“God, grant me the grace to accept with serenity the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” – Reinhold Niebuhr
When I think of courage, the quote above directly comes to mind. It gives me a sense of peace whilst being imbued with a spirit of activism because change requires action and courage.
Overall, courage can take on different meanings based on individual perceptions and realities. For a toddler, courage might be taking the first physical steps or uttering the first words. For a teenager, courage could be speaking in front of an audience or choosing a major that does not meet parental and societal expectations. For a refugee, it is leaving one’s country in search of a better future and quality of life, knowing that the journey will be tough but that it will make the coming decades easier for one’s family; courage, then, becomes a selfless act of love.
As human beings, we share some similar experiences to being courageous and then there are other experiences in which we diverge in our understanding of courage. Allow me to explain. We all go through toddler and teenager moments; however, not all of us might be put in situations like those of refugees or individuals living in war-torn countries. Nonetheless, that does not mean that our experiences are less meaningful.
During the last two years of my life, I have had the privilege of being in the United States to pursue my master’s program up until I recently graduated and went back to my home country, Lebanon. I say privilege because this experience has opened my eyes to the privileges in my life including the ability of seeking international education and intercultural learning. This was simultaneously one of the most courageous things I have done so far in my life. I have gone back and forth with the idea of writing about it because I have always felt that it cannot possibly be compared with other individuals’ life stories and the atrocities that they have had to face. Truth be told, I was right about one thing: it cannot and should not be compared with other individuals’ life stories and the atrocities that they have had to face. Indeed, it is my reality and whilst it might not resonate with many, it will resonate with some. In a way, I am writing the reassuring words I would have liked to read and the reflection that would have given me courage even prior to being in the United States.
I went to school for my undergraduate degree back home in Lebanon. In my home country, it is common practice for adults to keep living with their parents until they meet a significant other, get married, and move out. Some individuals even get married and continue living within the same house as their parents (different rooms, different stories in the same building, and many other configurations). In my country, the age of adulthood is mostly subjective, but many would agree that adulthood is reached once one hits the age of 18, as they are graduating from high school and transitioning to college. I used to think the same way; however, whilst my responsibilities increased in terms of studying and working during my undergraduate years, I never fully felt that I “adulted” or became an adult. Going into my third year of college, I was a finalist for a Fulbright scholarship that would allow me to pursue a M.A. in Peace and Conflict Studies in the United States. Mind you, this would not be my first visit to the United States; however, it would be my longest duration of consecutive stay, on my own. Before that, I had visited on week-long conferences and as part of a SUSI program on Religious Pluralism and Democracy which lasted for 5 weeks. Nonetheless, during all those visits including the SUSI program, I was somewhat taken care of in the sense that other individuals had planned out a schedule and were ready to assist on site with anything and everything needed. Through Fulbright (yes, I ended up getting the scholarship!), I had a support net, but it was an email away and out-of-state which gave me more room to grow, discover things for myself, and pushed me to rely on myself to find solutions to many challenges.
Fast-forwarding a few months into my master’s degree as I was sitting in the living room of my apartment waiting on the washer to beep signaling that the laundry was done and the water on the stovetop to boil. I sat thinking about life, as one does in such moments, and it was then that it dawned on me: somewhere in between renting out an apartment, paying the bills, studying, working, doing the laundry, and cooking (among other tasks), I finally felt like an adult. In that moment, I realized that adulthood was not an age to be reached, but rather a feeling and a series of moments, tasks, and actions that propel us into life. In many ways, I was (and am) the same on the inside, but different; a good different.
You see, courage, for me, was taking a leap of faith by going to a country where I did not have any family members (in the strict sense of the word) and to a state (North Carolina) where I knew no one at the very beginning. Initially, when I got the call about my scholarship, part of me was elated and the other part was downright panicking because I kept thinking to myself that I knew no one in North Carolina. As luck would have it, my journey in the United States would begin a few days after the Beirut explosion and would coincide with a global pandemic. Furthermore, I had always thought I would opt to live on campus, but ended up choosing to live off campus, close to it. It would also take my mom about 1.5 years before being able to secure a visa to visit, but she made it. It was her first ever flight and it took her 30 hours to arrive. She saw me graduate. She, too, showed tremendous courage and adaptability as well as open-mindedness in terms of allowing herself to explore the United States and its culture which was different in many ways.
A friend once told me many years ago: “courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the knowledge that there is something greater than fear” [waiting for you on the other side]. This is a variation on prior quotes by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Nelson Mandela. Somewhere, deep down, when I got that call for my Fulbright program from the US Embassy in Beirut, I felt that something great awaited in North Carolina – if I dared take a chance on it. I am happy to report back that my hunch was right on the money.
Going back to the beginning, change is not easy; it requires action, courage, and open-mindedness. Nonetheless, if we open ourselves to change, we can potentially gain so much more than what we originally put in. If you are still reading this, I hope it inspires you to either reach out to a friend studying abroad or to an international student nearby, or to even begin your own journey into international education!