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Iris: Lessons of the Road

Iris riding down from a mountain town called Kalaw.  She had descended 4500 feet in the pouring rain on a pretty bad road, but she's still smiling.

Iris riding down from a mountain town called Kalaw. She had descended 4500 feet in the pouring rain on a pretty bad road, but she’s still smiling.

Whatcom’s fearless Northwest Community College Initiative (NWCCI) advisor, Iris Metzgen-Ohlswager, recently spent a month biking through Burma.  Her time abroad gave her the opportunity to reflect on the life of travellers and what we can learn by spending time in new cultures.

As an international student advisor you often forget what it is like to be on the other side: the confusing transportation system, new language, strange cultural expectations, unfamiliar foods, foreign money and the overwhelmingly different academic system. These are also the reasons traveling abroad is such an enriching and transformative experience. I’ve been fortunate to travel often and glimpse the places our students call home.

Girls on bikes riding over rice fields in southeast Myanmar near the Thai border

Girls on bikes riding over rice fields in southeast Myanmar near the Thai border

Most recently I spent a month cycling through Myanmar (Burma). Myanmar is a stark contrast to my daily life in Bellingham, Washington, but much closer in lifestyle and climate to the places from which our NWCCI students hail. It is a glaring reminder that the majority of the world – in comparison – does not live as frivolously as Americans. This is easy to forget and hard to remember. For much of the world they do not have the luxury of readily available water, accessible Internet or health care, reliable power, or the option to safely and easily vote. Even obtaining a government ID is assumed, while for many students this is an arduous if not impossible task. The beauty of traveling, especially in developing nations, is that for a moment I am allowed a small window into their world. Experiencing firsthand the juxtaposition of worlds, allows me to guide them more carefully and thoughtfully during their time in the United States. Their realities are more visceral, their challenges clearer and their goals more understandable. To advise someone’s future, you must acknowledge their past; traveling enables me to better appreciate the students’ past.

Inside a temple

Inside a temple

Traveling is a constant reminder of the age-old truth-that human connection is where true diplomacy is found, friendships that span continents foster authenticity and the slow process of peace.  I am reminded that we all crave the same things – no matter our language or religion, and in the end this truth gives purpose and commitment to my advising.

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