From Kathmandu to Harare — and the Many Crossroads in Between
[This is my commencement speech to the graduating class of 2016 at Yarmouth High School in Yarmouth, Maine.]
Thank you, Lucy. And thank you to the Class of 2016. It’s an honor to be your guest speaker.
I graduated from high school in 1988. I was at the peak of my academic career — graduating with a solid C average, fairly confident I had an undiagnosed learning disability and had gotten into my fifth choice of colleges — after the first four politely rejected me due to my overwhelming life achievements.
But seriously, I realize now that the biggest thing I had going for me was a curiosity to travel. Which explains why my college years spanned four different schools, three continents, and five years. So, here you have it. Four college and 5 pieces of advice I learned along the way.
College #1 Northeastern University in Boston. I rowed crew, took all sorts of random classes and hung out with my friends. When I think back, the most exciting thing about that first year of college was working as a bicycle courier.
It happen to also be the only year of college my parents could afford, which also turned to be one of the most important events in my life. If I wanted to continue, I had to figure out how to pay for it myself. This is advice #1…
….whatever you do, develop your own financial literacy as soon as possible. In other words, figure out how to make ends meet without your parents support.
College #2. World College West in Petaluma, California. I was paying for school (i.e taking out loans) then I was moving to California. This school was the smallest four-year undergraduate college in the country (100 students) and during the application process you had to decide which one of four countries in the less-developed world you would study. I liked mountains so I checked off Nepal not really even knowing where exactly it was. Also, I happen to apply with my girlfriend at the time. What could go wrong?
Well, you guessed it. We were no longer dating by the time classes started. Needless to say, it was a little ackward. However, here is comes advice number #2: spend time on West Coast
America is a big place and it’s important to be bi-coastal. Having lived all over the world, some of the biggest intercultural experiences I had were with native Californians. California’s economy is the size of a small country — it’s important to realize its impact on the world.
College #2 is also where things got interesting. I spent a year doing studies in California and then moved to Kathmandu, Nepal to live with a Nepalese family for a year.
There is nothing like the first time you visit a less-developed country like Nepal. Your senses are over stimulated — the sights, smells and sounds are nothing like you’ve experienced before.
Of course it’s also very challenging. I could hardly communicate with my host family, I would walk home every night with a empty Coke bottle so I could protect myself against the wild dogs, and I learned that not all cultures use toilet paper.
And, I was loving it.
I knew that traveling and being in other cultures was what I loved to do. You learn to adapt and your understanding of the world expands tremendously.
However shortly after the third month of living in Kathmandu I got Typhoid Fever. A nasty disease which if it goes untreated kills you in about four weeks. I was fortunate to be an American and have access (i.e. money) to medicine. Needless to say, I was on a flight back home as soon as I could walk and had to end my studies and leave all my classmates. Regardless, I was hooked on traveling, which leads me to advice #3…
..try and live, or at least visit, a less-developed country. Life expectancy is truly short in most of these countries. People die often and for reasons we don’t have to worry about here. But this is how the majority of the world lives and it’s important to understand that.
College #3. Santa Rosa Junior College in Santa Rosa, California. I returned to California after recovering and I had some extra money from my student loan, and a choice to purchase a VW bus or a Macintosh Classic computer. I bought the computer and it didn’t take long to realize I was hooked. So rather than continuing with international studies I transferred to the local community college to take computer classes.
Advice #4…..purchase things that will increase in your own personal value and not things that will simply depreciate themselves.
I had every intention of returning my international school — I just wanted to learn more about computer and this “new” thing called the Internet. However after finishing my year’s leave of absence, my international college ran out of money. Yes, colleges can go broke. So with only a year’s worth of credit needed, I transferred to a school back east.
College #4. The School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont. I only needed a year’s worth of credits and an internship overseas so hopped on a plane to Harare, Zimbabwe.
Why Zimbabwe? I was offered an internship at the local Internet Service Provider — this is sorta like your Time Warner back then. However back in 1992 the internet connection consisted of two desktop computers, a modem (those boxes that make the fax machine noise) and a telephone call to Johannesburg, South Africa every six hours to send and receive emails. And even though my job was helping to connect rural district hospitals to basic email so that they could report disease outbreaks sooner, I had to smuggle modems into the country in order to do so because the government considered them illegal. Yes, I was international technology smuggler.
It was during my six months living and working in Zimbabwe that had a chance to take an Outward Bound course. Of all places — there is an Outbound Bound chapter in Zimbabwe and a fraction of the price of the one here in Maine.
This was a two and half week course and there were three things you were warned about at the start: leopards, deadly snakes and landmines. Yes, landmines, and I was paying money for this experience?!
With every Outward Bound course you spend three days and two night completely alone. I wanted to make this more interesting so I illegally crossed into the Mozambique. There I spent 72 hours cursing monkeys in the trees because they quite enjoyed throwing nuts at a human. Once again, I paid for this experience?!
But this bring me to advice #5: at some point in your life, try and go as far away for home as possible, because it will make you appreciate your home like you never have before.
I eventually returned to the States and graduated in 1992 from the School for International Training and went on to work for eight years all throughout Africa and Southeast Asia on a technology project. I am now building an international company right here in Maine, which happens to be named after that national park in Zimbabwe I did my Outward Bound course at.
But let me end with two last pieces of advice…
….you may or may not have a future which you envision for yourself, but know that not everything goes according to plan. And it’s in these moments that your true journey in life begins.
Lastly, to quote my favorite band, The Grateful Dead, and a quote which is still on the wall of my childhood bedroom…..“sometimes we live our life no particular way but our own….”