When I was fifteen years old, I remember sitting in Homeroom in High School when my advisor expressed that I should look into a leadership program called, "People to People." He was informed that it was an organization developed by Dwight D. Eisenhower back in 1956 after he had experienced and witnessed the tragedy that WWII and the Holocaust had brought the world. With the intention and understanding that the only way fear could be washed away and peace could be made, was for people to understand one another. Mr. Eisenhower expressed that this mission would not be fulfilled by the government, but "...through the hearts of those who yearned for dignity, freedom, and peace. " This involved young adults traveling throughout the world, taking the time to learn about and live through each other's customs and ways, and ultimately share their own while building genuine relationships with those from all around the world.
Needless to say, my parents agreed and I went on to apply to become a student ambassador of Wisconsin, who would travel to six countries in Europe over the course of one month, at fifteen. As I was going through the process of applying, and throughout the school year before the journey I would take, I was going through depression. I was my own worse enemy for so long, and it felt like nothing could take the pain away. I was wrong.
Discovering the world through People to People changed my life forever. It is an enormous reason I am where I am at today and am the person who I've become. Actually, now that I think about it, People to People didn't only change my life, it saved it.
At fifteen, everything is very impressionable. I didn't know who I was, and I had no idea where to begin looking. When given the opportunity to venture 4,000 miles away from home with other people my age, though, it was an opportunity I sure didn't want to pass up. And who knows, maybe I'd find myself along the way?
This opportunity meant the chance to begin truly thinking for myself. Upon hearing or seeing something, what made my eyes and soul light up? Would something I read help me to understand what I'm interested in? What kinds of questions am I asking, and what does that mean about me? Am I brave? Am I willing to get up and go out there in front of everyone? The truest teller of all, though, is throughout the time spent with 29 strangers of the same age group, how will they see me? Which talents and gifts will they see I have? Most of all, what kind of person will they think I am?
Of course, before leaving, I had no idea this journey would do all I said above for me, nor did I know it until after I returned home. Following my acceptance into the program, I found myself in a room at a state-central high school with 28 other high school students, of whom I've never met, from around the state of Wisconsin. I was number 22 (we were assigned numbers to count off by on the trip). In this room, and prior to, via quizzes at home, we went over the courses in government, culture, geography, architecture, religion, daily life, and a small portion of the history of each of the places we were scheduled to visit. These countries included Belgium, The Netherlands, France, England, Wales, and Ireland. The 29 of us met every two weeks for about six months before our trip, learning different lessons along the way that would prepare us for our journey and the purpose it served.
When July 3rd, 2011 rolled around, we all said our goodbyes to our parents at the airport, hopped on a plane and made our way over to Amsterdam. The Netherlands was our first stop on the journey. Here, we learned how to make clogs, visited a local farm where they taught us how to make cheese, the significance of tulips there, and created a giant hay bale maze we were able to crawl through (it was absolutely awesome). We also experienced Anne Frank's Annex and further imagined the tragic life she endured - but found a way to make beautiful, made our way throughout the city of Amsterdam, learning how to speak basic Dutch, meeting locals business owners who told us about their way of life and what living there meant to them.
We saw the Heineken factory, learned that cycling is the main form of transportation - and that road rage is a very real thing on any form of wheeled transportation, along with the fact that there are 165 canals within the city of Amsterdam, and besides bicycle, traveling by boat is the next highest form traveling from place to place. In fact, Amsterdam is regarded as the "Venice of the North!" I remember as I sat outside the place we were staying, writing underneath a willow tree by the river, and explaining in my journal that I had been opened up and found my true love - learning of new places and people and showing only love and light along the way. It was the first time I was truly happy with knowing who I wanted to be, and what got me to that state of bliss.
Next stop on our journey was us learning how to make chocolate in Belgium, visiting different WWII war zones there - being told the history of the area and what it meant to their country, as well as being taken to a monument erected in 1950, dedicated to the United States Armed Forces who fought at the Battle of the Bulge during WWII, and there, understanding the true power of working together.
This lesson further continued when we were taken to the beaches of Normandy, France, where we stood in the ruins of D-Day on Omaha beach, and continued on to visit a cemetery and memorial for those who died there that day. While we were there, there was a tribute to the U.S. soldiers, and because I had expressed my interested and love of singing with those I was on the trip with, I was asked to lead the group in singing the National Anthem, which was such an honor in a place with so much meaning. We also got to go through the Caen Memorial Museum, which touched on the Holocaust and its horrors. Traveling to Paris was also included in our trip through France, so, we also tried frog legs, escargot, visited the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Champs D'Elysee, walked through Montmartre, visited Sacre Coeur, along with many other historical landmarks and locations "The city of lights," had to offer.
