For the majority of my life, especially throughout my teenage years, I have been a very closed off person, feeling as though my opinions or feelings towards a subject were not valid enough to be spoken. For this reason, I was worried when first coming to the Experiment Leadership Institute because I knew that this was my time to use my voice and use my words to contribute to this incredible group, rather than just take away from it. The other students participating in the Experiment, as well as, the group leaders, created an environment where every single person’s words, opinions, and emotions were valid and there was no negative judgement in existence. From the very beginning in Washington D.C., I began to feel as though my voice was, in fact, valid and that others wanted to hear what I had to say. This feeling was so foreign to me, and it took much effort to step out of my quiet comfort zone, but because of the group dynamics and experiences we shared, I feel as though I grew tremendously, and my confidence in myself and my opinions soared.
Every single day was a challenge in India, whether that be communicating with my host family, or participating in a group workshop, but each challenge allowed me to grow in more ways than I thought possible, but we had this saying, “All feelings are valid,” that encouraged me to continue being vulnerable and opening myself up to the group. Because of this, I was able to dive into the experience headfirst and take every challenge as it came to me, with a determination to not let my usual quiet manner get in the way of my learning. With the support of every single group member, I was able to soar above what I thought I was capable of doing and feel genuinely comfortable in my skin, and confident of my beliefs. One of the group activities was an opportunity for each of us to tell our story. When I was first told that we were going to do this, my heart sank because I felt as though I would never be able to open up so vulnerably to a group of fourteen other teenagers and four group leaders. However, when it came my time to tell my own story in the small village of Bahraich where we were staying, I was so supported by everyone that the words came freely from my mouth. When I was finished speaking, I looked around the group circle and saw the most accepting and understanding looks in every person’s eyes. I have never felt such whole-hearted acceptance on this incredibly deep level by anyone in my life, even within my own family. This was the turning point in the program where I began to see myself as a leader in all aspects of the word and appreciate my own personal leadership abilities, recognizing that all people have a different manner of leadership. By the time we returned to Vermont, I felt strong. I could hold my head up high and not be afraid of being approached because I knew who I am and that I am capable of taking risks and using my voice for good. On the second to last day of the program, I was able to stand in front of some other Experimenters, group leaders, and four members of the World Learning team, and speak passionately about a problem within my community and the efforts I am going to take to pursue a solution to this problem. I stood in front of this group of remarkable human beings and knew that I was going to be listened to and everything I was saying was valid, because I am a leader and my opinions will be appreciated by these people. When I was finished speaking, I had nearly the same level of support that I had had in Bahraich when I told the group my life story. These experiences are ones that I will always remember and will apply to my life in the near future, as well as the far future.
One of the most famous quotes from Ghandi states, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow; learn as if you were to live forever,” and it holds so much truth to it, more than I ever knew before. After this experience, I am seeing my life and what I am capable of doing in a whole new light. The most positive light possible. I will no longer shrink away from opportunities because I am too afraid to use my voice and express my opinions; rather, I will stand up for what I believe and continue striving to learn, taking on as many challenges as I can. I will question others and listen to their responses, and understand what their perspectives are and why. I will continue to challenge myself and chase my dreams, even if I am told that I cannot do it because I know now that I am capable of doing what I put my mind to if I continue to be determined. The Experiment in International Living has had the most positive impact on myself and how I see myself. I have learned more in the six weeks on program about myself, others, and the world; more than I thought was possible. I will take these lessons I have learned and apply them to all future challenges I face in my life, and will always keep this experience very close to my heart.