There once was a little girl who grew up in a farm town of 5,000 people in rural Wisconsin. She would sit on the floor and play with a globe she had bought at a garage sale one summer. She would spin it for hours – running her fingers over the little mountains while trying to make out the small print that was scribbled across its surface. She dealt with bullies at school and fighting at home. As she grew older, she experienced trauma that she wouldn’t wish upon her worst enemy. She tried to pour herself into things like horseback riding, sports, and art but she still felt the weight of her small little world on her shoulders. One day she drew a little red dot in southern Wisconsin on her globe to represent the suffocating town she had spent the entirety of her youth in. She longed to get out of that town from the moment she saw that globe, from the moment she saw how much of the world there was to explore. Her dreams were far bigger than that town, but the people around her told her she wouldn’t ever do anything worth leaving for. That little girl was me.
I know that most people hold their hometowns as sacred places in their hearts, but I don’t. My experiences there may have made me who I am, but that doesn’t mean I have to remember them fondly. I was surrounded by closed-minded people who would refuse to see things from other people’s perspectives and who would discourage others from trying to do so themselves. They didn’t care about life outside the state border, and they thought global issues were not worth their time. They would condemn you if your opinions were different from theirs – and needless to say mine were. Regardless of the discouragement, that little girl would still sit in her room and spin her globe every night, eyes bright with a mind full of hope.
Fast forward to present day and that little girl is now 22. I left that town for college and then took things a step further by moving across the country to Arizona with my boyfriend, Will, who shares that same fascination with the world around us. Relieved that I had finally left that town and that state, I took my pursuit to see the world a step further. I applied for and was accepted to a study abroad program called Semester at Sea, which is a semester-long, study-abroad opportunity where students live on a ship, the MV World Odyssey, and travel from country to country.
Months came and went, and it was finally time to embark upon the MV World Odyssey. I spent the next four months exploring the world with people who shared the same values as me, values the people I grew up with wouldn’t allow themselves to wrap their heads around. The ship carried me to and from adventure throughout the semester and housed some adventures of its own. I traveled to 12 countries stretched across the Mediterranean and North Atlantic, seeing things and people I had been dreaming about for so long. I spent days at sea getting to know the people who would become my best friends in the entire world. We binged watched movies, stargazed off the back deck, crammed for exams until 1:00 am, laughed until our stomachs cramped, and spilled our deepest secrets over popcorn and root beer in our cabins late at night. Somehow, during all this fun, I managed to learn a lot, too. Not just from my classes but also from the adventures that I had been dreaming of since I first saw that damn globe. The lessons that I learned during this voyage would have made my younger self proud.
The first lesson I learned was that it is crucial to your well being to set boundaries between yourself and others. During the beginning of the voyage, I ran into troubles with drama between people on the ship. I felt like I was back in high school. I took time in our first port, Greece, to separate myself from that drama and am so thankful I did. While many of my peers went off to Santorini, I stayed back in Athens with two girls I met. We got to know each other over glasses of ouzo and bonding nights in our hostel. We explored places I had only ever seen in history textbooks and TV shows before like the Parthenon and the Temple of Zeus. Those two girls ended up becoming like sisters to me and we distanced ourselves from the drama on the ship. I am happy that I learned this lesson so early in the voyage because my experience would have been a lot different if I hadn’t.
The next lesson I learned was to find great things in unexpected places. I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true. I found greatness in places I had never heard of before like Cyprus and Gibraltar. Cyprus is a country located on a tiny island just off the coast of Turkey. The port city of Limassol was short of amusing, but I was fortunate enough to explore the country’s beautiful mountainside during a field class. We looked at 11th century churches and visited the village of Kakopetria. I met two fantastic people who owned and operated an artsy coffee shop in the village and followed their recommendations to a nature walk down the street. The village looked like something out of one of the fairytale books that I read when I was younger. The cobblestone streets had moss seeping from the cracks and the buildings were dressed in vines and yesterday’s laundry. It was truly beautiful, and it was utterly unexpected.
Another lesson was to choose to surround yourself with good people. I found a group of friends who had similar values as me and who simply felt like sunshine. I spent countless hours with them at sea, cried to them on bad days, laughed with them on good days, and created core memories with them in port. My favorite day of the whole voyage was spent with these people by my side. We tossed washed up jellyfish back into the ocean with a stick during our stop at the beach. We giggled as we slurped tomato soup out of porcelain bowls the size of our heads at lunch. We drank coffee and bought gifts to bring home at a street market. We explored salt flats along the coast while daring each other to stick our feet into the cold, salty water. Maybe if I would have looked closer, I could have found more people like this back in Wisconsin – people who made the hard times a little easier and the good times even better.
My final lesson was that I am more than capable of doing things on my own. I continuously developed this idea through the entire voyage, but fully realized it during my time in France. I traveled to Epernay and Paris before coming back to Brest where I was supposed to reembark on the ship with my peers. Unfortunately, I tested positive for Covid-19 and had to quarantine in Brest while the rest of the voyage continued without me. I spent the next week by myself in a hotel room and actually had a good time. I was able to catch up on school work and journaling. I learned a little bit of French as I ordered my food each day and when I finally tested negative I explored the city by myself and put that French to the test. I scheduled my flight to our next port, Scotland, and flew to catch up with my peers. I was completely capable of being by myself in a foreign country, even during what I would have usually seen as a stressful situation. All of these lessons have helped me become a more mature and independent woman that my younger self would be proud of.
So, to the little girl who used to sit in her room spinning a globe that she got for $2 at a garage sale, you made it. You chased those dreams and got out of that town. You explored the world, learned more than you could imagine, and met so many amazing people along the way. You set boundaries for yourself in all your relationships. You discovered how to find the beauty even in the common things in life. You surrounded yourself with people who make you feel like the best version of yourself. You learned that you are capable of whatever you set your mind to. And the best part? You’re still doing it. After this trip you’re going home to the person who you chose to share your life with and who sees the world with eyes full of curiosity just like you. You even already have plans to travel to Ireland, Morocco, and Egypt soon. You’ve taken your life into your own hands, and you are exactly where you’re supposed to be.