Twenty-five years ago I stood at the end of the driveway, staring at the black tar, wondering “What will I do?” I had just opened a rejection letter from the only university I had applied to. I was a graduating senior and found myself staring at the driveway with no plan, no path, and no sense of where my life would go. (Video here.)
I should have anticipated this. I showed up for my SAT test dizzy, hungover, and with no pencil. A few years earlier my family moved from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania and I transferred into an unwelcoming high school. I never found my footing in a town where—if your great grandparents weren’t born there—you didn’t belong. A clique of teachers led this exclusion philosophy and the majority of students upheld the tradition. I felt trapped, surrounded by indifference, and craved an escape. It never occurred to me to study. I hadn’t realized school would eventually end and I’d be free to follow any path—whether prepared—or not.
To pass the long days of high school, I would skip class and hit the pavement for a long run. The driver education teacher drove past me all over town. He waved, seemed to understand, and never said anything. I also kept busy with part-time jobs. I worked at grocery stores, an ice cream shop, and retail stores at the mall. As an employee, I was instantly valued because of my work ethic. I mastered minimum wage work, but at 17 years old, my future looked bleak. I was unprepared and had failed at my first foray into adulthood.
I do not know how long I stood in the driveway that day. I remember the weight of failure on my chest. I reminded myself to breath. I was a runner, but the rejection sucked the oxygen from the air. Still, I went for a run. I ran the next day and the day after that. Something ignited as I pounded the pavement. My long runs became my motivation sessions. The weight on my chest turned into a fire in my belly. An internal alarm sounded and I heeded the call. There was no orientation or direction. No map. But I was going somewhere.
Swallowing my pride, I found my way to the university that rejected me and registered for night and summer classes. I worked three jobs to pay tuition—more retail stores, selling clothes or music, bartending, engraving jewelry and tin cups at Things Remembered—and I went to school. I took the courses that interested me.
Defining who I was and what I stood for wasn’t easy or obvious. My life’s trajectory wasn’t clear in those days. I drank too much, drove too fast, and made friends with sketchy people. Whether by the grace of God or fabulous luck, somehow, I escaped without an addiction, fatal car accident, or an STD.
Months passed and I took on more jobs and more courses until I transferred out of that school to a bigger, better university that welcomed me. Rutgers University with 40,000 students. I could have fallen off the face of the Earth those early days and not one person would have known the transfer student was gone. That didn’t matter, as moment by moment, I was building a future.
Every day was hard. When I didn’t have a class, I babysat or filed papers in a law office. I separated blood products at the New Jersey Blood Bank on second shift, loaded UPS trucks on third shift, and waitressed on weekends. Quitting school, because it was hard, never occurred to me. I was early to class, handed in assignments on time, and struggled as needed. I earned plenty of average grades. Real learning takes time and grades sometimes fail to measure progress. Still, slowly and awkwardly, I learned how to learn. I gained the confidence to march in any direction that interested me.
Once my student loans were insufficient to cover tuition costs. I was in financial trouble and in a serious panic. I looked to the sky and made an offer: “God, you get me through this and I will do any work you need me to do.”
I graduated from Rutgers University in 1995 with a double major and minor. Later that summer, I joined the U.S. Peace Corps and boarded a plane to Malawi, Africa. I found myself in what had to be hell on Earth. Based at a decrepit, poor government hospital, I was in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, surrounded by death, malnourished children, and men and women with tuberculosis, HIV and AIDS. There were no basic pharmaceuticals; never mind antiretroviral drugs, not even anesthesia for surgery. In my office, I listened to men with TB cough and choke, surgical patients scream in pain, the howling cries of women in mourning, and the silence from the malnourished children’s ward as infants quietly passed away.
I fought with everything I had but moment-by-moment, day-by-day, the AIDS epidemic broke me. The death of friends, the sickness, the hopelessness, the denial, and the odors overwhelmed me. At first I was too strong to leave and then I was too weak to stay. I had succumbed to the powerlessness, the futility, and the despair of death. I couldn’t see past the broken health system, the vast abyss of poverty, and my own failure. In a sea of self-preservation and shame, I flew home, even leaving the love of my life behind. We had met in Malawi and he was my strength when I was crumpling. He helped calm my anger and cynicism by continuing to see the good in me, while I was coming undone. Still I left.
