that, but I have to do so in a new culture where they speak a different language. The Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellowship is intended to grow an individual as a global leader, by allowing them to travel abroad, studying a topic of their choice. What is meant by "studying," though, is not reading books, but by meeting people and asking the right questions.

So here is how I pictured the fellowship working before I left the States: I would arrange meetings with organizations in each of the countries I would be visiting. During these meetings, I would ask questions that I had prepared in advance. However, at the end of these meetings I would ask if there is any one else I should speak with about my topic. From there (hopefully) I would be connected to more and more people. As I went, my questions would evolve as I learn more. Voila! I will return home a "global leader" in the field of aftercare.

It's really quite comical even after just five days abroad.

My time here in The Netherlands is a perfect example. Both of my appointments for this past week were rescheduled. At first I was disappointed and felt like a failure. My one job was to meet with people, and that wasn't going to happen for an entire week! After getting advice from my wonderfully wise parents and friends, though, I decided to use this as an opportunity to see the city and get to know my hosts

On Wednesday, I decided to do this by biking into the city. One of my hosts, Mariska, was going into town as well, to work at a cafe, so she offered to help me find my way. As we biked together, she began asking more about my fellowship. I was able to share with her during the 20 minute ride all about my project and what I was hoping to do here in The Netherlands. Through the conversation, I found out she was interested in the same type of work! In fact, she was pursuing a job opportunity with a small organization in another country that was providing services to trafficking victims. From there, she began listing multiple friends and contacts here in The Netherlands that were interested as well. She promised to connect me before I left the country.

Sidenote: found this on that very ride into the city. How often do you casually find an old windmill on a bike ride?

Two days later, last night, Mariska hosted a party at her home. She had invited me earlier that day to come. After dinner with some American friends, we stopped by the party. When I came to the door, Mariska looked excited and said, "I have someone for you to meet!" We walked into the living room, where she introduced me to her friend. As we began talking, I found out that her father works for CoMensha, the biggest organization in The Netherlands connecting trafficking victims to services. I had been trying to arrange a meeting with someone from CoMensha for days, but the email replies had suddently stopped coming in. I asked if it would be possible to arrange a meeting with her father, and she enthusiastically said "Of course!" She also listed a few other organizations and projects that I had been trying to contact without success. Excitedly, I gave her multiple business cards for her to give her friends and father. I am so excited to see where these connections lead - all of them happened without sending emails or making cold calls (of which I have been doing my fair share). Instead, they came about by simply connecting with the people right around me.

I went to bed last night just amazed at how all of this had worked out. I could have moped around all week after the cancellations. Instead, I saw more of this incredible city and began making new friends. Without even trying, I did exactly what I'm supposed to for this fellowship! I even found that people I spoke with that had no connection with my topic wanted to hear more. Sexual violence and exploitation affects every country on the planet, and everyone I have spoken to so far wants to know what is being done to end it in their country.

At first, a lack of structure was uncomfortable, stressful, and a bit scary. I feared that I would live like a tourist for nine months without really learning anything, wasting my own time and the fellowship's resources. However, if I had given into this fear, I wouldn't have encounters like I did last night. I would be so busy with my idea of the right schedule that I would miss out on some incredible connections. Of course, I still plan on pursuing particular contacts with diligence. However, I'm not going to be so focused on filling my time with official appointments that I don't get to know the people right around me. They may be more important to my learning than anyone else.

My comfortable role as student is being turned upside down, and it is awesome.


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