September 15 2011
Elan Jones, MILR '12
It’s August 2009 and I’m sitting in the MILR orientation. I’m sitting in the back, like I always do, because I’m terrified. I went to Undergrad at a small state school that was literally two minutes from where I’d grown up my entire life, and I loved it. I wanted to remain close to what I know, to my comfort zone, because I loved it.
I don’t know what possessed me to apply to the MILR program (my GRE scores were atrocious, and I’ve always considered myself an average student) but I did. And, I waited patiently for a second e-mail from the admissions office offering their most sincere apology for accidentally sending me the letter that started with ‘Congratulations’. But that second e-mail never came, and my mother said, “I’m proud of you” so there I was, in the Ives conference room in August 2009. Hoping that no one would look at me directly. Praying that no one would try to start a conversation with me. Calculating how quickly I could be out of here and what I need to do to slide under the radar and remain unnoticed as I hurry through these 2 years until I can go back home. Back to my comfort zone. Back to what I love.
During the orientation, I vividly remember being momentarily seduced from my terror induced coma by the confidence and strength projected across the room by the voices of 2nd year MILR student panelists. They’re telling me, and the rest of the incoming class, about the plethora of opportunities available to us: clubs, course offerings, travel opportunities, the list is endless. I’m listening and while yes, that sounds nice I think to myself, “I just want to go home”. But, from somewhere I didn’t know I had inside me, a small voice says, “If there’s one thing I get out of this program, I would love for it to be a fraction of the confidence that those students possess”.
Two years later, I wake up to a flight attendant tapping my shoulder. “Please put your seat in the upright position”. Over the P.A system I hear, “We have arrived in Madrid, Spain. The time is 3:06pm”. My Spanish is at an intermediate level (that’s being generous), I’ve never traveled outside of the country by myself and I can count on one hand (with fingers to spare) the number of contacts I have in Spain. But, I’ve designed a research project that requires me to speak to complete and total strangers in a foreign language and convince them to open up to me about what could potentially be one of the most personal experiences in their life.
With the encouragement of my academic advisor, the support of an International Travel Grant, and a great deal of initiative, I’m fearless. I’m on the Metro, I’m in the Retiro, I’m at La Cruz Roja (the Spanish branch of The Red Cross), attending a 30 hour training session that is entirely in Spanish. I’m laughing with my cohort as we prepare hacernos voluntarios (to become volunteers) at various after school programs throughout Madrid. I’m feeling a surge of accomplishment as I have a 20 minute conversation IN SPANISH (OK, so what if she was 5 years old. That’s not the point). I’m bouncing around the country: Málaga, Barcelona, Córdoba, Seville. I’m walking up to people, to strangers. Asking them about their past, their present, their hopes and dreams. I’m listening to stories of success. Of failure. Of loss. I’m gaining a better understanding of the contrast that sometimes exist between pre and post migratory perceptions of target destinations, (as it will be called in my thesis anyway) more interestingly known as, ”is your life here what you thought it would be before you decided to immigrate to Spain? Are you glad you came? Do you wish you had stayed in your home country?” I’m crying and laughing and sharing food with complete strangers.
And through it all, I am confident. I approach people and start a conversation. I introduce myself. I look them in the eye. I’m not afraid to walk up to someone and say “hello” or rather “¡hola!” with my thick American accent. I’m not afraid to say “back off! You’re making me uncomfortable!”. I’m confident. I’m a qualitative researcher. I’m an extrovert (ish!). I’m a Cornell student. I’m making a difference. I’m an International Travel Grant recipient. I’m a tiny insignificant dot on a map that represents everything I always dreamed of but never thought could become a reality and never thought I could be. I am the change I want to see in the world. And I love it.