When I was 17 years old, I hopped on a plane with a one-way ticket to a country half-way around the world where I didn’t know a single soul. That country was Ukraine, and I was planning to live there for my senior year of high school as part of the Rotary foreign exchange program. Knowing nothing but a few phrases in Russian, I knew it would be a challenge to make friends and adjust to the new culture.
It turned out to be more difficult than I had ever imagined.
A few days before my arrival in the city of Dnepropetrovsk, the Rotary Club that was in charge of finding a host family for me fell apart. Thankfully, the ex-president of that club felt bad and agreed to host me with his family until they could find someplace better. They eventually found me another family with children my age who I could live with, but they only had room for me for a month while the father was away on a business trip. I kept moving on to new host families almost every month until by the end of the year, I had lived in 10 different places around the city. Although the constant moves enabled me to see all different perspectives on the local lifestyle, it made me feel homeless and unwanted, with no one I could rely on.
Making friends was even harder. After the first few weeks of novelty wore off, my classmates at school got sick of not being able to communicate with me. Only a few of the overachievers who wanted to practice their English with me pretended to be my friends. But I didn’t want to spend my year abroad tutoring people in English—I wanted to make real friends and understand what was going on around me.
I had no choice but to grow to face the challenges.
There was no one to give me formal instruction on the language, so I decided to learn it on my own. I spent countless hours memorizing vocabulary and studying Russian grammar (believe me—it’s not easy). I practiced speaking with anyone who was patient enough to listen. I wrote out essays and asked my host mothers to correct them for me.
After many tears and an entire year of diligent work, I was finally able to speak Russian nearly fluently. I returned home with lifelong friendships and a thorough understanding of Ukrainian culture, knowing I had made an impact on their community through my contributions.
My experience living abroad shaped my approach to life: I know that if I want to learn something new, the best way is to jump off the cliff and build my wings on the way down. I may still quake with fear at the drop below me, but I know that I will survive and be stronger for it.
What challenge are you afraid of? You don’t have to travel across the world. You can make the plunge right here and now, doing whatever it is that scares you most.
Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.