You’ve probably never met me, but you’ll feel like you know me pretty well by the end of this post. I’m the one who’s finally found what I want to do with my life almost 25 years after my semester abroad in London. My new career doesn’t have an exact title, but its purpose is crystal clear: I want to build grassroots connections between cultures using digital storytelling. It’s been a fairly circuitous route over the years; from working 12-hour days at a record label in Manhattan to working even longer hours as a stay-at-home mom to two boys. Every experience, although seemingly unrelated, has brought me to this point.
I don’t regret the life choices; working with Michael Jackson and Pearl Jam taught me a lot about the power of ego and the frenzy mass media can create. Conversely, re-discovering the world through the eyes of my young children reminded me of the importance of taking time to teach and listen with all of my heart.
In 2009 I had gone back to school on a hunch, not really knowing exactly what I would do with a Master’s Degree in International Education. The one thing I did know was that my semester abroad somehow meant more to me than I’d realized. The moment I found my calling was during a regional NAFSA conference in 2010. I attended a standing-room-only session on digital storytelling run by the Center for Digital Storytelling. I watched powerful, poignant, and moving stories created by students who shared what their study abroad experiences meant to them. I was absolutely hooked. I couldn’t get over how a two-minute video could connect me to a 19 year old woman I’d never laid eyes on; could make me feel a longing for a place I’d never visited.
As I watched the videos unfold, I recalled my own harrowing re-entry back from London in 1988. I wondered if it would have been easier had I been given an outlet to process what I’d just experienced. I began to understand the importance of creating opportunities for students to process their international experiences – their stories. By the time I finished my Master’s in Global and International Education in 2012, advances in digital media made it easy for just about anybody to create and share their own media. As they say, timing is everything.
Just last week I tried explaining my study abroad experience to a young Syracuse University archivist. Back in those days (yikes did I just say that?!), study abroad was a much less common and much more “off the grid” experience – even in a major city like London. My Syracuse University/London cohort became my family. There was no email, no Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram – no cell phones or texting. We wrote letters on feathery light blue aerogramme mailers that took 2 weeks to arrive. My main contact with home consisted of Sunday night check-ins from a phone booth on Bayswater Road (at off peak times of course). Come to think of it, my parents never even called the London center. They just trusted I would be all right…I suppose we all felt that way. My generation of college students had been born in the late 1960’s. We were mere toddlers during the Vietnam War, and our exposure to World War II consisted of black and white photos in our history books. War was something that used to happen a long time ago – before we all knew better. As a 20 year-old American college student in the 1980’s, I was part of a charmed generation that had never experienced terrorism on U.S. soil. It just didn’t happen to us.
That’s why when Pan Am flight 103 blew out of the sky with 35 of my London classmates on board, it was simply unfathomable. I watched the news in horror as photos of my friends appeared and reappeared on the nightly news. The media became a daily intruder as I returned to school for my final semester feeling depressed, confused, guilty, and angry. I walked the Syracuse campus with my SONY Walkman turned up to 10 and waded my way past reporters and TV cameras during that final semester. After what I had just experienced the world I once knew had disappeared. Neither my large university nor its small study abroad office had a template for how to help students with re-entry on any level.
A lot has changed since then, but the need for students to process and share their international experiences is vital now more than ever. I am so proud to be part of a movement of educators working to improve every facet of education abroad. This movement looks for new ways to create meaningful cross-cultural experiences through study abroad. I’ve seen the transformation in a student as they develop their own story after returning home. The act of storytelling helps one reflect, process, and make meaning of their experiences. When stories are shared globally, people have the chance to connect authentically with one another. And sometimes, maybe sometimes, common ground is discovered that transcends political, religious, or cultural differences. If you don’t believe me, watch my re-entry digital story – 25 years in the making.
We may have never met, but just like you I am my story. It just goes to show it’s never too late to figure out your passions in life, and sometimes it comes in the most surprising ways.
Pan Am 103 – A Digital Story by Tara McLarney Nygaard:
Editor’s Note: As referenced above, this post is very special to me. My sister and I grew up in the same town as Theo Cohen, who was also on that flight out of London. Meeting Tara has been incredibly healing for me, as I watched the pain that surrounded her passing impact so many people that we grew up with in New York. I also felt a strange sense of guilt that I had returned from London, safely, just several months before Pan Am 103 happened. While Theo and I were not close friends, I do believe that the way that she lived her life and our shared love of London influenced my career in global education. For that, I am grateful. May she, and all the victims of terrorism around the world, rest in peace.