What a difference 26 days can make.
Looking back on the best three and a half weeks of my life, it is hard to put into succinct words how much the experience of Cultural Routes impacted me. Getting to travel through some of the most stunning and historically rich parts of Europe with 17 of the greatest individuals I have ever met was by far the best and most unique journey I have ever embarked on. With all this being said, I will do my best to encapsulate the many lessons I learned and things I discovered. Where to begin?
I suppose this post-reflection shall begin by backtracking to the moment I learned about Cultural Routes. Lance Jewett, CR alum and fellow theatre major pulled me aside after tap class and told me that I should apply for this special opportunity (Lance – thank you, a million, by the way). From what he told me, I knew that Cultural Routes was a study abroad trip, but I didn’t know that Cultural Routes was truly an EXPERIENCE. I attended the Pecha Kucha presentations and filled out the application, but told myself that I probably was not going to get it.
Nevertheless, I received the news while vacationing in Mexico with my family and lost my mind. I’m gonna be honest. Even after all of the presentations, the questions I asked, and the stories I heard, I still had no idea what exactly I signed up for. And I think that was one of the reasons it was so special.
As the following semester passed, I eagerly awaited the moment that I would step on that plane and fly to Berlin. During the hectic season of taking 21 hours, being in a musical, and performing in an a capella group, I would simply remind myself in times of unthinkable stress that in 60 days I would be in Europe. In 39 days I would be in Europe. And then finally, in 1 day I would be in Europe. Wow. Before I hopped on that plane to Germany and set out to go on the biggest adventure of my life, I wrote a pre-reflection blog, and talked about my goals and hopes for the experience.
The goal that I wrote about in my pre-reflection blog was essentially to be present, and to be all-in. I explained this goal in further detail, writing, “I am absolutely the “planner” kind of person. I like things to be in order in the way that I like them to be and I have a constant need to control everything in my life. However, Cultural Routes is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I do not want expectations of itineraries, mapped out days, and stories of previous Cultural Routes experiences to rule me the three and a half weeks I am in Europe. Rather than thinking about what I will be doing all day, I want to be fully present and take in every experience as it comes to me…I do not want to be caught in the trap of thinking about what I will be eating for dinner that day or what pictures I will post on social media…I do not want the experience of CR to be consumed by the desire to have an examined life. I would rather be fully present and ALL-IN, 24/7. There is so much to learn and experience ahead.”
And with that, I give you Lesson #1: Be Present, and Be ALL-IN
I am happy to say that after spending 26 days abroad, I did indeed meet this goal, and I learned how to take this mindset and bring it with me everywhere that I go. While it was not always easy to turn my planner-by-default brain off, there were countless moments that all I was capable of caring about was what was happening right then, and right there. Nothing else mattered. On the other hand, there were moments that I would start to get in my head (I do that a lot), but then again, I simply reminded myself that HELLO?! I’m in Europe. And I won’t let worry rule me!
One of the many reasons Cultural Routes is so special is the amount of freedom, flexibility, and responsibility the experience grants us. Dr. Pitcock’s choice to divide us up into teams, give us maps of cities we have never seen, some euros, and an loose itinerary allowed for immense teamwork, initiative, curiosity, and adventure.
Sure, we did some planning for our days, but no one was ever concerned about diverging from the itinerary. If we wanted to goof around on a teeter totter after exploring the Castle san Angelo we absolutely would. If we wanted to find hot chocolate on a cold, rainy day in Munich, we would. When I think about this idea of respecting a plan but not worshipping it, I mainly think of the time Brent and I wandered through Venice and talked to each other about our families for awhile, and how they have shaped us. The rest of the group was exploring some more populated areas, but Brent, being Brent, literally just wanted to go and get lost. The day we went to Venice was our 20th day in Europe. If it was our first day in Europe, I can’t say I would have eagerly left my previously thought out plans of exploring Venice to wander through the city with Brent. But I am so glad that I did.
Sidenote: What is so cool about Brent is that he finds so much fulfillment in learning, but when I say “learning” it is not specific to one style. Whether we were in a museum, talking to locals, exploring a castle, or wandering through empty side streets in Venice, Brent was viewing each experience as a learning opportunity, and was always able to thoughtfully reflect and share his wisdom in the aftermath. He sought new knowledge and new meaning in nearly everything we did. He is a true thinker. Brent, you inspire me for that reason.
Anyways, as our time in Europe progressed, I reminded myself of my goal but slowly began to realize that there was a lot more adventurous spirit in me than I thought. It was a part of myself that I hadn’t unlocked, due to worry, self-doubt, and fear of what could go wrong. As soon as I let go of those things, I found true freedom in all that I did. Because of Cultural Routes, being present and being all-in just feels like more and more of a habit now. Learning to be all-in taught me to savor each and every moment, and to live my life in more of a way that embraces the unknown.
