I have just returned to the hotel room in Brussels after parting ways with the students and chaperones. By now, they are on a bus to Liege for the homestay portion of the trip. They are excited to meet their pen pals, yet anxious at the same time. I am spending the weekend in Brussels with a friend of mine who lives in Dublin before heading back to Chapel Hill.
I was deeply sad to leave them, which seems strange, considering they were complete strangers to me a mere six days ago. But a lot has changed in six days. I have watched students step out of their comfort zones, transforming from someone who cried in Terminal 2 of RDU to someone who isn’t ready to come home yet. I have seen a students go from the essence of shyness to having a voice. From a fear of heights to joy atop the Eiffel Tower. I don’t personally know these students, but my guess is, six days ago, they were lamenting the fact that they had to leave cell phones, iPods and laptops behind. Today, they happily sit at the dinner table and socialize for an hour and a half over three courses, and they play cards with each other during any free time at the hotel. Who needs gadgets when you have shared experiences with classmates?
Last night, the adults stayed up until past midnight discussing, with pride, the students’ behavior. There have been no complaints from the young adults. Room assignments were made – no one begged to switch roommates. Luggage was carried through train stations – no one whined about the heaviness of their backpacks. We walked miles and miles (or, I should say, kilometers and kilometers), and I never heard shouts about exhausted feet. They were forced to communicate in French and overcame their anxiety about getting it wrong. So many fears have been conquered, and a billion tiny transformations have taken place before our very eyes.
The grant the EU provided to the group is called “Getting to Know Europe.” Today, we were at the EU Commission Building, where we learned about the history of the EU and its structure. The students politely asked question after question. Will Russia’s national pride prevent it from entering the EU? Is the EU leading the way in terms of green energy? Can countries in northern Africa be considered to join the EU?
They have gotten to know Europe – its infrastructure, its monuments, its culture. But most importantly, I think, they have gotten to know themselves. That’s what happens when you step out of your comfort zone and push the boundaries of your personality.
As I left the group today, I headed in the direction of what I thought was the nearest Metro station. I walked and walked before I realized I was turned around. Fear set in. “How will I get back? I hardly speak a word of French or Flemish. I don’t even have a phone! I didn’t bring the address of the hotel with me.” And then I decided to dig deep for the confidence the students have had to find during this adventure. With a map in hand, I decided to simply figure it out. To use my education, my background and my patience to find my way.
I certainly am glad I made it back so that I could send this important message back to the U.S.: If you are a parent, teacher or friend of one of these students, be proud. In fact, go ahead and beam with pride. I am. They have been excellent ambassadors to their country, to North Carolina and to Chapel Hill. But be warned that they will return to you different people – more open-minded, more confident and closer to their teachers and classmates than ever before.
For much more on the trip, be sure to pick up a copy of the May/June issue of Chapel Hill Magazine.