Experience the World. Become an Everyday Ambassador.

Today’s post was written by EA’s founder and director Kate Otto for the Perspectives series of the blog United Planet. This series aims to illuminate different viewpoints and foster open discussion and cross-cultural understanding between people of all different backgrounds. Like Everyday Ambassador, United Planet works to build a world in which all people understand, respect, and support one another. They foster cross-cultural understanding, and addresses shared challenges to unite the world in a community beyond borders. timbuktu

When you think of the word “Ambassador”, what normally comes to mind?

If you asked me ten years ago, before I had ever stepped foot outside my home country, I would have immediately thought: Elite. High-Level. International-Relationship-Manager.  An Ambassador is a well-trained professional, responsible for maintaining the good relations that keep our world spinning peacefully!  Only a select few ever have the chance to play such a prestigious, influential role in changing the world for the better.

But then something happened that forever shifted my opinion:

I experienced the world for myself.

Rather than simply entertain ideas in my mind of what lay outside my country, my culture, and my comfort zone, I decided to explore at every possible chance.  I conducted a few short weeks of service trips in Mexico and Guatemala soon after graduating high school. I spent a college semester studying abroad in Ghana, a summer working in Tanzania, and several school breaks in South Africa.  After graduation, I moved to Indonesia for a yearlong fellowship, worked in Ethiopia soon after, and have ended up with a career that allows such exploration to continue.

What I found, at first, astounded me.

On the one hand, I could not believe the incredible diversity of cultures, traditions, beliefs, and lifestyles.  I had no idea that just one borderline away from my nation, in rural Mexico, families lived without access to water or electricity.  I was surprised to see a traditional Masaai warrior, who knew the medicinal powers of every leaf and root around him, texting away on his cell phone as we traversed the Tanzanian grasslands. I was wide-eyed in my first interactions with mowhawk-sporting punk-rockers who still respected the call to prayer in predominately Muslim Indonesia.

Every time I found something incongruous with my original expectations, I began thanking the universe for giving me the chance to be a witness to human complexity.

And on the other hand, I continually found common ground with people whose lives were so deeply different than mine.  Our shared desires seemed countless: our family’s safety, an illuminating education, an interesting career, personal health and well-being.  We all experienced pain and joy, anger and love – and perhaps the most powerful moments have been when we experienced these emotions together.IMG_6734

From country to country, diverse community to diverse community, my attempts to understand the world – and my place in it – revealed to me one core lesson that made itself vibrant and obvious with each new adventure:

I am totally an Ambassador!

The relationships that I make on any trip are the heart and soul of what I bring back “home” with me.  What lessons has this person taught me that had never occurred to me before?  In what ways did we connect that I never imagined possible with someone so different?  How has my worldview changed because of their influence?

Whether we are jet setting across continents or whether we are exploring new neighborhoods in our own cities, I believe that being Ambassadors bestows upon us a great responsibility.  For all that we are forever changed by the people we meet, the same type of transformation is going on in their minds and hearts.  For all that we can change our home communities by giving them a fresh, true global perspective, the same communication is going on in their communities.

DSCN9482No matter our training, profession, salary, or official title, we are all ambassadors, every single day.  The way we treat others matters deeply to the way in which we are treated – and by extension, all those whose nationality, gender, race or religion that we represent.

It’s not always an easy task, especially nowadays, in a world whose infrastructure is that of digital communication. Some days it feels like the more I am able to do on my devices, the more I tend to do on my devices.  If I’m not careful, I end up sacrificing real face time for virtual pursuits, even if they are noble ones.  And perhaps most dangerously, I sometimes become so accustomed to technology being convenient, user-friendly, and reliable, that I find it more challenging to be kind and forgiving to others (and to myself) when life gets inconvenient, complicated, and unpredictable.  (For more on this idea, see my TEDxUNC talk!)

Everyday Ambassador creates space for sharing stories about high quality relationship-management skills for travelers who are committed to leaving the world a better place.  Through the reflections of people who contribute, Everyday Ambassador presents a set of habits and reflections for aspiring global citizens – especially those who aim to maximize technology’s capacity for positive social change.

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