England was next, where we met members of parliament and were able to enter the building and discuss their role in the government. We experienced many of the ventures of London including the Elizabethan Tower (Big Ben), the London Eye, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, along with Westminster Abbey and saw Blood Brothers at the Phoenix Theater. We ventured to Warwick Castle, where we learned how to joust, sword fight, launch a flaming ball from a catapult, and battle with Batons (this was one of my favorite days). Prior to this, we visited the Isle of Wight, where we stayed at the United Kingdom Sailing Academy (or UKSA) and learned how to windsurf and sail a dingy boat. Throughout our trip, it was mandatory we kept a journal - one for the organization (which they read), and a personal journal for the things we didn't really want to share with anyone else. After going through and learning all of these opportunities of growth in England, I was absolutely blown away by how much my life had escalated in value, and how my mind had opened at the age of fifteen. Little did I know that where we were headed next, would truly impact my life forever and be the beginning of the paved path leading to who I would become.
After we were taught how to become medieval warriors, we made our way to Wales, where we learned how to speak Welsh, where I found my new favorite meal - Bangers and Mash, and where I gained the confidence and inner strength to break a board with my bare hand and repel down a castle wall (doing the Bernie). This proved to me that I could do anything I set my mind to as long as I believed in myself.
The last stop on our journey was Ireland, where the biggest difference was made in my life. This is because Ireland is where we spent the most time with the communities and creating relationships that truly involved being with one another and building on human connection. Here we took boat rides through the lakes between the mountains and horse and buggy rides through them. We made our way to the town of Cahersiveen where we stayed and did chores at a local bed and breakfast, spent time with local teenagers, learning the music of Ireland's past, the Gaelic language, how to jig and dance, and where those who wished could get up and sing in front of the community. I did - I sang Jar of Hearts by Christina Perri. The next day, we went out and dug peat for homes in the community, played Gaelic football with a local youth group, and from there, we chose to do different acts of community service throughout the town - a friend of mine and I chose to go to the nearby retirement home and sing the song we learned, " Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears," to a few of the tenants there. To say it was rewarding would be an understatement.
We ended our journey with a scavenger hunt around the town of Cahersiveen, which under the circumstances of a sudden death round, my team - "Team 15% Off," won. ;) We were each given an "Ireland," hat as a prize.
After countless bus rides, friends and memories made, and lessons learned, I sat there, within my own world, at the airport waiting for my parents to come to pick me up after my journey. I thought to myself, " I'm not ready to go home yet. I feel like my life has only just begun." And that it had. People to People changed my life in terms of having me discover that connecting with the world, the people in it, understanding who they were, where they came from, and what made them, them - is what I yearned for to take up each and every one of my days. To listen to them, make them smile, create with them, and open their minds as they had in mind, through who I am, is all I could ever want. The promotion of peace through taking the time to understand and be present with another human being from who you differ from (which is everyone besides yourself), without only listening to respond with one's opinion, is really what this world needs to become stronger and less torn apart.
Being able to see the world through my own eyes, and myself through the eyes of others and experiences I had over that month, taught me more about myself and this life than I had in those previous fifteen years. That month prepared me for the rest of my life in terms of having an open mind, finding differences beautiful, and taking the time to truly understand and ask questions when something didn't quite make sense to me. That month taught me that a life lived with passion and doing what I truly love is a gift well spent - and the gift of giving it to others as often as I can with as much love as I can is its purpose. Traveling at that young age to places I've never been before with people I had barely talked to, taught me to be brave, have faith in myself and the opportunity at hand, and to never ever give up on something that my gut told me was the right thing to do.
People to People encouraged me to always try new things, even if they scared me because that's what life is all about - constantly discovering who you are and how you can impact the world in the best way, just by being yourself. A daunting thought, that really isn't that daunting at all if you open your arms to it.
That next summer I traveled with People to People to Harvard University on a week-long leadership summit, where high school students from over 48 different countries were present. While we were here, we did community service, learned to work together, and on our own, build a community service program of our own to take back to our hometowns to implement in areas of need.
Throughout both of these experiences, I have made friends from all around the world, something not many 16-year-olds could say. These experiences taught me to live my life in love, in service, and in courage - standards I live by each and every day and will continue to do so for the rest of my life.
So, if you, or if you have a child, is looking for a way to see the world in a new light with learning, peace, and growth beyond measure that will impact the rest of yours or their life - People to People programs are the way to go. I owe them so much for helping me become the human being I am today.
Mary Gabrielle Strause
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