Summer for a college student can mean any number of things: rest and relaxation, family time or perhaps a busy work schedule. But for me, last summer meant a journey halfway around the world on a service learning trip – where I got to experience a new society and culture and tried to leave a little impact on the people I would meet.
I lived at the edge of Nairobi, Kenya and walked to work in different primary schools in the Kibera slums. Kibera is the biggest slum in East Africa, and the second biggest slum in the entire continent. The garbage and human waste are piled high on every street due to the lack of a sanitation system, and the smell of burning trash always hangs in the air. Hundreds of thousands of people are crowded into this slum. Most workers make about a dollar a day. Many have AIDS. Still more have malaria.
Despite the hardships the residents face, there were many, many moments where I was laughing and smiling. There were also moments when I felt homesick (or actually sick), but most of my summer involved experiences of perspective. These are the times that defined my summer and will likely continue to inspire me for the rest of my life.
There was the morning when I learned that my fourth grade class used the porridge they were fed for breakfast as glue to hang up drawings and posters on their classroom wall – and it worked.
There was the time I asked students in a fourth grade class if they wanted to see America and, if so, where they wanted to live when they visited the U.S. A young boy shyly raised his hand and asked me, “Are there slums in America?”
Then there was the afternoon I was grading midterm English compositions where the students were each instructed to write a letter inviting a friend to their birthday party. Student after student wrote that they knew their friends would not be able to afford the fare to travel and promised to send money to cover it. They also wrote that they knew their friends most likely had not eaten recently and assured their friends they would send food for the journey to the party.
And then there was easily the most eye-opening experience of my entire summer:
I was visiting the home of one of my first students, Eva, a six-year-old double amputee whom I was helping adjust to using her prosthetics on the broken Kibera roads. Eva’s home was smaller than half of my freshman dorm room, yet it housed Eva, her mother, her older sister and her baby brother. That day at school, I had shown her pictures on my phone of my family.
In Eva’s house that afternoon, I sat and watched Eva recount her day at school to her mom – an experience I had nearly every single day of my school life. When Eva told her mom that I had shown her pictures of my family, her mom asked me if she could see the pictures as well. I held out my phone, opened to the album of family pictures that I had put together, and I looked down to play peek-a-boo with Eva’s baby brother.
Eva’s mom was swiping through the images when she stopped, looked up with her eyes wide open, pointed at the phone and whispered to me, “Your dog, she has her own bed?”
I looked down again at Eva’s little brother, taking in the fact that he was clearly wearing the same disposable diaper he had had on a few days earlier when I had visited. I looked at the curtain hung in the middle of the house that was blocking off the single mattress that the entire family slept on. I looked to my side and saw the suitcases that served as closets and drawers for all of the family’s clothes.
And I looked back at Eva’s mom and just nodded my head and quietly said, “Yes, my dog has her own bed.”
There is a Jewish Talmudic teaching which says, “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students.”
My students this summer were the most caring and compassionate children I had ever met. Coming back home from my time away with these children and getting back to campus, I have a new appreciation for the possessions I own, for the people in my life and for my education.
While I believe travel is one of the most rewarding things anyone can do, I do not think everyone needs to sign up for a service learning trip or travel to Kenya to renew their own perspective. Focusing less on our own individual circumstances and struggles, and instead focusing on the people around us opens up a whole new world. This is much easier said than done, especially as this school year begins and we will be busy readjusting to new routines, but it is important nonetheless.
This school year will be long and challenging, but it will also be incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. I will try my best to hold onto the mindset I gained while abroad, and implore everyone to find reasons to see the good in their lives.
Hayley Nagelberg is a sophomore at the University of Illinois majoring in Animal Sciences, minoring in Social Work, following the pre-Occupational therapy track. She eventually wants to use animals as therapeutic aids for kids with special needs and veterans with PTSD. She is on the Hillel Student Executive Board as Israel Affairs VP and is also on the executive boards of Illini Students Supporting Israel and Illini Public Affairs Committee. She is a columnist for the campus paper.