On the Other Side of the World

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By Arisleidy Nunez, Braven Rutgers – Newark Fellow, Student at Rutgers University – Newark

Author’s Note: Growing up with immigrant parents and realizing my parents’ courage to move forward has encouraged me to be the first in my family to attain a university degree. Being the eldest of four in a Roman Catholic home instilled a high level of responsibility in me—but at times, I’ve questioned myself, my vision, goals, and strength. I’ve had those moments in which challenges have been overwhelming and I’ve learned that the toughest battle I’ve ever fought has been with myself. But on the way to reaching my full potential, I’ve learned to face my own doubts and fears. I’ve learned to embrace challenges and challenge the status quo, preconceived notions, and stereotypes. Below, I share the story of learning one such lesson on the other side of the world. – Arisleidy

It’s the warmth of the sun kissing my lips.
It’s the cold raindrops flowing through my hair.
Home is where dignity and respect meet. Home, isn’t a place, nor a sanctuary, it’s a feeling.

Fifteen years ago my parents came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic chasing the American Dream. Two years ago, I was on a plane out of the country chasing my own passion—service. Every person goes through a pivotal moment that completely transforms them. For me, that defining moment began two years ago on that airplane. As a freshman at Rutgers University Newark, I was offered the opportunity to travel to Tanzania as part of a service-learning project. It would be a pivotal moment in my life. On May 22, 2014, I boarded a 22-hour plane ride from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Tanzania.

Arisleidy Nunez, Rutgers - Newark Braven Fellow, with children in TanzaniaI fell in love with Tanzania and its people. The magnificent Mount Kilimanjaro, the Arusha marketplaces with spices, Maasailand, the Ngorongoro Crater and the safari, Zanzibar, and Stone Town among many other sites simply blew my mind away. The various stones, in odd shapes balancing perfectly on top of each other, sprinkled throughout the countryside of Arusha were like nothing I had ever seen before. A family of elephants crossing the road undisturbed in the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area and the zebras lovingly embracing in a hug at the safari will be memories that I will cherish forever.

While in Tanzania, I engaged with a group of semi-nomadic individuals known as the Maasai. Visiting the Maasai brought a different set of challenges and experiences. The Maasai economy is highly dependent on the selling of livestock, clothing, artwork, beading, and jewelry. What the future holds for the Maasai in the face of adversity remains unclear, but their tenacity to survive difficult times, their strong identity, and the cohesive community structures are truly remarkable.

I participated in a photo-voice project to connect with the Maasai and engage with them in a way that language would have otherwise not allowed us to. I learned a bit of Swahili, but through the use of photography and visuals, I was able to connect with the Maasai even without language and attain an appreciation for their culture that otherwise would not have been possible. I am a firm believer that through the arts, we can defy several barriers–the barriers of language, poverty, time, and culture. I was humbled to experience how the arts can be used as a medium for connecting with individuals and providing benefits for society.

In spending time with the Maasai, I learned that they have maintained their rich and dynamic culture over the past years despite change and adversity. Despite being under the constant threat from pressures outside of their control, such as global warming, land rights, and modernization, the Maasai have largely been able to keep their culture and traditional way of life intact. But due to low rainfall that year, they were facing hardships surviving as subsistence semi-nomadic individuals. Many were moving to the city with hopes and expectations, only to find that their lack of education, networks, and understanding of city life limits their prospects to find work.

I heard firsthand descriptions of this through a humbling conversation with some young girls (Suffina, Serena, and Numa), about their life and education goals. Serena, a 17-year-old girl, shared with me that if she did not pass the national examinations (which are in English) her father would be forced to marry her off because the family was struggling at that time.

Arisleidy Nunez teaching a Tanzanian how to use a digital cameraI felt great empathy for Serena. I understand the transformative power of education because I have experienced it myself. Because I understand what it means to be underprivileged, I could relate to Serena and engage with the rest of the children in a profoundly respectful way. I was amazed and humbled to see the profound devotion to education that Serena had.

From interactions like these, I learned that we can achieve so much more when we take the time to listen to those around us. I learned that in trying to tackle the world’s challenges, you should listen 90% of the time, and talk 10% of that time. Hearing is a simple, passive activity. However, listening is the challenge, because it requires us to use our “ears, eyes, and heart” (Komives, Lucas, and McMahon, 2007). From my experience in Tanzania, I would say that listening is by far the most valuable quality or ability that a leader can possess. I was also able to appreciate the important role that empathy plays in leadership.

Being empathetic means “walking in someone else’s shoes and feeling their pain.” By being empathetic and showing respect for the struggles the Maasai are encountering, we became connected. Empathy, like the arts, transcends the boundaries of language, space, and time. Despite the fact that our experiences or values may differ, we are connected as human beings. Tanzania will always have a special place in my heart. Tanzania will always be home (nyumbani).

I found myself. I found my strength and voice in Tanzania. I learned that home is not a place, nor a sanctuary, but it’s a feeling. It’s where dignity and respect meet. Now, it’s my turn to pay it forward and use my voice to empower those around me to become social change agents. It’s my turn to share my experience and use my voice as a social change agent to preserve the dignity and respect of every individual. I’ve learned the power of we. Without a doubt, my voice is powerful, but collectively, our voices are unstoppable. That, to me, is what it means to be Braven.