I love seeing people’s “first day of school” photos (especially those of my niece and nephew). While I was home in Nova Scotia last week, Acadia University students were moving into residence, some for the first time.
It has been more than 20 years since I was a student at Acadia, set on changing the world. I was going to be a foreign correspondent who would fly herself (in her own plane) to troubled regions and report the news. I would spread the word about terrible atrocities and make the world understand that it needed to help right away. I would force people to wake up and start caring. Yep, that was my plan.
I was reminded of these naïve aspirations a couple of weeks ago while visiting a professor / mentor in Halifax. Dr. Marshall Conley is a globetrotting human rights expert whom I first met when I was in his introductory political science class at Acadia. He also spearheaded a youth international internship program that paired volunteers under 30 with human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as governments. In 1998, I was one of Dr. Conley’s interns.
After finishing my degree at Acadia and then the journalism program at Ryerson University in Toronto, I was sent to the African Centre for Democracy and Human Right Studies in The Gambia as a publications officer. During my recent trip back to Nova Scotia, Dr. Conley (I still can’t call him by his first name even though we’ve been friends for years) invited my husband and I to his lovely home for lunch. When we arrived, I saw he had set out a photograph of the 16 interns he had sent around the world the year I went to The Gambia.
I blinked at the picture of young adults lined up in two rows. I had always thought that I would never forget the people in my intern cohort but here I was, blanking. While I remembered their faces, I couldn’t remember many of their names. It worried me. If I let these fine details escape from my brain, how many other things am I forgetting?
Dr. Conley came over and once he said who each person was, a light bulb went on inside my head.
“Oh, yes,” my brain said. “I remember now.”
I do remember. I remember tidbits about each person too. I remember where they all went, one to Estonia, one to Paris, two to Bangladesh, two to The Gambia (one was me), etc. I remember the excitement we all had when we were about to take off to exotic and strange locations. I remember the nervousness of heading into the unknown. I also remember trying to find a mosquito net in Halifax long before Mountain Equipment Co-op was a thing. I remember booking my flight that took me from Nova Scotia, to Iceland, to London and then to Africa. (Björk was on my plane from Reykjavik to London. She wore a white butcher’s apron as a dress and flip-flops with socks. The whole ensemble looked uncomfortable.)
I remember thinking that this internship would lay the foundation for my career as a foreign correspondent. In Gambia, I would get experience in human rights, NGOs, politics and policy and be introduced to new ideas and ways of life. With all these tools and insight, I would jump to an exciting and fulfilling journalism career.
I did learn a lot about human rights and statecraft and met all sorts of people from all walks of life in The Gambia. I also learned how to barter (my roommate was better, though), how to find my way through sandy streets and that unripe mangos make a tasty mango crisp. All these lessons and moments added up to a truly life-changing experience. I was on my way to making my goal a reality.
Then the real world got in the way.
When I returned home from my many months aboard, I needed a job. I got one in Calgary working as a news writer for a television station. I didn’t like working in TV and three years later, I left to be a pilot. Flying my own plane was the second piece to my world reporting aspirations. However, 9/11 happened and people were afraid to fly and the demand for pilots dropped. I did get my private licence but didn’t go on any further. I got a job at Mount Allison University and somewhere throughout the years, my dreams of being the flying foreign correspondent drifted away like clouds I flew through in my Cessna.
Last week while looking at the picture of the interns, I realized I hadn’t thought about my first life goal in a long, long time. It wasn’t that I had forgotten about it, I just needed a reminder about that “first.” But that’s why it was a first, because life isn’t linear and lots of other goals came after it. I’d still like to say thanks to Dr. Conley for giving me a step up on my way to changing the world. Because we all have in some way. While attending a pan-African human rights conference in Gambia, someone said, “’If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito in the room.” (That quote has also been attributed to the Dalai Lama but I heard it attributed to an African proverb.) It’s true. We’re all making a difference.