I have this amazing friend who lives a life of adventure. Laura teaches special education language arts at the middle school where I am a counselor. While teaching is its own adventure, Laura's biggest adventures are traveling abroad in the summer.
Over the last few summers, Laura has applied and been awarded several teacher grants to travel across the world. She has been to the Middle East, Europe, South Africa and Thailand. For free. She has written amazing grant proposals to use her studies and experiences abroad in her classroom. Not only has she benefited from these travels but her students have been immeasurably enriched via her experiences.
Laura just left for Thailand again, but this time for an entire year. She is taking a sabbatical at school and is spending a year working with children in hopes of preventing human trafficking. Check out what Laura is doing at www.heart4thailand.com.
I have gotten to know Laura very well during the last few years. At first, I admired her for her willingness to travel and learn about new cultures and people. Then, I admit that my admiration turned into envy. While I wouldn't trade my life as a mom to my amazing boys and wife to a wonderful husband, there is a part of me that always wondered what life would be like traveling the world.
I have traveled lots in the continental United States for business, pleasure or soccer. From Seattle to Miami and lots of places in between, I have really enjoyed experiencing new sights, sounds and people.
But, with the exception of a short day trip into Mexico during a Spring Break when I was in college, I have never had the guts to venture outside of the U.S. There are too many what ifs ... What if I can't understand the language? What if they serve me food that I don't like? What if the food I eat makes me sick? What if I get lost? What if something happens to me? What if I lose my passport? What if something goes wrong and I can't get help? What if I run out of money? What if, what if, what if?
Because of these anxieties and the lack of opportunity, I thought I would probably never get out of the U.S. But, watching Laura have these life-changing experiences really started to inspire me.
So when an email came into my school inbox in January about an opportunity to go to Japan through the Norman Public Schools Hitachi Teacher Exchange Program, I actually considered it. Traveling abroad, especially to Japan, could not be more outside my comfort zone. But, I thought I might be ready to take the risk.
I prayed about it and thought about it. And although Laura had no idea that I was even considering applying, she brought it up to me and encouraged me to go.
The purpose of the trip is to build cultural understanding between the Japanese schools that we will visit and the Norman Public Schools. I couldn't imagine a better way to teach empathy and understanding of others than to truly experience a culture completely different than my own.
When I received an interview, I was thrilled! I shared with the panel how Laura had inspired me and how I might be able to bring back my experience and share it with students, parents and staff.
To my shock and delight, I was one of three educators in Norman selected to go on this trip. And folks, I leave July 3!
The last few months I have been learning, preparing and shopping for all that I will need for my 10 days abroad. I got a passport. I bought some comfortable shoes. I studied the Japanese culture. And, I spent time with the other ladies with whom I will be traveling.
It's interesting to think that five years ago, one year ago or even six months ago, I would have never dreamed I would travel to Japan in my lifetime. And, I am doing it this week. I am just so excited!
Laura left for Thailand earlier this week. I made sure to tell her again that she was the reason I applied for this program to begin with. Her recommendation letter for me didn't hurt either.
So as I try to squash the ‘what ifs’ I am thinking about, I will think about how amazing this experience will be. I am so grateful to Norman Public Schools, Hitachi and to Laura for giving me this chance of a lifetime.
Check back during the next two weeks to read about my experiences in Japan. Hopefully the step outside my comfort zone will be well worth the risk.
Michelle Sutherlin is a NewsOK contributor and a middle school counselor in Norman, OK, who works with students ages 11-15 daily. She is also a mom to two boys, Ryan (12) and Will (9). She and her husband have been married for 16 years. For more articles about parents and middle school, check out her blog.
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