Exploring Purpose in the Peruvian Andes

Kelsea Turner, a middle school history teacher from Spartanburg Day School, joined Ross Wehner and Vicki Weeks on the WLS educator course Exploring Purpose in the Peruvian Andes in July 2017. These are her reflections…

If Aristotle was correct that purpose lies at the intersection of your gifts and the world’s greatest needs, then I would add that the most radical metamorphoses happen at the intersection of your greatest needs and the world’s gifts. If you don’t seize opportunities to engage with the world, you may never reach those intersections.

World Leadership School’s Educator Course in Peru this past summer was all about these intersections. I needed to rewrite my story; so Vicki and co-participant Tiffani arrived to transform my perspective. I needed to uncover my purpose, so Ross came along to ask the right questions. I needed to be inspired, so the world brought me a series of incredible community leaders including Ana, Aima, Hilaria, and an impossibly starry night high in the Andes. I needed to let go of some old demons, so I found myself at Machu Picchu. I needed to change the chip, and there was Vidal, a shaman we visited.

The course went far beyond its promise of providing a space and the tools to explore and articulate my own sense of purpose. I also came home with lessons that will inform my teaching, parenting, and general way of being in the world for years to come.

I traveled extensively after college, when I set out for Western Europe and ended up spending a few years traveling in Turkey, Syria, and neighboring countries. Eventually I folded my maps, put my pack in the attic, and settled down in the American Midwest. But that changed when I discovered the magic of educator development programs. If you’ve never had the good fortune of going on an epic adventure in a remote part of the world with a crew of teachers that you’ve never met before, I highly recommend it! Seek out an opportunity and GO.

But don’t just go; go with your eyes wide open, your ears on, and your heart exposed. Feel the connections that develop along the way, respond to them, and commit to extending yourself far beyond the point where you thought that you could. Open doors, follow someone, go it alone, be still, resist the urge to flee from discomfort, embrace the role of other, play, take part in a ceremony, listen, suspend judgement, allow someone to inspire you, allow yourself to inspire someone else, take someone in, cause a storm and then refuse to take shelter when it hits, let down your guard, dismiss your loyal soldier, laugh, cry, feel. Take. It. All. In. Don’t take the journey; let the journey take you. Let the journey take you.

I wish I had learned this lesson sooner. A few years ago when my daughter Azra was nine, she asked me what she needed to do to get into a world-class university. Stunned and concerned, I think I made some bold declaration that she should engage with life without regard for her college resume. Not bad, but if I had known then what I know now, I would’ve added that it’s all about the intersections.

I have since returned home and been stunned out of my Peruvian summer reverie by the abrupt and violent “transition” back into the beautiful chaos that is wrapped up in the school year. And a little to my surprise, I find that I have to actively battle my reluctance to share the full glory of my experience in Peru with my students — because it is so personal to me, and sharing it broadly feels too vulnerable right now. But if there’s one thing I learned in Peru it’s that I have to show students my roadmap if I am going to help them find their intersections. And so I force myself to unfold it once again.

Our course began in Peru’s Sacred Valley in a town called Ollantaytambo. We connected with our course mates, who were 10 women from across the US, Canada, and one from Germany. We met a series of inspirational female community leaders, including Ana, who started a health NGO, and Aima, who is running an an experiential school on an organic farm. We participated in a ceremony that lasted into the wee hours of the morning with a local healer who challenged our notions about justice, leadership, community, and teaching. Early the next morning, we headed into the mountains to meet our host families, who would welcome us into their homes for three nights. There we truly and deeply experienced the beauty of Andean culture.

Each of my co-participants lived with a different family in the village of Tanccac. Through observation and conversation, we further examined the concept of purpose with our host families. We worked, played, walked, and ate together. Our visit culminated in a pachamanca, a communal meal where chicken and beef and potatoes are baked underground with hot rocks. We said farewell to our families and departed for our next adventure, a high-altitude overnight trek.

After spending the morning with the indigenous women involved with the Awamaki Weaving Cooperative, we set out together on a 5-hour, uphill hike into the high Andes. We settled around our campfire that night under the clear sky with a blanket of stars like I’ve never seen. As we gazed at the Milky Way and the Southern Cross, we were transformed. Our sense of gratitude was overwhelming, and we were ready for the work to continue the following morning. I was paired with my accountability partner, and we listened deeply to the leadership story that the other had created already as part of the curriculum in Peru. We asked for clarification as needed, spent time practicing, then told our partner’s story from their perspective for the entire group. It was an intense lesson in listening and empathy, and it was an emotional morning. Finally, we were ready to descend the 3,000 feet back to the Sacred Valley, having gained an understanding of the importance of sharing one’s story with others as a means of clarifying purpose.

We had a peaceful night’s sleep before departing early for Machu Picchu. With a nationwide teacher’s strike in effect since June 17th, the railroad shut down, and teachers placing large rocks in roads to block passage of all vehicles, thousands of visitors were unable to reach Machu Picchu. Fortunately, we made it with the help of Adela, our Peruvian in-country coordinator and miracle worker.

After a 20-hour day, we arrived at a lovely inn where we would devote an intense couple of days of wrapping up our work and focusing our energy on the transference process. We worked to articulate our unique gifts, teaching philosophies, purpose statements, and goals. We gave each other input based on our observations and insights on the course. We brainstormed, worked, reflected, and revised. And we left the inn for Cusco where we would spend our final night working together before we said goodbye.

In Cusco, we completed our purpose maps and created our own purpose-related curriculum with our division groups. On our final night, we had a festive dinner with a woman who founded an NGO in her early twenties dedicated to providing access to higher education at no cost to a number of young people each year from Ollantaytambo. The students currently involved with her program joined us, and we engaged in a final inspiring and thought-provoking discussion about the importance of purpose. We closed out the program that night with a touching reflection on our experiences together over the past 10 days and a candle ceremony that prepared us to say farewell.

I embarked on this journey hoping to develop some clarity of personal purpose and to learn how to facilitate this exploration with my students. As I sit here in my kitchen just two months after the start of that life-changing adventure, I marvel at the depth of the transformation it inspired in me, tremble at the idea that (for a moment) I considered sitting this one out, and feel overwhelmed by my gratitude for all of the intersections I encountered along the way.

— Kelsea Turner, Spartanburg Day School, 7th & 8th Grade History Teacher

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