Sometimes you have to go to England before you feel ok with your Popple backpack

When I was little, I was a scaredy cat.

I was seriously afraid of everything. I’d crush my mother’s hand, holding onto it for dear life, when walking through a crowd. Once, when a group of college students complimented my Popple backpack (that thing was awesome, by the way), I got so jittery from all the attention, I immediately swapped it out for a dull, run-of-the-mill blue backpack that would warrant no feedback from strangers. And then there was the time in first grade, I was the teacher’s helper for a week, but I was unprepared for the weighty responsibilities of the task – like running errands for my teacher and INTERACTING WITH STRANGERS; I was told to deliver a note upstairs to the third grade teacher, and I was so terrified I nearly threw up.

At some point, I realized I preferred not to be a shrinking violet. I decided it was important to do things outside the comfort zone I’d created for myself. You know, actually take a risk once in a while. Thank goodness. Or, I might have missed the chance to travel to England for four weeks for the trip of a lifetime.

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Five years ago this week, I traveled to England with four strangers for a month-long stay. It was one of the most daunting – and ultimately one of the most rewarding – things I’ve ever done.

I went through a rigorous multi-interview process with one of South Carolina’s two over-arching regional Rotary groups. Dozens upon dozens apply for a chance to be a part of these annual Group Study Exchange trips. I was elated when I discovered I was one of four young adults chosen from South Carolina to accompany a Rotarian team leader on this trip meant for cultural and vocational immersion.

And in the middle of September of 2008, unsure of what life held in store for me – but deciding the then-unknown reward just might be worth the risk – I flew across the Atlantic and landed in London.

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The great thing about GSE is that you stay in host families’ homes and you’re in towns you probably wouldn’t have visited otherwise. Peterborough, Leicester, Market Deeping, Northampton, Sleaford. Stamford. These were names with no meaning attached to them before. Before walking their narrow – and sometimes cobblestone – streets. Before staying in the homes of some of their hardest-working, friendliest denizens. Before eating at the local pubs (and devouring many a delicious plate of fish and chips). Before vocational visits that opened my eyes to the possibility of being able to have a career anywhere. Anywhere.

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I experienced so much during those four weeks. I gave talks to Rotary clubs almost every other day. I felt no fear in striking up a conversation at a dinner filled with unfamiliar faces. I made lifelong friends out of people who shared their homes with me for only two days. I delivered a speech to a thousand people I didn’t know. I learned I was capable of stretching myself beyond the limits I’d previously set for myself. I learned I shouldn’t set limits.

Most importantly, I learned that no one is a stranger.

I only wish I still had my Popple backpack.

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