One specific word comes to mind when I think of my 3 months spent with students and staff at The Leadership Center (TLC), and that is FAMILY. I came to TLC with the intention of fulfilling my international experience requirement for my Master of International Studies (MIS) Degree at North Carolina State University in the United States (U.S.) by teaching Central American History and Mathematics to Cohort 9. What I didn’t know was that I would be impacted by Leadership Mission International (LMI) in ways I never could have imagined and that I would leave it with the experience of a lifetime, the strongest and most inspiring friends, and a nurturing and loving family.
From the very first day I stepped onto the campus at TLC, the staff was so friendly and accommodating. They helped me clean out my casita, set up my bed with mosquito netting, give me a tour of the campus, and answer my never-ending stream of questions. Even so, I still had a hard time dealing with the culture shock of frequent power and water outages, sleeping with mosquito netting to prevent mosquitoes or mice from biting me at night, and compost toilets. Most importantly, though, I was finding it difficult to be away from all of my family and friends in a whole new country with limited ways to contact them by phone to talk to or to message them. By the second week, though, that all quickly changed.
My second weekend at TLC was Alumni Weekend, where not only the 33 students returned to campus, but also graduates of LMI and numerous visitors arrived as well. I felt like the outsider, not knowing anyone well and watching everyone talking and laughing together like they had known each other forever. I was feeling this way one night that weekend, when I walked into the comedor with my plate of food and set it on an empty table. Off to the corner, I noticed a group of students in the corner talking animatedly. All of a sudden, a first year student walked up to me and asked with a great big smile, “Hello. Are you the new teacher for the second year students?” “Yes, I am.” I replied. Then, this student did and said something I didn’t expect. She gave me a huge, warm embrace, and she declared, “Welcome to TLC. I am glad you are here.” In that moment, there was no hesitation and no judgement, but just total acceptance of a complete stranger. This moment opened my eyes to what it truly meant to be a part of LMI, where everyone was not seen as a stranger but as family. I was never alone because I had my LMI family to walk beside me in times of sorrow and happiness, and in times of trials and tribulations. More than that, though, not only did I feel like I mattered at TLC and that I made a difference in each life I touched at TLC, but I realized that the people there and the moments that I spent there had changed me and my life forever. Through my experiences at TLC, I became a better person and friend. I was more willing to sacrifice anything I had in order to help someone at TLC, no matter if that was new clothes, my sleep, or my food. All that mattered was knowing that at least for that one moment, I had made the burden someone was carrying a little easier to bear or I had managed to make someone smile when minutes earlier there was nothing but tears. At TLC, I learned not to just walk in another person’s shoes, I learned to walk beside them and experience life as they experienced it. At TLC, I understood what it truly meant to be a part of a community, and in order to make a true difference in the lives of others, you need to be willing to give away everything that you had ever earned or received to be that catalyst for change.
It has been almost a year since I made my final goodbyes at TLC to return to the U.S. to complete my MIS Degree Program. Even though we are more than 3,000 miles away from each other, my TLC family and I continue to exchange messages of advice, support, and love. These interactions with them continue to make me a better person, and I know no matter how far away we are from one another or what happens in our lives that we will always be there for each other. That is what being a part of the TLC family means.