“I’m an experienced mapmaker and a stumbling traveler.” – Brene Brown
Eleven days from now, I will be on a plane traveling across the world. In an arc that traverses the deep blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the glittering shores of the Mediterranean Sea, my flight will deliver me from New York City to Amman, Jordan. I will bring two suitcases and one carry-on full of items from home that will sustain me for twelve months. I will begin my Fulbright year by studying Arabic intensively for three months, and then spend nine months conducting field research on youth workforce programs.
This year abroad will be the result of extensive planning that began during the spring of 2015. After months of self-doubt (can I do this?) and conversations with loved ones and mentors (yes you can!), I decided to apply for a Fulbright research grant. The application required me to chart a very specific path for myself: What is the goal of this research? How will the completion of this project contribute to your professional trajectory? What kinds of activities will you do in your spare time to foster community and mutual understanding? The specificity of these questions was initially daunting, but ultimately challenged me to visualize an aspirational self.
The meticulous student in me eagerly read articles and books, set up conversations with key informants, and wrote several drafts of professional and personal narratives. From the fluorescent-lit and familiar comfort of the Regenstein Library, I collected information that would allow me to draw a precise map of my future. I benefitted greatly from the guidance of several professors and the University of Chicago’s graduate fellowship advisor. I drew (or more aptly, wrote) connections between my experience working in youth development agencies, studying Arabic intensively, serving immigrant and refugee communities, and the issues that I wanted to address through my research in Jordan.
I wrote and I interviewed and I waited (and waited) until one blustery Chicago spring day I received the news that I had been selected for the Fulbright grant. I remember this day as a blur: Opening the congratulatory email while at my internship at Youth Guidance. My coworkers convincing me to leave early and celebrate. Hopping onto the 6 bus south to Hyde Park, my feet wet from stepping in puddles. Rushing to campus so I could hug my most supportive professor. Making many excited phone calls, to my family and my friends who supported me all through this. Dancing with joy and without inhibition at Zumba class. Picking up fresh falafel from The Nile on the walk home to International House, hot grease spotting the brown paper bag in my hands. Coffee with my best friend the next day, and she got me a celebratory fruit tart.
Now, one year and six months from the time that I began the process of applying, it is time for me to pause the work of mapmaking and begin traveling. This marks a shift from poring over details and creating master plans, to embracing uncertainty and engaging the present. The stumbling traveler embraces unanticipated challenges and remains open to new experiences. The stumbling traveler carries a map in their back pocket, but accepts that the roads may appear differently in person. They understand that previously uncharted treasures only become visible when one pries their eyes from the map and explores wholeheartedly.[*]
And in the spirit of this vulnerability, I admit that I am a total planner. I have long taken comfort in controlling for uncertainty and feeling well-prepared. While in Jordan, I will probably be reaching for my map quite often and running through plans (and contingency plans) in my head. But I am committing to the effort of keeping an open, curious mind. I will lean into the effort of resisting certainty and embracing serendipity. The potential rewards are worth the occasional discomfort of not knowing.
[*] For more on wholehearted living and embracing vulnerability, I highly recommend Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly. Brown is a social work researcher who studies the potential of vulnerability to combat shame and foster great courage and creativity. For a quick summary of her work, you can check out this Ted Talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en
[Originally published on Andrea in Amman blog, July 2016]