How to Build Yourself from Scratch

I am not myself here. At least not yet.

Global Citizen Year, the leadership program that has landed me in Ecuador for seven months, sends recent high school graduates fresh off the treadmill of traditional education to one of four countries: Ecuador, Senegal, India or Brazil. For the majority of our “Bridge Year” experience, so named for its intentional structure, we are placed in host families and a variety of apprenticeships. Through a combination of independence and guidance, we focus on community immersion, language learning, and global perspective. Essentially, Global Citizen Year strives to arm the leaders of tomorrow with the skills they will actually need in this interconnected world, such as empathy, gratitude, and cross-cultural communication.

This program wants us to relearn how to be humans.

They say your identity may change, or be challenged, outside your context. They say you might be a different person – but maybe, for a while, you don’t feel like a person at all, just an outline with blank space in the middle.

A clean slate may seem like a good idea — after all, don’t you now have the freedom to reinvent yourself if you wish? You can fill in that blank space with whatever new colors inspire you. But what about all the trust you have built with your family, friends, and acquaintances, the quirks that have been explained? All that has to be mapped out, blueprinted, and executed again – built from scratch.

At home, I can hide behind comfort, background, and history to ignore my weaknesses. Perhaps excuse my sensitivities. At home, the people around me may forgive quickly because they understand my general tendencies and intentions. They know my childhood, my neighborhood, my family, and my interests.

Here, I have only seven months to make up for a lifetime of personality. For these first three weeks, I am living with a single mother and a 20 year old sister in an apartment in Quito. Every word, every sentence, every por favor and gracias is a crucial piece of the very small puzzle that creates my host family’s image of me. And every small misstep can feel like a significant stain on that image. Starting September 17, I will have to repeat this process with my permanent host family in another part of Ecuador.

Sophia and her host family in Ecuador.
Sophia with her host family

Language, of course, makes this process exponentially more exhausting. When one barely has the faculties to explain a complex situation (or a simple one, for that matter), easily avoidable conflicts can take on a life of their own in a matter of minutes. My tongue lolls around hopelessly, my hands mime frantically, and my brain cannot churn fast enough to find the Spanish vocabulary for an appropriate response.

Sophia and her host family in Ecuador
Sophia and her family

Sometimes, in Ecuador, I feel less mature than I ever have. With humility, I have to learn that which I thought I would never have to relearn, accepting — often with embarrassment and lowered eyes — instructions on manners, bed-making, and personal belongings. I am trapped in a baby’s body, toddling around an unfamiliar place, unable to steer clear of the many obstacles in my way. I’m eighteen years old; I have all my basic manners down, right? Not in Ecuador.

I won’t say it’s been easy to follow my own advice for this year: to “seek opportunity” in whatever situation I find myself. In fact, I won’t even say I’ve been completely successful in following it. However, I believe that maybe, through the terrifying feeling of being merely an outline, I will be able to more clearly observe the qualities that arise on this new canvas of mine.

There is nothing here to cloud the simple everyday actions we often shove aside in our busy lives, key moments that unknowingly define our characters.

Never has the idealistic notion of “I am not the sum of a list of activities” been so daunting. Here, I am not President of the Women’s Rights Club, I am not an actor in the musical, I am not a good student, I am not an Ultimate Frisbee player. I am just the gringa who walks into the kitchen each morning to say, “Buenos días!”

So, take a deep breath. Let’s build from scratch.

Sophia takes in Ecuador.
Sophia in Ecuador

Sophia Pandelidis is a Global Citizen Year Fellow spending her bridge year in Ecuador. She is passionate about writing, culture and languages. She is involved in many singing groups and is co-president of her school’s gender equality club, Herstory. She believes that the only way a person can truly grow is by gaining new and different experiences. During her Global Citizen Year, Sophia hopes to form a strong relationship with her host family, become fluent in Spanish, stretch far outside her comfort zone, and remember to notice life’s small moments. Read more about Sophia’s experience on her blog.



2 Comments

  • Jody Pandelidis

    Hello Sophia! So exciting that your observations, thoughts, and experiences while living in Ecuador are being shared with a wider audience. Love, Mom

  • Anonymous

    Sophia,
    HI! What a beautiful way to describe starting over in a new land, becoming a fresh self to you and to others. This is a way approach everyday everywhere.
    Miss you,
    Suzy M

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