It is a liberating thing to quit worrying what will happen next, and a fulfilling thing to appreciate each moment you may be in. Being present allows you to reflect, observe, and truly connect with those around you.This is one of the many lessons Cultural Routes instilled in me. I realized that I just needed to LET GO.
“Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried.” Luke 12:27-29
On the “ALL-IN, 24/7” note, the experience of CR is structured in a way that requires intentionality, self-reflection, and deep thought as to why you are the way you are, why the people around you are the way they are, and why the world is the way it is. The motto of Cultural Routes is “All in, 24/7.” With lengthy days and opportunities for conversation at every corner, the only way to make the absolute most out of CR was to be “All in, 24/7.” Regardless of how tired or overwhelmed we felt, we could never forget that we only had 26 days to be in Europe with incredible people, and that we ought to squeeze every last drop of goodness out of the experience. Whether that meant engaging in a difficult, thought-provoking conversation, or asking a meaningful question and really listening, or investing our minds into the museums, or pondering how history affected the places we visited, we needed to be fully engaged with our surroundings, and even more with our familia. As I strived to be invested abroad, I had the a-ha moment that living this way was not something unique to being in Europe.
Cultural Routes taught me that we should live everyday as if we were waking up in the crisp air of Riomaggiore, preparing to throw ourselves out of a plane, standing in awe of famous Renaissance art, or teaching German people how to do “footloose.” The experience taught me to seize each moment of life no matter where I am – my dorm room or the Spanish Steps of Rome. Life is too short to not ask the hard questions, truly understand people, question, ponder, explore, take risks, talk to strangers, do things outside of our comfort zone, and LOVE. If we spend each day of our lives waiting for the next bit of adventure, it will never come. It cannot be, 60 days until Europe…30 days until Europe, and so on. Everyday is adventure – that is the gig when you are alive and breathing, and each day is an opportunity to know, love, and help the people around us. Each day is an opportunity to fight for what is good and make the impact we want to see.
Lesson #2: We CAN do it
Cultural Routes was not only eye-opening but also incredibly empowering. If we can make our way through foreign cities with nothing but a map and some friends, we sure as heck can make a real difference on campus and do good in our lives. In the midst of teaching me to seize each and every moment, Cultural Routes taught me that I am capable of independence, and I am capable of applying what I have learned here everywhere that I go.
I have always struggled with doubt. I have doubted some parts of my faith, my friendships, but above all else, myself. For years, I have struggled with the feeling of not being enough, or doing the wrong thing. I am incredibly self critical yet ironically confident in who I am. Part of it allows me to pressure myself to work towards higher things, but the other part of it leads to stress and a crippling feeling of I’m-not-doing-anything-right. Being in theatre and having to scrutinize my personal work causes me at times to really get inside of my head; it can be a mental battle walking into an audition – either believing in myself or doubting my abilities. This form of insecurity isn’t something FUN to talk about or easy to talk about, but it is real life, and I must constantly remind myself of who I am, who God made me to be, and where my true worth lies.
By the end of Cultural Routes, I realized that this kind of self-doubt is not fruitful – it is nothing but toxic, I am capable and worthy of more than I give myself credit for. The insecurities that attack me are things that hold me back from truly being present, from being joyful, and from being all-in, and the less and less I dwell on them, the more and more I believe in myself and find joy in the little things.
As I write this, I think of a time that Claire O’Connor met me in an incredibly vulnerable moment. I dumped out a lot of feelings and she so kindly listened. The things I was telling her about myself were not true. They were insecure, they were toxic, and and they were lies. Claire reminded me of what is true, what is right, and who I really am, a child of the freaking King. Thank you, to the entire familia, for helping me understand who I really am, and empowering me to embrace it.
Lesson #3: CURIOSITY is the Spice of Life
Cultural Routes taught me that being curious turns nerve-wracking experiences into fascinating experiences. It also turns mundane moments into spectacular moments. There is always more than meets the eye. The familia pushed me to look at the places we visited and things we saw with MORE questions, MORE reflection, and more meaning. Curiosity is also what truly taught me the value of figuring out people’s “why?” Dr. Pitcock always encouraged to ask more, find out more, and most importantly, figure out “what makes the people around us tick.” On Cultural Routes, I was surrounded by people who deeply cared about getting to know the depths of each other’s souls (special shoutout to Lauren). The curious intentionality within every individual on CR has facilitated unique and steadfast community.
Each person I travelled abroad with learns in unique ways, and finds immense meaning in different things – conversations, museums, landmarks, culture, speaking with locals, music, food, you name it. Regardless of how everyone on Cultural Routes learned, each person did so in an intentional, meaningful way that fostered intellectual curiosity and a quest to understand more. The way my peers went about learning on Cultural Routes has inspired me to look at learning differently in everyday life. In my classes, it isn’t just “checking the box” anymore and in my friendships, it isn’t just small talk. I am no longer learning to ace a test or quiz anymore, I am learning for the sake of learning.
