Alumni Spotlight: Lydia Ruotolo

Lydia is a high school senior who hopes to become involved with global studies in college. She has a small obsession with chickens, loves traveling, and has done service in Morocco, Cambodia, Thailand, and India.

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Why did you pick this program?

I participate in a local non-profit organization that gives youth the opportunity to travel around the world and do service. I believe they have our best interests in mind and essentially scour the globe to ensure we help people as much as we can while also being safe. During this search, they happened upon the Moroccan Center for Arabic Studies and they recognized how amazing it was.

What do you tell your friends who are thinking about going abroad?

The most important thing when going abroad is to make sure you are open to new experiences. Unexpected things are bound to happen, so it is better to go into your journey with an open mind and without too many expectations.

This has the added benefit of opening you up to the culture and the people more as well. The unpredictable is what makes traveling an adventure. If it were exactly as you expected, why even travel in the first place?

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

To embrace the people and the culture. Morocco has one of the most beautiful belief systems that I have ever witnessed and it's the people that help covey it so well.

What's your favorite story to tell about your time abroad?

Through life, people need to learn several lessons of high importance: how to be patient, kind, forgiving, and more. However, one of the most important lessons is how to say goodbye. The kids, as well as the translators that I met, are, without a doubt, my family. This knowledge and love just make it that much harder to leave them. I need them to teach me how to say goodbye.

I have been with my students for two weeks with over 43 hours of teaching. Through the long days and difficult content, they have persevered and done their best to absorb what we have taught them. Their ability to retain and remember information fills me with pride on a daily basis. Even though we have taught them fairly mundane things like ordering food and going to the market, it absolutely means the world to them.

They hold onto pieces of information as tightly as they possibly can, knowing that it will be so useful for their lives. What moves me more than anything else, is that they remember who I am as a person. All of them can easily identify my personality and they respect me for it. In this way, they constantly remind me of why I love these service trips so much. For the past two weeks, my five students have become my life, making it difficult to imagine leaving them. In order to leave these students, they need to teach me how to say goodbye.

Remembrance is a huge part of the culture in Morocco and I see that parallel in the families that we had the privilege to meet. When we visited the families of different students, there were many times that we encountered those who had lost family members. The family of Kevin's student, Helema, had lost a daughter only four years ago. While the sadness must have still been crushing, they spoke about her and remembered her with such reverence and love.

This same beautiful remembrance could be found in nearly all of the home visits. At another house of one of Kevin's students, Amina, the remembrance they had for their deceased or far away family members was powerful. Amina's father said that he has come to learn that it's important to talk about people who are gone as if they were there, because it honors them and helps to continue memories of them. With this idea of remembering others, the people slowly teach me how to say goodbye.

To say hello in Moroccan Arabic, you say Salamu'lekum which means peace be upon you. For goodbye, you either say m'a salama meaning with peace, or lla yhennik which means, may Allah give you tranquility.

On our last day of school, we had a massive review day and a vocabulary bee to go over all that they have learned. It was a day of remembering, fun, and it was the day that cumulatively reminded me how much I love those little chums. At the end of the school day, I gave them homemade cards and said a brief goodbye.

Despite the fact that we would see them in six hours for the party, the goodbye that they gave us was tearful and solemn. It was when they asked when I would come back that my heart ripped a little. I don't know where my life and my travels will take me yet, the future is uncertain. Step by step, they teach me how to say goodbye.

The party that we hosted for the students from Abdasalam Sayah was a chance for me to be with my kids one last time. It was the last chance I got to be with the crazy and funny Fatima who is actually my soulmate. Those were the last hours that I was able to spend with spirited Aya and sensitive Malak. I savored the last moments with sweet Amina and generous Hanan.

We danced for hours with joy and I couldn't help but think that I hope they remember me as they remember their lessons as well as other people so well. When it was finally time to say goodbye, I couldn't help but cry. They all tried to comfort me, only to fall into a pile of tears themselves. Everyone from the school and from the Moroccan center for Arabic Studies made an impact on my heart. It was one of the hardest things that I have ever done, but they finally taught me how to say goodbye.

How has this trip changed you?

My journey to Morocco is one that I won't soon forget. I fell in love with the kids I taught and I became very close to the translators and directors of the MCAS program. When you travel, you start out thinking only of the place where you are going, but by the end it seems to be the people you meet that matter most.