I sit among physicians, an IT fellow from Microsoft, a dance instructor, a genetics counselor, a lady pastor, a civic engineer, social workers, who sit crowded among teenagers from Somalia, Mexico, East Asia, Guatemala, The Congo, Ethiopia - refugees. The kids, with much gentle nudging, just finished rotating between the professionals, interviewing about the various careers represented in their third or fourth language. The coordinator of this event stands before the group and asks one final question, "Any last piece of advice to youth who are struggling to pick what they want to major in?"
I want to raise my hand, put in my words of advice, but I'm not one of the featured professionals, so I keep quiet. But the wheels in my head are turning back the clocks of time, back to my days in high school and college and beyond.
In high school, I considered being a paramedic, a nurse practitioner, a physical therapist, and a counselor. Counselor won out, because I liked my psychology teacher the most, and I felt it simply fit. My best subjects were English and psychology, but I never gave writing a second thought.
In college, I didn't stray from the path of psychology, though I loved my anatomy and physiology classes. After college, I worked for a year as a social worker with refugees and loved it, until the often ten to fifteen hour days burned me out. I wanted to live and work in Africa, more than anything, and this I planned my life around. I looked into graduate level public health programs, with the desire to continue my work with refugees, but they all seemed a bit too heavy on the medical end of things. I decided upon grad school for counseling, and had a brief spat in the beginning when I thought seriously of law school. I wanted to work for International Justice Mission, at least as an option, but they are mostly attorneys. I stuck with the program, however, and when all was said and done and my degree completed, desired nothing but to write.
If you would have walked up to me four years ago and told me, "When you're thirty, your favorite things will be writing and photography and dance, and you'll be learning Spanish with the intent of becoming bilingual, and you'll be falling in love with Mexican culture because a Mexican man will have captured your heart, and you'll be learning about the Catholic way of faith and become more open minded than you are right now instead of being intimidated by differences of tradition," I would have balked and said this is not possible. I want to be in Africa, I would have said. I want to learn Swahili, this is all I've wanted for the past ten years. I want an emotionally intense career, I would have said, and those other things are frivolous pursuits. I would have said I have no interest in setting foot in a Catholic church and I have no desire to learn Spanish or live in Mexico, ever. I would have said these things in a softer way, not so direct and forceful, but in my heart my protestations would be fierce.
And so I think, what advice would I offer to these refugee kids as they look ahead to a future and dream dreams?
I'd say, dream big, and keep an open heart to the unexpected. Many little things conspire to make us who we are, and we are never too old to be kids and never too big to imagine new dreams and never fully arrive as grown ups as long as we stay open to growing big hearts.