Life is too short to check boxes and live on the surface level.
Lesson #4: Just Send It. SAY YES
There are times in life that you simply just need to “send it.” This truth became evident to me when I threw myself out of a plane, sang on a gondola on the River Arno, sang AGAIN in the place opera was invented, got swing dancing lessons from Austrian girls, asked strangers for directions, stayed up all night talking with Coop, Pete, and Connor in Berlin, swam in the Riomaggiore ocean even though we only had like, 20 minutes, went kayaking on a lake when there was clearly a mountain downpour on its way, and asked the deep, deep questions. These experiences proved to be some of the greatest ones of my entire life, and had I let fear and worry hold me back, I would have missed out. Of course, I always say “Everything in moderation!” However, what a joy it is to stop being afraid of what could go wrong and to start thinking about what could go right.
Lesson #6: Music IS the Language of the Universe
I wrote a whole blog on this. Check it – https://cr11tcu.blog/2019/06/11/music-is-the-language-of-the-universe/
Lesson #7: There is almost always something to laugh about
Life is too short to be so dang serious. Yes, there is a time to be silly and a time to be serious. However, I will never forget trudging through the cold, rainy city of Munich, walking what felt like miles to get a castle that ended up being closed. As we approached this said castle after a long day of cramming in sights, Kevin Crump playfully said in a tour guide voice, “Yeah so you see this castle on your right? It’s got a lot of rocks.” It was the hardest I had laughed all day, and EXACTLY what I needed to hear in that moment. Finding humor in the serious situations, when appropriately timed, is an outlet for a release of tension and a good laugh. The world needs more comedic geniuses like Kevin.
Lesson #8: Keep an open mind and engage in conversations with people who may or may not agree with you.
In short, this is a terrific way to learn, not only about the people around you, the world, but also about yourself. These worthwhile conversations play a pivotal role in one’s self discovery, level of respect for others, and worldly understanding. I learned SO much from the history and culture we encountered while abroad, but I can also say I learned equally as much from the other 17 people who walked by my side on this crazy adventure.
Lesson #9: It is okay to have doubts about your faith. If anything, it is good.
Lesson #10: We are not going to have all of the answers, and sometimes we have to be content with that truth (even though it is HARD)
Lesson #11: Stop and smell the roses, and if you have the chance to do it by yourself, try it out.
I am an extrovert, but what I didn’t know before coming on Cultural Routes was that alone time is SO underrated. For a majority of my life, I always believed that I was fueled by the energy of other people being around. While this is true in many ways, I have learned that alone-time allows for intense self-reflection, thought, discovery, and an opportunity to recharge (something I do not ever do enough of). Cultural Routes was structured in a way that allowed us to have free time to explore and do as we please in each destination. I mainly took this time to surround myself with people, but there were other times that I stepped away from the group to inhale the mountain air, sit on the beach by myself, people-watch out my balcony in Florence, and say Ciao to every person I saw in the streets of Riomaggiore. It was in these moments I realized a lot about the people around me, thought harder about previous conversations I had, reflected on vibrant culture, reflected on what I was learning, and spoke to God. There were other times that I simply wasn’t thinking at all; I was just appreciating that lovely sound the waves make as they recede over the rocks, or pleasantly listening to kids playing soccer in the street. Nothing more, nothing less.
The most meaningful time I spent alone was actually a time that I was not alone at all. I sat in the Carmelite Convent, a church in the back of Dachau (a concentration camp memorial site) and angrily, metaphorically shook my fists at God, because I could not understand how a God of such goodness could allow such a wicked thing to happen. I felt a wedge between God and myself because of the doubts I had been holding onto, and didn’t even know if anyone was listening. As I quietly sobbed and prayed in the empty chapel, I heard the door open in the back and quickly turned around to see who was there. Call me crazy, but that door shut, and no one was there. I turned back to the face the altar, and realized that all of the sudden, I was calm. The tears subsided, and I went silent. Sure, maybe it was a stranger who opened the door, heard me, and closed it, but from the unreal way that I felt and the abrupt conclusion of my sobbing, I was in the presence of God. He had entered the room and his loving hand was comforting my broken heart.
So yes, alone time. It rocks.
