For sixteen years I spent each weekday from September through June surrounded by two-thousand teenagers. They sat in my classroom, worked with me on extracurricular activities, planned events, volunteered, did community outreach and we learned from each other. As a teacher, there are many students whose lives intersect with yours during their tenure of high school and once they graduate and spread their wings you’re lucky if that contact is still present. With the advent of social media more and more graduates are able to choose to connect with their teachers. For some it’s to say thank you, for some it’s to ask for advice or recommendations and for others its merely to maintain that connection that started in their youth. I was the class advisor for the graduating class of 2012 and it was in their sophomore year when I left to travel the world and live in Australia for awhile. Those who were interested in travel wanted to know more about my journey. Social media and that travel gene has connected me with many former students and I’m always interested to see where life has taken them after high school. It was that travel connection that brought Maddie Reilly and me back together. A close friend of one of my officers, she spread her university wings farther than many of her peers by taking a university program abroad in Ghana, Africa. When I saw her at this past high school graduation, she was excited to start planning her next adventure to wherever the wind would take her. Here, she reflects on her journey and shares her views of the gifts of travel.
Interview with: Maddie Reilly, Farmingdale, NY
1.What’s the first travel experience you can remember? When you were young, what type of trips did you take with your family? The first travel experience I can remember is going camping with my extended family. It was a lot of fun! All the kids would run around and play all we wanted and our parents would call us back by whistling into the top of an acorn. I remember taking a lot of day trips. We would go to Westbury Gardens for the day or sometimes out to Montauk. Family friends of ours also had a log cabin in the Berkshires so we used to go up there all the time.
2.Why did you want to travel abroad during university? I never thought I would want to study abroad. I remember coming to freshman orientation and my mom was really pushing the idea of studying abroad and I was just not interested. Don’t get me wrong, I love to travel but I wanted to focus on making friends and having the “classic” college experience. To me, studying abroad meant a semester away from the college experience that I craved. It wasn’t until one of my favorite professors presented the trip to the class that I even considered studying abroad.
3.How did you choose Africa and more specifically, Ghana? When one of my favorite professors presented the trip to my Political Science class, I was hooked. He was the faculty member that actually went on the trip with us so he was full of information. It just seemed so interesting to go to such a different place! My logic was that I could go to Europe some other time because it is a very tourist friendly place. For Africa and more specifically Ghana, I felt I would want connections to travel safely so going with a study abroad program seemed like the perfect opportunity.
4.What did you expect to get out of this trip to Ghana? What surprised you most of all? I expected significant culture shock going to Ghana. Often times when people I know think of Africa, we think of poverty stricken areas so I was expecting to see a lot of that. Although we did go into some poor villages and experience significant culture shock, the thing that shocked me most was the fast growing urban scene. Ghana’s capita, Accra, is a booming metropolis. Oil was discovered off Ghana’s coast so the industry there has been rapidly growing. The city was definitely much more sophisticated than I was expecting.
5.What was the response of your friends and family when you shared your excitement of going abroad in Africa? Honestly, my family was not too keen on me going to Ghana. They were worried about my safety traveling to a place that is often depicted as unstable and dangerous. Also they were a little unnerved by all the medications and vaccinations I had to get prior to traveling. My friends on the other hand were totally on board. They thought it was so cool that I was going to Africa, although I think some of them thought I was going to a jungle or something rather than a metropolitan area.
6.What did you learn on your trip that you feel you couldn’t have gotten from a book, the Internet or a traditional school setting? I learned so much about the culture. We were completely immersed for the three weeks we were there. That just isn’t something you can get from reading about a culture second-hand from a book or the Internet. We learned about the traditional clothes, the cuisine, the history, and even some tribal language in such a short amount of time because we were surrounded by it every day. It would have taken months to learn everything that I absorbed in just 3 weeks if we had been learning in a traditional school setting.
7.What did you learn about yourself on this trip? How do you think you’ve grown after spending time in Ghana? It may sound strange, but I really learned to accept my natural beauty on this trip. Half the time the showers weren’t working let alone the electricity to let me blow-dry my hair. Before the trip I wouldn’t be caught dead with my hair air-drying and without make up, but I was forced to on the trip and it really showed me that I don’t need all that stuff to feel beautiful. True beauty comes from within and we really all should try and embrace that more. I also have grown into a more secure and humble person because of the trip. It just gave me so much perspective, and it makes me so grateful for what I have.
8.What would you suggest to others thinking about adding travel to their lives? Do it! Seriously stop thinking and just do it. I think too often people put off travel and wait until they are older to finally see the world. Personally, I want to see as much of the world as I can while I am still young. I want to be able to take the stairs to the top of the Eiffel Tower or run along the top of the Great Wall of China. So stop overthinking, over planning, and worrying. Just do it.
9.Where do you want to go next? I would love to go to Australia. I love the beach and they have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Also I would go for the wildlife. I want to see kangaroos and koalas not to mention I am an avid Shark Week watcher and would love to go Great White Shark cage diving!
10.What do you think have been travel’s gifts to you? Appreciation has definitely been one. I am so much more grateful for what I have. And I don’t just mean material things. I am so lucky to have my health, my family, my friends, and the peace of mind that comes from living in America. We truly are so blessed in this country and often times it takes traveling to other places to really see that. Also like I mentioned earlier I definitely embrace my natural beauty more from traveling. It is hard to look put together after a thirteen-hour flight or after 3 days without running water. Eventually I just embraced those things, which in turn made me feel so much more secure in my own skin. The biggest gift I have been given is experience. I have gotten to see, taste, smell, and hear so many new and exciting things because of travel. I have so many funny stories and beautiful memories that I will have for a lifetime, and that to me is the greatest gift of all.
Maddie Reilly’s Favourites:
- Favourite Travel Quote: “Not all those who wander are lost” -J.R.R Tolkien
- Favourite Travel-themed Movie: The Wizard of Oz because it reminds us that there’s no place like home.
- Favourite Travel-themed Book: On the Road by Jack Kerouac
- Favourite Travel Outfit: sneakers, yoga capris, a tank top, and a hoodie—layering and comfort are key when traveling!
- Favourite Travel Memory: I will never forget when I went to France and stayed with this elderly couple that barely spoke English for 3 days. I was so terrified and out of my comfort zone staying with them but I will never forget it. I especially remember when they brought me to a gospel concert (they were very religious) and I listened to this French choir sing “he’s got the whole world in his hands.
Fun Facts about Maddie Reilly:
- I go to SUNY Cortland.
- Right now, my dream job would be a physical therapist.
- If I could volunteer anywhere in the world, I’d go to Nepal to work with children with physical disabilities. There is a huge shortage of physical therapy skills there so American interns can assist the physical therapists in rehabilitation centers for children.
- The item I find most useful in my travels is an alarm clock. Jet lag is a pain and you don’t want to be the person that is always late!
- The most useful travel tip I’ve ever received is how to check your bed for bed bugs. It might seem gross but you can’t be too careful especially when traveling. It’s really simple: with the lights off peel back the fitted sheet on your mattress and shine a flashlight at the seam on the edge. Bedbugs hate the light so you will see them running around if they are there.