The question greeted me wherever I went. Several nights, I found myself staring at my laptop and gawking at application essay questions, job search engines, volunteer opportunities, etc., to find a suitable answer. With a liberal arts degree that led to no clear career path, I did not feel prepared, nor willing, to enter the race of the work environment with salaries, retirement funds, and my own insurance plan.
In college, I balanced schoolwork with the activities that really spoke to me. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the rigor of the academic life, because I love learning and being challenged. But I found great consolation and learning outside of the concrete walls of the classroom by volunteering, assuming leadership roles, working to pay rent, and finding community. By going on immersion trips to West Virginia or volunteering with non-profits serving immigrant or refugee populations, I quickly realized that the type of education I desired was not going to happen behind a desk or at grad school. I wanted to learn more about the reality of people who came from different places and privileges in order to deepen my understanding of what being a global citizen meant.
In April 2013, after a lengthy application and discernment process, I was offered the opportunity to volunteer in Andahuaylillas, Peru, with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) International program as a religion teacher in a Fe y Alegría high school. The news brought every emotion — joy, excitement, nervousness, doubt, loneliness, adventure, and newfound energy. The offer led to a few emergency meetings with mentors, friends and family, and even a visit to the main chapel on campus to pray — something I rarely did.
I distinctly remember kneeling down that night in the chapel praying for a divine apparition of someone, whether God or St. Ignatius of Loyola or Dorothy Day. I was fearful of committing to a decision that would affect the next two years of my life. Did I really want to volunteer internationally? Did I have a better chance of making a difference in my local community that I knew? Did I want to leave my family, friends, and Sunday brunches for two years? How would this affect my future? The questions were consuming, and left me with few answers.
A friend offered me some advice, saying that as long as I was entering with an open heart, there is no such thing as bad discernment. These words loosened the walls of fear of commitment, allowing me to listen to the Jiminy Cricket character inside and find deep consolation in choosing to accept my JVC invitation. Here was an offer that came in a messy, gritty package, offering the adventure of a lifetime and a chance to enter an experience that would change everything. The “yes” felt like the gateway to becoming the person I desired.
Now, I’ve been living in Peru for more than a year, and reflecting on all that has happened in that time is somewhat overwhelming. People have invited me into their lives and homes, allowing rich relationships to form. The experience has demanded that I look the truth straight in the eyes and open my heart. For example, I teach religion to 13- and 14-year-olds. There are times when a handful of boys drive me to tears of frustration and anger with their behavior and disruptions in class. Yet, I also know that some of them live without parents or a guardian, leaving them with the responsibility to take care of the house and their siblings. In these circumstances, I find myself needing to open my heart to the wholeness of the situation, to their context and the reasons why they might act out in class.
The past year has been messy and challenging. It has confronted me with moments of loneliness and frustration and of not understanding or being understood. My journey has taught me to notice the beauty that comes with simplicity. Through the people of Andahuaylillas and my community, I have learned that love is active; it is a feeling I must nurture and dare to live out bravely in relationships with myself and with others. Only through this openness and through the daily challenge to meet people where they are have I learned that it’s not my occupation that will allow me to create change, but rather, the willingness to delve into the love and realities of others.