Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
I was lost in a foreign country, in a city thousands of miles from my home and family.
My first school assignment when I arrived in Rennes, France, was to locate ten landmarks with only an antiquated map – no phone, GPS, or even compass. My initial strategy was to rush from place to place to finish first and make a good impression on my teachers and peers. But within minutes I took a wrong turn and found myself off the map.
Asking for directions, trying to get back on track, I realized these brief encounters with locals acquainted me with the city more than any landmark ever could. As I strolled below the overhanging balconies of grey stone apartments, café music and the buttery smell of freshly baked croissants swirled around me. Between the haze of cigarette smoke and jet lag, I could hardly focus on the road ahead. With just six of the ten questions answered, I failed the assignment -- and I am glad I did. The student I was before would have been crushed by this failure, but after a single day in France, I had already started to change my values and slow down to embrace the freeing feeling of being lost and on my own.
Slowing down and enjoying the moment became habitual. My host parents and I would spend an hour or two talking after dinner almost every night, even after my host siblings left the table to study. My French began to flow as I told them about my adjustment to France, and as we discussed soccer, how the French political landscape compares to that of the United States, and a variety of other topics. I learned more about French culture in those few hours than I ever could have in a classroom.
I then began venturing out to meet new people. I volunteered weekly at a local refugee center where I met Abdullah. Fleeing Yemen for his safety, Abdullah was forced to leave his family in search of a better life, moving to another country with a foreign language. Each week, he told me stories about Yemen and migrating to France. He had an unusual perspective; he had already grown accustomed to French culture, knew how to use public services, and could communicate well with French natives. Rather than using these skills to live independently, he stayed at the shelter to guide others. I had always focused on my own goals and accomplishments; Abdullah taught me to focus more on the needs of others.
These experiences gave me the confidence to lead my school’s Model United Nations team to Geneva where the students came from varying countries including Rwanda, Costa Rica, and Pakistan. We all represented countries that were foreign to us. In committee meetings, I saw how a Moroccan student representing the United States viewed foreign policy issues differently from myself, a U.S. citizen. Outside the committee meetings, I conversed with Spanish students from the French School of Barcelona about how French families (such as my host family) differ from Spanish or American ones.
During my time in France, I came to understand that my success is not measured simply by class rank or resume, but rather by experiencing the world around me, by helping others, and by challenging myself. After separating my self-worth from my academic achievements, I grew both personally and academically, acquiring knowledge in unconventional places. When I later missed the bus or took a wrong turn, I appreciated these moments as they allowed me to learn from those around me rather than to rush to where I thought I needed to be. Learning and growing means something very different to me now than it did before I got lost in Rennes.