Thursday, September 13, 2012

Miss Independent!

By: Erica Stewart, CVN Recruitment Associate

Independence. If you asked me five years ago if I would describe myself as "Miss Independent," I would laugh in your face and say only when channeling Kelly Clarkson during a solo dance party. But now, thanks to amazing experiences through my college career at Stonehill College and my year of service with Dominican Volunteers USA, I can confidently say that it is now part of my personality.

I had always felt a pull towards service, beginning in high school and continuing into college. Like any nervous freshmen scared to plunge into a new group of people, it took me some time to join in with the campus ministry crowd. Once I attended the freshmen retreat in January of my freshman year, however, I was hooked. These people felt like family, sharing the same types of values, goals, and aspirations as me. I continued to stay involved with this family throughout my four years, embarking on two alternative spring break trips to New York City, acting as a liaison between campus ministry and residence life as a Crossings student minister, and attending retreats twice a year.

Along with a passion to serve also came a passion to travel. After watching my older sister travel to Florence, Italy for a year when she was in college, I knew that I wanted to study abroad there as well. During the fall semester of my junior year, I left the country and would learn the most influential lesson in independence thus far in my life.

When I look back on it now, I sometimes wonder how I journeyed there by myself: flying alone for the first time (with a layover in Germany, a country where I did not speak the language at all), finding a train from Rome to Florence, and then navigating through the crooked, narrow cobblestone streets with my huge heavy bags. Surprisingly enough, I ended up alive (but unfortunately very sweaty as it was about 95 degrees in Florence!) with all my baggage and money and even some bruises from my heavy bags to prove my strength. I had, for the first time, ventured into the unknown completely alone. The entire semester was not a complete Olympic high-dive into this unknown world because I shared my time with many Stonehill friends, but I did learn how to accurately read a map, order food without quite knowing the language, and take a deep breath when the Metro system was rerouted and we needed to find another way back to our hostel. For the first time, I learned to rely on myself more and not other people. This newly found independence left me feeling invincible.


Once I returned home for Christmas and then back to Stonehill for my spring semester, adjusting back to college life in America was a bit of a challenge. Besides the unfortunate lack of cappuccino, Vespas, and the ever-exciting hostel crowd, I felt the desire to travel more, to be on my own more and really follow my own path. This was one of the most difficult transitions for me, trying to figure out how to balance my new sense of independence while at the same time enjoying the company of friends who I had missed so dearly while I was away. But I made it through, knowing that soon enough, I would embark on another journey: post-graduate service.

Like study abroad, post-graduate service was something that had been on my radar for quite a while, but became very clear once I studied abroad and found this new part of myself. Unlike study abroad where I wanted the experience purely for myself and my own personal growth, I knew that post-grad service would give something special to both me and the people I served. My discernment process for post-graduate service ebbed and flowed, where I first thought I wanted to serve in Africa for at least two years, then the panic that resulted in how difficult that might be (it is certainly rewarding for some, I was just not ready for that quite yet), and eventually finding the perfect program for me: Dominican Volunteers USA. The conversation I shared with my program director during my initial interview instantly proved that this program was made for me. What he shared about the program's mission, the communities in which they lived, the areas and people they served, and the overall flow of our conversation instantly attracted me to them. But, of course, being a huge planner, I knew I had to weigh out all possibilites, so I took some time to consider all the different options placed in front of me, interviewed with specific placement sites, and eventually found that Immaculate Conception Academy in San Francisco would be my new home.

San Francisco proved to be the perfect place for me to grow in my independence, confidence, and most importantly, spirituality. It was just far enough away (I am originally from New England) but also still within the same country so the culture shock wasn't quite as intense as it would have been if I had decided to do international service. As a high school within the Cristo Rey Network, ICA gives low-income students a Catholic college preparatory education at an affordable cost because they work five days per month in administrative positions in the San Francisco Bay Area to pay for part of their tuition. Starting as freshmen--so we are talking age fourteen--these young women work in law offices, insurance firms, schools, and countless other offices throughout the Bay Area. To say that these girls learn independence at an early age is quite an understatement. When you work in a law office on the thirty-fifth floor of 555 California (the tallest office building in San Francisco), you are not worrying about the same things as your fellow freshman peers. Your biggest concern is filing those legal documents exactly right, showing up in professional attire, and the biggest challenge of all, balancing a high-school workload the other four days a week you attend classes. Sometimes I had no idea how they could balance it all, and when I told them that they would mostly shrug and say "yeah, I guess so." Their sense of confidence and independence at such a young age was contagious.

Besides absorbing as much of the beautiful city of San Francisco as possible and developing strong relationships with my students, coworkers, and community, I truly learned the meaning of independence during my year of service, and even more so than my time in Florence. I identify as an extrovert, thriving off the energy of others, but I also learned how valuable time alone can be during my year of service. When alone, I could truly process what was happening in my life, both within myself and those with whom I interacted. In the difficult times, I constantly had to remind myself of one thing: This year is not about me. I have a vivid memory of this lightbulb moment: I was looking in the mirror one morning, not quite feeling waking up early and starting another day. All of a sudden (I feel like I literally stopped brushing my teeth and stared at myself for a few seconds), I realized that my petty complaints were not what I was supposed to dwell on, but rather I should offer them up to the Spirit and instead focus my energy on my ministry. Now I certainly would not say that this was easy, but coming to this realization was quite liberating. How often can you say that you live your life for someone else? Some days I truly enjoyed ignoring my own small problems and instead focusing on how I could help out the struggling students in my class, process the work day with a student, or just listen to them tell me about their prom dress.

I am so thankful that I was given this opportunity to grow in so many ways, and I am very sure that I would be unable to recruit around the country without this year of experience under my belt. I now know that I can be comfortable spending a night in alone, riding the bus alone, eating out at a restaurant alone, and visiting places alone. Sometimes that is what is best for you and it is the time where you can truly reflect on who you are to others and most importantly, how best you can serve others.


So how will you celebrate your independence today?