This summer, I worked and traveled throughout Malawi. When people sarcastically ask if “going abroad changed me,” I laugh, mostly because it’s true. It wasn’t until I got back to Yale’s campus that I could pinpoint exactly why: I spent a lot of my time talking to strangers.
I met a variety of people: other travelers, Malawians, Zambians. One of our first trips was to Lake Malawi, and I didn’t feel the need to meet anyone new; I had three friends with me. That evening, my bubble was burst with a simple “Can I sit here?” A British surfer plopped down next to me, crowned with long blond hair. Immediately, I assumed we would never be friends, if only for the fact that he emitted a scream-like “eeeeeyaaaaa” instead of “yes” and unironically used “rad” and “cool, man!” every other sentence. What I didn’t expect, however, was an intense conversation spanning several hours and topics — from our use of social media to our thoughts on moral culpability to simply comparing our lives.
At South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, we encountered even more people. One of them was a former Israeli soldier in the midst of exploring 14 countries across the East African coast. We spoke about the connection between humans and animals, whether we had a higher purpose and our views on the Israel-Palestine conflict. There was a German student who was in Zambia researching for his thesis. He entertained us with stories from his life, one of which included his stint as a paramedic for two years. We met a Portuguese traveler who had been on 10 long trips, each longer than a year. He curiously asked me about “those fraternities” in American universities. In that way, we learned about and from one another.
In Lilongwe, I sat down at a pickup frisbee game, and the next thing I knew, I was talking to a woman who was from Zambia but went to Kenyon College in Ohio. She spoke about her experience and reverse culture shock upon coming back home. When we hiked Mount Mulanje, we learned about the life of our mountain guide: his pineapple farm, plans to expand his home and the group loan-sharing program he was in. Even in our home, we spoke to strangers. Our security guard asked us to help him practice English. So we spoke to him almost everyday, learning about his life as he learned about ours. On our last day, I met a Dutch couple who wanted to honor morality rather than capitalism through giving up material wealth.
My mom’s mantra that “you can learn something from everyone, no exceptions” was true. I learned from people who I wouldn’t have ever approached in the U.S., never mind meaningfully interacted with. But this type of learning isn’t common here at Yale. We may value knowledge, but we’re extremely selective about who we’re willing to learn from. We look to professors and other students because we’ve branded them as “smart enough” rather than discerning who has meaningful things to say. People with high GPAs and impressive resumes aren’t the only people who have ideas worth sharing. When was the last time you or I spoke to someone outside of Yale and expected them to teach you something significant about life?
I have strangers to thank for one of the greatest gifts I received this summer: my freedom, or at least my awareness of it. Yale students are diverse, but one central element to all of us is our intensity. We’re all working towards higher goals: the most prestigious clubs, majors, internships, lives. This lifestyle is so all encompassing that it’s easy to forget that Yale is the exception, rather than the norm. This summer, I met people who defined their success differently: travel, living a moral life, finding love and family or just surfing. I realized that Yale’s success is just that: one possible version of what I can aspire to. This was incredibly liberating. Although we’re often told that we’re free to make our own decisions, our actions can be heavily shaped by standards we believe have been set for us. Meeting people who challenged those expectations made me realize that we’re more free than we know.
Next time you’re in a cafe, sitting on a train or walking around, stop and look around. There are people all around you who can teach you, in moments when you least expect it. It’s merely a question of whether you’re willing to learn.
Rabhya Mehrotra is a sophomore in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .