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By Haleigh LeCompte
Oakhill School
Knysna, South Africa

I left the States running, searching desperately for the type of change and self-clarification that only comes as a result of being completely and utterly thrown out of the nest. I wasn’t scared, or even overly excited; I was numb, running headdown, full force into something big–something new. Crossing through security, I transcended into a state of limbo: unable to return to my family (who still stood on the other side, hopeful that I would change my mind), yet still 48 hours and four plane rides away from this “new life” I so highly anticipated. For the first time, I felt alone, isolated on the other side, trapped inside a “movie moment,” unsure of my role in the movement around me.

photo of Haleigh LeCompte at the airportAs the airplane’s wheels detached from the runway, I still nostalgically remember the first song that rang through my headphones and the lyrics that followed, “we’ll all float on… good news is on the way!” –reassurance, as small as it was, that I was headed in the right direction.

Shortly after my arrival, my host family pulled up, with windows rolled down, exclaiming, “Hallowww, my darling!” (one of the many phrases that still ring in my ears today). My host family and I spent most of the car ride laughing at each other’s accents, as they just couldn’t fathom why my voice did not mimic the “American” ones they had become so accustomed to on TV.

As we traveled towards their home, we passed miles of beaches, mountains, and grasslands! Aesthetically, South Africa exceeded all possible expectations I had prepared myself for, possessing a type of beauty that overtakes your senses. I had never seen anything remotely comparable. It was as if everything the world has to offer had been crammed into one place and I assured myself that I would spend the next five months exploring it.

My first few days with the Bodley family flew by. We took trips to the beach, had dinner at the local market, hiked scenic routes, and settled in at night to snuggle up with a cup of coffee and a late movie (soon to become a nightly tradition). To be honest, when school started the following week, I was a bit reluctant, as my vacation-style life would have to come to an end. What I wasn’t prepared for was just how much my job at Oakhill School would open my eyes to the path I knew my career needed to take.

I was working at a private, predominantly white, upper-class high school, but I quickly learned that my heart was elsewhere. Every morning during my commute, we would pass miles of broken down townships and hundreds of African students standing along the street in attempts to hitch a ride to school. The country, despite its efforts, still remains painfully segregated–a notion many South African citizens refuse to recognize. I spent several nights on the back porch discussing race, politics and equality with my host family. What I gathered from these conversations was simple, yet surprisingly profound: we all live in the same world, yet we understand it very differently.

Every day in South Africa my beliefs were challenged, my goals were reset, and my dreams were expanded; an awakening for which I have every member of my host family to thank. I was never a guest in their home but a very real member of their family. Within a couple of weeks of my arrival, my host brother became my best friend: the one with whom I laughed, cried, and did generally everything. My host sister perfectly embodied a “real” sister: the one with whom you fi ght, make up, and share secrets. As for my host parents, I have them to thank for showing me that the world is as big or small as I choose to make it.

The American lifestyle requires a sense of urgency, immediate success, and direction for one’s life. When I would speak of this “timeline” on which, at 23 years of age, I felt I was falling behind, they would both laugh and always ask the same question, “Why is it that you are in such a hurry?” Four months later, I still find myself asking this same question: where is this authoritative clock that constantly hangs over our heads, reminding us that we must decide everything now?

For years, I have spent countless hours stressing over this idea that I need to figure out who I am, what I want to do, and where I want to do it. What I learned in South Africa, is that I still have no idea…and that’s okay. When I left the States, I couldn’t begin to fathom how long fi ve months away from home would feel. What I found, however, is that home isn’t a place at all, but a state of mind. My South African home may have looked different, my family a bit larger, and the beach (thankfully) closer; but, I was loved. And I loved them right back. This sense of peace I found while living in South Africa assured me that I can make it in any part of the world.

Although my eyes have been opened to many of the world’s treasures, I could not help but notice all of its struggles and inequalities. I now know I want to devote my entire life to solving these kinds of problems. If I had not taken that chance a year ago and believed in my ability to start over in a new place, I never would have discovered my strong independence, my ingrained desire for change, or my ability to just make it.

It is because of my experience in South Africa, the wonderful family I gained, and the eye-opening job I held, that I have chosen to devote my life to the service of others, regardless of how far I may be called to do it. In an attempt to live out this epiphany, I moved to Chicago upon my return, where I began working for an educational non-profi t on the south side, partnering with urban high schools to reverse the dropout crisis that continues to plague the youth of Chicago.

Following my year in Chicago, I will be dedicating the next two years of my life to serving in the Philippines as a member of the U.S. Peace Corps, a decision entirely inspired by my time in South Africa. This decision in no way fi ts into the “timeline” I had previously allotted for my life; but, I have never been more sure of its timing. Last January, I left the States running; running from my fears, my problems, and my life’s countless ambiguities. However, this time when I cross through airport security and stop to take in the movement around me, I’ll know that I am no longer running from…I’m running to.