So over a month ago it was Thanksgiving and last week it was Christmas, and this whole holiday season always makes me think about the many things I'm thankful for. I've led an immensely lucky and blessed life, and I am thankful for so very much.
I was born into a family who had the means and drive to make me an independent, informed, well-traveled, person with a passion for helping others.
My mom is one of the best people I've ever known, and such a force in my life. I don't know how she didn't murder me in high school, but I am glad we got through it and got so close. She is one of my very best friends.
My dad and his other child.
My brother, who I really only became friends with a few years ago. Glad we're past the days of you stealing my covers and opening my windows in the middle of the night (in winter). Our intense travel competition always encourages me to explore new places (like I needed a reason).
My mom's parents have been a huge part of my life as long as I can remember. Whether it is coming to all my birthday parties (regardless of location) or just their continuous support of all my crazy plans, they are wonderful. (Special shout out to honorary family member, Monica!)
My aunt, uncle, and cousins on my mom's side are all really close. Aunt Patti never ceases to make me laugh and Rachel is like the younger sister I never got to have. I don't know how she got so much older when I didn't, but it's pretty crazy.
My Uncle Todd is one of the coolest fathers I've ever known. He can crack me up whenever we talk, and is generally just an awesome guy. Michae and Ty are, again, more like younger siblings than cousins. I'll go ahead and run the risk of sounding trite when I say they're growing up faster than I can believe, but I am excited to see the people they become.
I have long said that one of my strongest attributes is my ability to surround myself with awesome people. At home I have some of the best friends anyone could ask for, and the past year and a half spent in Korea has proven that distance can't break these bonds.
Our last camping trip in July 2009. This picture has all but a few of the most important people in my life stateside. Renee, Carl, Lyndsay, Jo Anna, Monica, Liz, Debbie, Greg, and Amanda have all been key players in my life over the past ten years. Find somewhere to cram in Bruno, Gabe, and Erin and you've got pretty much everyone.
Then I came to Korea and stumbled into another great group of friends. And I was doubly lucky in that most of them stayed a second year. Without Dana, Dave, Laura, Chrissy, Julia, Jamie, Erich, Shannon, and Derek I'd probably lose my mind here. Julia, Brigid, and Ayzia also belong in this picture for their major influence on my first year, but those silly geese decided to go home early. Diana is also conspicuously absent (from the picture but not my heart!).
As a strong and vocal supporter of education, I know exactly how blessed I was to attend well-funded, challenging schools with dedicated and creative teachers. From my formative years at Holy Trinity (where I learned to love school), straight through the hellish years of high school in the science and tech program at Roosevelt (where I learned to hate attending classes), I was exposed to a lot and learned a ton of (questionably useful) stuff. Then I went to Marywood, where I truly got to know who I was and flourish in a fantastic, supportive, environment. The people I met, the organizations I participated in, and the places I served all had a lasting impact on me.
Love Electric Mary and the arch, especially with fall colors behind it.
While we are talking about being thankful for education, I'd be remiss not to throw out another little shout out for Pencils of Promise. This year they're starting a new initiative called Season of 1,000 Promises and their goal is to get 1,000 people agree to sponsor a student's education for $10 a month. It's such a tiny commitment that has the power to make huge, lasting changes in a child's life. Not to mention that child's family and future offspring. PoP is an amazing organization (while you're on the site you might as well click around and learn more about their spectacular schools in Laos and Nicaragua), but they can only do it with your help. So consider making a promise this season...I already made mine!
Semester at Sea
I don't have the space (or appropriate words) to express how deeply the Semester at Sea program has affected my life. I knew from the moment that we pulled away from the docks on that rainy, cold January morning that SAS would always be with me, and it's true. SAS has helped shape me into the person I am today, and given me some incredible experiences I wouldn't have had the opportunity partake in otherwise. The only thing stronger than the memories I brought home are the bonds and friendships I'll forever share with my shipmates. Simply, SAS is love. I am forever thankful that my parents allowed/encouraged (depending on the day) me to go and have such a stellar experience. Every moment- from standing in breathless awe on the Great Wall, to crying as I volunteered in the orphanage in India, to sitting in the hall for six hours in my life jacket (watching the waves slip up onto the fifth deck), and getting the chills when looking up at the the insanely starry sky that night they turned off all the lights in the middle of the Atlantic- is permanently ingrained in my heart.
I was actually talking about high school and university the other day with Diana and it really made me think about what an impact SAS really had on me. My grades coming out of high school were pretty terrible, namely because I didn't go to class. I went to school...but not to class. Special, I know. Then I got to college and the first semester I was still a mess. I ended up with a 1.42 GPA. Life lesson: a low GPA is a lot harder to bring up than a high GPA is to bring down. The school threatened my scholarships, my mom probably threatened my life, but the single biggest motivator for me to go to class and do well was a poster for SAS hanging in our student center. After finding out that I needed a 2.5 GPA, I worked hard to make it happen. Spring semester of my freshman year yielded very different grades, because I now had something I was working towards. By the time I came back from SAS I was changed...I didn't want to squander the educational opportunities I had been given when so many others weren't. So I went to class, I worked hard, and I graduated with a 3.49 GPA. Moral of the story...SAS very well might have kept me in school and definitely had a hand in getting me to Korea and most of the other places I've traveled.
Home away from home: the MV Explorer.
Teaching can be a stressful, exhausting, thankless job. Don't even get me started on how little teachers are paid (universally) for the job that we're doing. But when it comes down to it, I love what I do. I love working with kids every day and being someone who helps them make progress and overcome various challenges. Working at Hilltop was eye opening for sure, and it introduced me to some great friends with whom I share a million hilarious inside jokes and memories. The kids there left a lasting impression on me, and sometimes I find myself randomly wondering how Demari and Jonathan are doing in middle school, whether Gunner still looks forward to earning buses each day, and if that absolutely insane little girl is keeping Charlita and Debbie on their toes. Though I was often made miserable by the absurd expectations and ridiculous bureaucracy, I loved those kids.
Hilltop's fifth grade class of 2009. What a colorful crew.
And then I set off for Korea. Though sometimes this country drives me bat shit crazy, I really do love it here. Korea has forced me to grow up in a lot of ways and really see what it's like to be living completely on my own. Though there are things about Korea I'll never understand (too many to list), there are lots of things I love. I love that every single day, no matter how stressful, a kid or adult says something to make me laugh. I love that I get to explore new places in this country and go to fascinating festivals. I love the easy access I have to the rest of Asia. In the two years I've been here I will have gone to 8 new countries (South Korea, North Korea- DMZ COUNTS, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Indonesia). I love that somehow, almost imperceptibly, the country has become family...you know how you can bad mouth your brother all you want, but as soon as someone says something negative about him you get all defensive? Yeah, that's me and Korea. Just ask Diana....she likes Japan better, haha.
I am sure the next six months will fly by and before I know it I'll be back at home getting ready for grad school. As it stands I can barely believe I've been here nearly 16 months already!
This still ranks as one of my favorite photos of my entire stay here.
I promise that very very soon I'll have a real update about the (little) that has been going on in my life, including Christmas and New Years festivities and a trip to the Blue House (Korean equivalent of the White House). I hope you all sail happily into 2011 and that it is filled with love and happiness for you and all you care about. Happy New Year!