The Toughest Best Thing I Do

It’s been two weeks since I said goodbye to my second summer study abroad class. It’s officially called Exploring the Good Life in Scandinavia, offered though James Madison University. Last year – the first time out – was hard. I mean, I was alone in a foreign country and in charge of eleven students, taking them places even I had never been before. Our hotels and restaurants hadn’t been vetted. I had never met the Malmo University staff who were to host us for a week. I didn’t understand how to use the JMU-provided Excel spreadsheet to document my expenses. I didn’t really understand how to use Excel, period. (Ok, ok. I still kind of don’t.) Shoot…I didn’t even know what I didn’t know!

Malmo bike tour.

This time, with my Excel-savvy boyfriend along and a year of experience under my belt, I expected it to be a breeze. I knew how to navigate the streets and the public transportation. I had a list of decent restaurants suitable for groups. I had class materials prepped. And everyone there speaks English. Yes, I was feeling fine.

But, guess what. It’s still hard. Like, really hard. In no other realm of life do I wear so many hats, trying to be an unflappable, savvy tour guide/professor/accountant/surrogate parent with a steel trap memory and encyclopedic knowledge of Scandinavia.

To be sure, some of the pressure I feel is absolutely of my own creation. For example, one night we were at a very fun and hip taco joint. I was required to pre-order our dinners because we were such a large group. A few days prior, I told the students they could choose between cod, steak, or vegetarian tacos. I dutifully emailed the restaurant our order, and as the food came out, I saw that it was not tacos, but full entrees. The students were pleased, actually: it looked delicious and the portions were huge. But I felt weirdly awful and incompetent. How did I screw this up? Even as I was surrounded by happy, laughing students, I seriously thought, I just can’t do this anymore.

Later, I remarked to Joe, “It’s just so hard being responsible for everyone’s happiness all of the time.” And then it hit me: no wonder I was a stress-case! Part of my job is to set the stage for happiness, yes. To create a feeling of safety and comfort and acceptance. But I can only get them so far up the hierarchy of needs. While this job does require many hats, “perfection ensurer” is not one of them.

So, this time around one of several lessons I learned was that it’s really hard to be a die-hard people-pleaser in this role. I can only control so much. Food orders will be wrong, buses will be late, it will rain at inopportune times, and wifi will sometimes be spotty. Very little of this is my fault. Self-compassion is essential. So are head-clearing, early-morning, pump-up runs. img_7488

I also learned that taking students abroad will probably always be really hard. Maybe it should be. A big group, in a foreign country, with goals of connecting, learning, and feeling safe but also challenged. It’s not something to be cavalier about.

No one's favorite.

No one’s favorite moment.

But it’s also the most rewarding thing I do: sharing fascinating and beautiful places, hearing the appreciative and awestruck reactions of my students, helping to set the stage for new friendships, teaching techniques for happiness, exposing students to new ways of living, and maybe even instilling a lifelong love of travel. So, when I step back and big-picture it, botched food orders and slow wifi fade from view. Instead, these recent memories mesh with my first time abroad and the way it shaped me. The fact that I might have some small role in doing the same for these students is both humbling and a great privilege.

And when the students want a key class concept permanently etched onto their bodies, I have to consider it a success, right?

 

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