Originally published on tannercknorr.com on May 18, 2016.
Interview with Sarah Jill on March 6, 2016
Six months after graduating college, Sarah Jill decided she would fulfill her dream of traveling and volunteering abroad. She found two programs which would accomplish both goals: GVI and G Adventures. Through GVI, she would volunteer her time teaching preschool in South Africa followed by an eight-country backpacking and camping tour with G Adventures. This three-month excursion would be the catalyst for so many wonderful, frightening, and transformative events to come.
Sarah Jill found a preschool program in a township outside of Cape Town. She made some great friends by the end and loved the hands-on teaching experience, but it was not the volunteering experience that she had imagined. At the preschool, there was no curriculum, continuity, or planning given by the sponsoring company. It was up to the volunteers, which rotated out every two weeks, to create the lessons. She discovered that she had a drive to actively help children, and it broke her heart to leave them after one month. “This was the social worker in me,” she reflected. For her, the hardest part of this program was that she couldn’t help more, at least not this time. Sarah Jill’s experience working in South Africa gave her a better understanding of children living in poverty and shaped her into the social worker she is today.
Sarah Jill resumed her first extended experience abroad with the two month trek through East Africa. She was excited to backpack, camp, and meet people with similar interests, and was thrilled to discover that this trip was much more organized. She couldn’t wait to see the animals, especially the Silverback Gorillas, and the natural beauty of these countries. She was afraid of nothing, only overwhelmingly delighted.
Camping and hiking through these African countries was unlike anything she had ever experienced before. One of the most memorable nights was in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Here, the group had to take boats to and from the small islands because it was impossible to take any other means of transportation. The islands are uninhabited in the delta, so they had to pack everything they needed prior to the journey. One night, they took a boat ride at dusk through a hippopotamus pool. “This was really scary, but really cool”, she recalled, citing that hippos are incredibly violent animals, if provoked. In this moment, she remembers thinking this was the most eye-opening experience of her life.
“The trip totally changed me as a person because it showed me that I could change the course and pace of my life. I’ve been able to slow down since that trip and I’ve kept that with me. It brought out the naturalist in me. I remember at dusk seeing the sun set upon the delta and I just started to cry. How beautiful life is that everything is connected.”
She had truly tasted life abroad and after only a few months back in the United States, she knew she wanted more. Though the visa process is very difficult, she decided to go back to Cape Town. She made this choice because she wanted to live abroad and she was already familiar with the country, but she also wanted to pursue a romantic interest she met from the East African excursion. Once the visa finally came through, she arrived to a job working in the Atlantic Point Backpackers Hostel.
A typical day would include checking visitors into their accommodation, booking tours for the guests, and sometimes even leading the guests on day trips herself. Her favorite part of the job was making friends and meeting awesome people.
“One night I took some guests and led a hike up Lion’s Head mountain to see the full moon rise over the ocean. Lion’s Head isn’t as famous as Table Mountain in Cape Town, but the view is incredible. It’s 360 degrees, you can see city, mountains, and ocean, and the hike is really nice. We packed some hot chocolate and mugs, got bundled up, and trekked up the mountain together. Everyone from the hostel always got to know each other, and we had a fun group out that night, and when we reached the top the clouds were so low that we were above them and couldn’t even see the sea below. It looked like we were standing on the clouds, and with the sunset happening in the background, it was amazing. When the sun finally set and the full moon came out, it was even more beautiful. It was just an awesome night surrounded by wonderful new friends from all over the world with a gorgeous view.”
Sarah Jill was infatuated with the country and with the man she met on the excursion. She immersed herself into the culture by taking art classes, joining a temple nearby, cultivating new friendships with the locals, and looking for permanent employment. She didn’t plan on moving back to the U.S. because she loved it so much. Both excited and terrified, she embarked on another new adventure abroad.
Suddenly, everything changed when he chose to leave. She was blindsided by his decision and felt like she was “falling into a black hole, being swallowed. It was devastating.” To make matters worse, much of her residence in South Africa depended on him, emotionally and legally. She couldn’t stay. Within three days, Sarah Jill was back in Massachusetts with her family.
For most people, this experience would take them down for weeks, possibly longer; make them skeptical of love; tarnish the thought of living abroad and taking risks. Sarah Jill is not most people. Within days of being home, she applied to a program that combined graduate school and the Peace Corps. She was still in the head space of living abroad. “I couldn’t give up on it,” she said. She accepted what she couldn’t change and became more resilient than she knew she could be.
Six months after she applied, she began her classes for a Master’s in Social Work. The entire program would last four years: the first year at the university, the second and third years in the Peace Corps, and then the final year of classes back in the U.S. During her classes, her opinions transformed and developed about facilitating change abroad, and Sarah Jill began to have slight hesitations. However, she went on with the program, and a year later, began her service in Cameroon.
Even though Sarah Jill adored her host family during training and knew her experiences had value in the country, she explained that everyone comes out of the Peace Corps with a different experience. “The gender inequalities and the isolation were too much to bear,” she said. “I was scared to live by myself, and I was unmotivated because I didn’t believe in the effectiveness of the work. I didn’t know if I could make a difference [in Cameroon], but I did know that I could make a difference at home,” she said. What was going to be a two year commitment ended after three months. Sarah Jill came to terms with her choice by understanding that she had to do what was right for her and her happiness.
“I had challenges,” she said, “but I have cherished and loved every experience, even the bad ones. I still feel so much love and appreciation for all the friends I made there, and even though I wanted to live in Cape Town forever and was so sad to have to leave, my relationship with pieter taught me things about myself that were really important. All the experiences helped shape who I am today; I have loved all of them. I definitely think my overall takeaway from all of that travel is experiencing just how awesome and incredible the world is, and how everything is connected to each other: people, animals, flowers, trees– everything. It’s insanely beautiful and everything on earth is connected, and it’s so important to cherish all of it.”
Sarah Jill finished her Master’s at another university and is now happily teaching music development to children and working at a nonprofit in Washington D.C. She still has the “travel bug” and is looking forward to her next journey abroad.