Lesson #12: Having too many expectations ruins the thrill of the unknown, something to be embraced and celebrated
As you all know by this point in this blog, for most of my life I have been a planner. Growing up and going to summer camp, I would always be the kid asking the camp counselors what was next, what was for dinner, when was bedtime, what was the surprise in the evening they mentioned, and so on. For some reason I just HAD to know. It was dire. This trait stayed with me through my high school years and freshman year of college, as I stressed over coordinating social outings and student council projects and what I would eat for breakfast the next morning as I fell asleep at night. Before going on Cultural Routes, I vowed to have no expectations, because I wanted it to be an ADVENTURE. Adventures do not have expectations or structured plans; you do not know what is coming. So, I chose NOT to read anyone else’s blogs (sorry, CR alum) or research extensively on tourists sites as I typically do before traveling anywhere. Let me tell you, this was difficult for me to do. But I did it, and I am so glad I did. Not knowing what was coming next for the entirety of Cultural Routes proved to be a blessing, not a burden. I was able to fully appreciate each moment I was in, and respect the mystery of the unknown with childlike excitement. Bottom line, I realized I didn’t NEED to know what was coming next. It was not going to bring me joy or enhance my experience. The mystery made everything ten times better and helped me live in each moment I was in. I look at life with a different lens because of this lesson learned. I no longer have the need to know what comes next; instead, I delight in the freedom of not knowing.
Lesson #13: But the greatest of these is love. Love will always prevail.
This is another moment that I will reference a separate blog I wrote after visiting Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp in Germany where 31,951 people died. It was the most difficult experience of my life. In a time of deep reflection on the evil that took place in Dachau and in the Nazi regime, I realized that the most important thing I could possibly remember was that they didn’t win.
Ultimately, humanity is broken, but I also believe that it is full of goodness, with little glimpses of God in things and people everywhere. This goodness prevailed, and it will continue to prevail. It prevails in the way that we fight injustice, the way the familia loved each other on Cultural Routes, the way that the history is revered, the way that it shows up in random acts of kindness, and the way that there is redemption in the midst of brokenness.
Lesson #14: Figure out what people’s WHY is
This is the best way to truly understand someone. Figure why they love life, why they have passions for certain things, why they are scared of this and obsessed with that, why they keep going, etc. Why? What is your why? Why are you the way that you are, and why do you see the world the way that you see it? Knowing these answers has the potential to bring you deeply close to those you ask.
Lesson #15: “Be brave. Be authentic. Be uncommon.”
I would like to conclude this blog by acknowledging that these fifteen lessons learned were because of the 15 unbelievably awesome people that accompanied me on these wild 26 days.
To the familia,
I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death.Leonardo da Vinci
I would like to say thank you for simply being you. Thank you for the vulnerability, the laughter, the deep thoughts, the music, the reflections, the inside jokes, the tears, and the beautiful moments, moments that I will never, ever forget.
Thank you for always asking “How are you?” and actually listening. Thank you for reminding me to not take life too seriously. Thank you all for being a shoulder to cry on. Thank you for hanging back with me in museums I wanted to stay in for seven hours. Thank you teaching me to think a little harder, and love a little deeper. You all make life colorful and wonderful, and because of you I have been changed for good. Each person on Cultural Routes makes the world a better place, and the most wonderful part of it all is that they do so in different ways. Kynnedi, Taylor, Chloe, Kevin, Cooper, Harris, Connor, Claire, Gabby Jane, Griffin, Peter, Lauren, Brent, Emma, and Sarah are filled with passion, wisdom, and the hunger to know and love all the people around them. I have learned something different from every person I just named; you have all profoundly impacted me. After spending a month in Europe with these folks, I am thoroughly convinced that they will all change the world.
Thank you for opening my eyes and helping me understand the world in a different way. Thank you for your steadfast character and for modeling what it looks like to build one’s life on strong values. So thankful to have learned from you and shared this experience with you, Queen Bea.
To Dr. Pitcock,
Thank you for all the sacrifices you made to create the experience of Cultural Routes. You are selfless, brilliant, and most importantly, all-in about everything you do. Thank you for embodying the value of being all-in, 24/7 always. The motto of Cultural Routes is apparent in the way that you care so deeply about your students, providing sixteen undeserving people with the most magical experience of our lives. You revere and respect culture and history, model intentionality, never pass up a chance to learn, and set an example of what it looks like to be a citizen in the global community.
Thank you for making such a life-changing experience happen. Not only are you an incredible professor, you are a genuinely wonderful person. You are wonderful. I am forever thankful for all that you have done for us.
Our 26 days in Europe is over, but Cultural Routes sure isn’t. The legacy of what we learned on this whirlwind of an experience will continue to permeate our daily lives. I am so eager to apply all that I have discovered back on the wonderful campus of TCU.
Europe, I love you. Cultural Routes, I love you. Familia, I love you. We are who we are; mia san mia. I am immeasurably thankful to have experienced this adventure with such amazing people.
Thank you to everyone who kept up with my ridiculously long blogs. I appreciate you following along on this journey.
And with that, I bid thee farewell!
Auf wiedersehen goodbye!