Traveling on a graduate student budget means staying in the low(est) cost hostels. I’m often sharing bunk-beds, showers, toilets, and meals with people I don’t know, from countries I’ve never been to, using languages I can’t speak. However, living with the ingrained combination of American Enthusiasm and Midwest Nice means that it’s impossible to meet a stranger. People think I’m joking when I tell them I went to high-school in a town literally called “Famersville”.
Growing up in such a small town meant that I was surrounded only by people who thought and looked and acted like I did. I never had to think about the diversity beyond those endless corn fields until I moved to a bigger city for my undergraduate degree and had to navigate the world for the first time in a wheelchair. While my hometown may feel too small at times, it reminds me that there is certainly great power in community. I’m forever grateful for how folks uplifted me and my sister and our family through the worst times of this illness. The continuous prayers and multiple fundraisers for medical costs through Sara Spins have helped me to get back on my two feet and heal beyond what doctors originally thought was possible. I know that I would not be where I am today without the efforts of many, many people. It’s because of this that I firmly believe in and continue to seek the good in people – even though the news cycle leads us to believe otherwise. Traveling alone and connecting with strangers encourages me to practice a unique interpersonal awareness and vulnerability, and allows me to often just explore plain curiosity.
Now, living across the Atlantic, I continue to cultivate this deep appreciation of human connection with a newfound global perspective. I’ve learned that people travel for all sorts of reasons: to get away, to gain new experiences, to write their novel, to party, to fill in their gap year, to celebrate the life of a passed loved one... For me, it’s always about getting outside my comfort zone. Being a bit of a type-A personality means that I feel more comfortable when I can plan - and therefore predict - everything.
Trying to take care of myself while living with a chronic illness has resulted in a more disciplined lifestyle and mind. Even though I’ve lived with this for 7 years, I still often struggle with the balance of pushing my limits and respecting my boundaries - which is only amplified through my travel experiences. While traveling certainly requires the ability to plan ahead and organize, it also demands the ability to let go and embrace the unexpected. We all know it’s “about the journey, not the destination”, but when I found myself stranded on the side of the road in a foreign country with a foreign language and no money and no place to sleep all signs simply pointed to “f*ck this journey, I want to go home.”
And now, after a year later of moving to France for my first time abroad, I'm still here. I showed up with no knowledge of French, no phone, no bank account, no apartment, and no clue or instruction on how to live and study abroad. I’ve reached the worst-case-scenario(s) and have had the privilege to make it through. I've succeeded in my first year of being a neuroscientist-in-training, solving problem after problem both in life and in the lab. Ultimately, I still have emergency back-up plans securely in place. My family is ready to put me on that plane back home at any time, and I know they would come to me in any medical crisis. But now, I have a community here to lean on for support. I’m navigating new complications with my illness abroad in a new language. I’ve learned that being independent does not mean being alone. I’ve made the most amazing connections with people from all over the world, been blessed with friends back in the States who make the extra effort to stay connected, and have started relationships I will cherish for my whole life.
In the last year, I've also taken a step back from the internet. While I do encourage other introverts to put themselves out there, it's important to remember to keep the boundaries necessary for self-care. After receiving relentless online hate for my writings on disability and feminism in the form of physical threats, the trolls took an emotional toll and I had to minimize my online presence for my own safety. Finally now, I'm beginning to practice using my voice again, albeit uncomfortably.
So, while I don’t know where I’ll be a year from now once my Master’s is finished, I do know that I will embrace the unknown, take those (calculated) risks, and continue to open myself up to the world. Again.