Last week, as I stuffed myself silly with mashed potatoes and turkey, I couldn’t help but remember that last year I was pressing into my last week of my Study-Service Term in Shaanxi Provence, China. My group crowded into a fancy restaurant, ordered a delicious meal and prepared to bike around the city wall of Xi’an.In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I will say that I’m incredibly grateful for my SST experience. I loved the elderly woman in my courtyard who motioned to me every morning to bring an umbrella to school. I loved taking long walks along the river with my host mother. I loved the relationships I formed with my service students and the understanding I grew for China’s history.
Even the smells of smog, dirty toilets and cigarette smoke bring me back to China in the most nostalgic way possible.
By definition, nostalgia is a bittersweet longing for something that has been deep and significant, yet is no longer close in distance or time. It is appropriate, then, to look back and remember SST with nostalgia–SST is worthy of nostalgia.
However, I wonder if campus nostalgia for SST is always as honest as it should be. It is instinctive for me to share the positive memories from living abroad but not verbalize the negative ones. The truth is, for every good day I had in China, a bad day came along with it.
Several weeks ago, when the Senegal SST group presented in convocation, Billy Funk, a senior, shared a story about his host family. Billy described how one day, he was so overwhelmed with speaking French that he had to break down and cry. Though the experience was embarrassing, Billy said his host family’s supported him as if he was their own son.
I loved this story because Billy was truthful about the everyday difficulties of SST. Some days, you just have to face your loneliness and frustration and have a good cry. Yet Billy was also honest about the beauty that comes from the challenges or SST: many families are hospitable and loving, even when you make mistakes.
As we say goodbye to another batch of SST-bound friends, and welcome home those returning from SST this semester, I hope we can widen our approach to thinking about SST. Are we giving each other room for SST to be just as “bad” as it is good? Are we thinking of SST as “life-changing,” yet also just one life experience among many? Are we keeping our definition of “service” broad and inclusive? Are we being proactive with students that are experiencing different forms of SST?
Whether we are on SST, pre-SST, or post-SST, I believe broadening our approach to the SST experience will help us all become better students, friends and “global citizens.”