I arrived home with a range of illnesses and a broken spirit. I had my education, but I had failed at my first endeavor. While in Malawi—numb and broken—I had stopped crying. One morning, a few weeks after returning home, I stood in front of the Donuts Delight at the mall, staring at the jelly, powdered, and chocolate donuts, and the gates opened. I shook, broke open, and cried. I wept every day. The pain seeped out in drenching tears. For a moment, I contemplated driving full speed into a brick wall. Then I went for a run. I cried, prayed, cried, ran, cried even more and kept running. As the months passed, the shame and sadness turned into anger at the world’s inequalities.
Every day I moved. I began to rebuild my life for the second time. My love joined me in the US and we married. Little by little, the anger and sadness transformed into resolve and commitment. I would somehow absorb this experience and use it to build my future. The pain could be directed, focused, channeled.
I completed my Masters of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. I took more courses at George Washington University, Boston College, Emerson College, and Tufts University. Finally, I went to Harvard University to pursue my doctorate. It came time to do my dissertation. I caught my breath, said my prayers, and boarded a plane to return to Africa. I went to Botswana, the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic where the HIV prevalence rate was 40 percent. With more education, hard won wisdom, and a commitment to social justice, children, families and good public policy, I developed an excellent dissertation. I visited orphanages, families, hospitals, and government ministries. Then I put on my running shoes and ran through the streets of Gaborone, one long stride at a time. I had absorbed the pain, and rather than break me, it fueled me. After analyzing Botswana’s child and family data and examining public policies, I suggested action steps to improve the lives of orphaned children, published the studies in peer reviewed journals, and then, ten years ago, I graduated with my doctorate.
2015 is my 25th anniversary of graduating from high school, 20 years since graduating from college and moving to Africa, and 10 years since completing my doctorate. From a kid with no future, I cultivated a satisfying, gratifying, and meaningful career. I work across the globe in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. I work within a number of sectors: agriculture, child protection, early childhood development, education, economic development, energy, health, infrastructure, mental health, poverty, social protection, and water. I give a voice to the world’s vulnerable populations and work with teams to find solutions to the most pressing problems. What I have learned in the last 25 years gives me great hope and optimism for the future.
I have seen steady progress in curbing epidemics, building essential infrastructure, and poverty reduction. From the DRC, Ethiopia, India, Liberia, and Malawi, to Armenia, Bosnia, Jordan, Palestine, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, I have witnessed the resilience of human beings. I’ve seen people rebuild after war, rebound after losing loved ones, fight like hell in the midst of poverty, and sacrifice for a child’s future. I’ve seen gardens grow in impossible conditions and watched people on the brink of death regain life. I’ve seen education systems advance, economies grow, and mortality reduced. I’ve witnessed countries becoming electrified and technology spread to the remotest of villages. I learned how to feel—but not be broken—by the world’s pain. I cultivated an unwavering commitment to the vision of a peaceful, healthy, prosperous population. Immediate pain diminished by the hope of tomorrow.
When I remember the young woman staring at the pavement or drowning in sorrow, I want to tell her “you’ll be okay” and perhaps hold her hand through the rejection and pain. Looking back, I know now that there was something in her. She knew to look to the sky, dig deep, get moving, call on faith, and keep going. One of my deepest wishes is that all young people will intuitively know how to do this. During rejection, find clarity. Let rejection tell you who you are and what you want. Let pain tell you what you won’t accept in the world. If it hurts to see, consider you might be meant to change it. Not sure how? It doesn’t matter. Try something. Take a course. Take two. Learn at your own speed and pace. Read newspapers. Keep the faith. Go where you’ve never been. Find your people. Learn. Fail. Get up. Never give up. Fail again. Learn more. Let the world break you, strengthen you, move you. Move on. Learn even more. Stand up. Breath. Run. Fly.