Thursday, June 23, 2011

Preparing to Say Goodbye

I think most Princeton in Africa Fellows have run into this become to embedded in your life in your respective country and city that blogging becomes a distraction from simply living it. I meant to complete the Zanzibar version for my little three-part epic post, but to be honest, it would take me hours and hours. And that means hours away from Lusaka, from the city that has become my home. Is it possible to actively transition out of a life you've grown accustomed to? Can you prepare yourself for an inevitable departure when all you want to do is hang on to every last moment? My life has become complicated..finishing up last work (including closing down my long-term impact assessment that has eaten up 50% of my time and effort here), celebrating some important accomplishments (one of our students was accepted into African Leadership Academy, two waitlisted , probably the most important moment in KF's short history), preparing to leave, getting ready for my replacement Mark's arrival (today, actually).

It is fundamentally impossible to convey how much this experience has changed my life. When I look back at myself a year ago, I remember a different person: uncertain, naive, and in many ways lost. Yet, somehow, over several months, I fell in love with this beautiful country, the friends that became my family that grew alongside me, the frustrating yet invigorating flexibility and independence awarded to me in my position, the students who have left a permanent mark on my heart. And throughout it all, I found myself solidifying the things that I knew I had always cared about but was afraid to admit to. I found a strange, unshakable confidence--in my ability to adapt, to connect to people, to make things happen when they once seemed impossible.

A week ago I was sitting with my boys, Iwell, Dennis, and Penius outside of Ibex Hill School around a cement round table, talking about the future, about how quickly time can pass, about moving on and moving forward. It was my favorite time of day in Lusaka...chilly, like a New England fall, everything painted in a soft, dull orange glow as the blood red sun began to set over the yellowing savannah that covers the outskirts of the city. I knew at that moment that leaving Zambia, and these students who let me into their lives, would be one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. Not that they aren't used to it...KF students have been forced to become accustomed to people coming in and out of their lives. I think what I realized at that moment was that I had gained more from them than they ever could from me, and also that that was not a bad thing. My faith in these students, my confidence in their maturity and leadership, the discoveries that they, perhaps unknowingly, helped me to make, have dramatically altered the course of my life.

Next year I will be working in New York for the Opportunity Network, an organization that connects promising high school students with career exploration, networking, internship placement, and college access. Right now, that makes all the sense in the world to me, but a year ago I would have never guess what my next step would be. Although part of me always felt comfortable in the role of mentor (at Bowdoin, in Admissions, the McKeen Center, on Residential Life), nowhere have I felt most alive in this role than in Lusaka. I think that in many ways I needed this year...this opportunity for personal growth and reflection, this chance to have an impact on the lives of young people, to fully understand that working to provide educational opportunities to deserving students (or young people, generally)is what I am happiest doing.

I am so grateful for this, for everything, for the ups and downs, the contradictions and discoveries, the frustrations and accomplishments, the families, the students, the KF staff members, the trips and the friends and the many moments where I felt that I was exactly where I should be at exactly the right time. I will hang on to my piece of Zambia for the remainder of my life, not only because of the memories that I will continue to cherish, but because this country and this experience have permanently transformed what I believe I am capable of.

Coming here was a risk, perhaps the biggest one I have ever taken. For those of you who have been following, thank you, for sharing this experience with me, and for supporting me in my decision to make this leap. It means more to me than I can possibly convey.

This will likely be my last post before I get back to the States. I'm so excited to share stories with everyone in person in a couple weeks.




  1. Jamie-- Katie Woo's mom here (I've been getting yr blog updates via RSS feed this past year and have greatly enjoyed following your adventures). I just wanted to say congratulations on a your year of personal growth and outreach/mentoring! If only one's everyday life in the US could give one such a daily feeling of purpose and fulfillment! Perhaps it will, in your new job. Good luck w/that, and also with the coming culture shock as you try to readjust to American life! this is no small task; when I re-acclimated from my own Jr.Year abroad (from a *western* country), I couldn't believe how hard it was to get used to Americans (in general/culturally, not specifically). I actually got a little depressed...
    Best, Laurie Woo
    ps- please don't tell Katie I was a 'stalker' ;-)

  2. Jamie -
    I am so happy this has been such an amazing year for you. It makes me happy on so many levels. I, like you, get enormous joy out of helping you Princeton in Africa Fellows find new opportunities and watching you change. I hope to be able to sit down with you soon in NY and here more and help with re-entry. I also hope you will find a way to integrate that special relationship you have built with Africa into your ongoing life.
    Good luck and see you soon

  3. Best wishes, man, you know I wish you all the best. When I fly through NYC on my way home, we'll have to meet up for a meal. You will be one of the only people who will come close to understanding the craziness that I will be going through!! Good luck going through all of that!