Reflection Project: Claire Borchers, 2019-2020

What is the Reflection Project? This summer we asked our fellowship alumni to reflect on their experiences abroad. Fellows from all six years of the fellowship told us how the fellowship has impacted them in the years or months since they returned from their travels. This is the final installment of the series. 

During my second week as a Bonderman Fellow, I checked in to a hostel in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was one of the artsy variety, on the refurbished upper floor of an old, regal building near the city center. Mural-painted walls, weathered crown moulding, a resident cat, mismatched antique décor. An unmarked front door, and requiring the premium extra few dollars per night, which tends to draw creatives and more seasoned-travelers, respectively.

Stockholm

I ate toast at the communal breakfast table next to a Swedish-German guy named Barto. He would become one of the first and greatest friends of my travels. We spent a few days exploring the city, living out Russia’s “white nights”, and talking about everything from (what he called) my inevitable “European transition,” to his enthrallment with the unpredictability of places beyond Sweden.

Amid a conversation somewhere in those St. Petersburg days was his response: “Urban Planning? Have you considered studying in Europe for that?”. I could almost hear the millisecond pause in my brain, and the ensuing inception of an idea. “Well, no…”.

I love to look back on moments like these – seemingly simple, but with hidden influence that would present itself as they rippled forward in time.

Barto and I would catch up over long bus trip WhatsApp calls as we meandered through the world on our separate paths over the following months. He would ultimately help me navigate the realm of university admissions in Europe, and reminded me of how many exciting possibilities existed for me to pursue an international chapter of life after Bonderman.

Three continents, ten months, the onset of a global pandemic, and one summer at home later, I was packing up again.

The departure looked and felt oddly similar to my departure as a Bonderman fellow about a year earlier:

A week of hard see-you-laters. A last moment with Lake Michigan. Saving the packing for the midnight quiet of my final night home. Being a dramatic weirdo about all the ‘lasts’ – the last time I’d wake up in my bed, close my bedroom door, brush my teeth at home (for an undetermined while, at least).

But it was also different. My mom and dad drove me to Chicago to catch my flight, which I sort of delusionally pretended was another childhood family road trip with my sibs missing. I had Old Faithful (my black REI backpack) plus a large suitcase and a comically gigantic bike box. I was elated to be going, but also paralyzed with fear of the impending goodbye. And I cried, hard and fast, with my mom. There were big hugs. And then dad helped us rip the band-aid off at the airport curb.

With a bit of time, space, and (in this case) good sleep courtesy of a whole row of airplane seats to myself – it got easier. That, and because (as with Bonderman) I was sure about what I was leaving for.

Last week, I started my MS in Sustainable Urban Planning & Design at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. So far, so good.

Aside from studies, it’s been so sweet to explore a new city knowing my commitment to it as “home” for the next two years. Bonderman helped me realize I was ready for that – although I thrived on the on-the-go nature of the fellowship, I couldn’t help gradually slowing pace as the months went on. I craved connection, and when I found it, it was even harder to move on. It made me ready for this chapter of rooting down and continuing my education, and made me prioritize doing so in a more global environment.

First day of class

So a window into this world? Stockholm really is freakishly utopian upon arrival:

The visibly diverse population living here. The apps to buy discounted surplus food. The abundance of bike parking, the sleek metro. The eight categories of recycling. The modest but practical design. The laws that generously encourage a person coming to study in Sweden to bring their partner and young kids along. The urban density that’s somehow also intermixed with an abundance of forests and parks.

In the mornings I run in the woods that border campus on crushed-cinder paths – part of an extensive pedestrian and cycling network. I pass mothers pushing strollers, people commuting to work, and one of the big urban gardens, which looks like a collection of about 100 (rentable) hobbit garden sheds nestled into a vibrant eden. It’s pretty tranquil here, and as statistics say, safe too.

The other day, I took the commuter tram to visit Barto; he was home from Berlin visiting family in the northern suburbs of Stockholm. I texted him on my way. “Can I eat an apple on the tram?” He thought so, but wasn’t certain. “Take a few bites and look around to see if anyone gives you a weird look.” The Swedish public has a way of letting people know where the unofficial social boundaries lie.

We caught up over some wine, canned herring in mustard sauce (a Swedish staple, apparently), grainy bread, incredible cheese, and homemade dill pickles. We chatted with his family, told some good stories, and raised a glass to this wonderfully serendipitous life.

“Skål”

Barto and Claire
Urban garden near Claire’s home

 

Reflection Project: Alexis Jones, 2018-19

What is the Reflection Project? This summer we asked our fellowship alumni to reflect on their experiences abroad. Fellows from all six years of the fellowship told us how the fellowship has impacted them in the years or months since they returned from their travels. 

I remember walking around the Greek Island of Lesvos thinking about what post-Bonderman life would be like. Even though I had told myself I would figure things out when I got home, it was hard not to think about what the future would hold, especially as the end of Bonderman approached. In those last couple of months, the thought of applying to medical school popped into my head more than I had wanted it to, but each time it did, I would ask myself “is this really what you want to do.” Each time the answer was the same.

When I finally began the application process, I had come to the realization that I didn’t just want an MD I also wanted a Masters of Public Health (MPH). Reflecting on my pre-Bonderman and Bonderman experiences had allowed me to finally connect all the dots. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how public health focused I was, but the decision to pursue an MPH seemed inevitable.

The application process was not at all what I had expected it to be and neither was this second gap year, but I have used the skills I learned in Bonderman daily whether knowingly or unknowingly.

Before and during Bonderman, I never planned. I had decided early on that I just wanted to see where my travels took me and left for Brazil with very little idea of where I would be in a week, a month, or a year. It seemed so easy to just blindly trust that things would work out. Coming home made it hard to maintain this mindset. Many of my friends were celebrating job anniversaries and planning their next career steps; meanwhile, I had yet to figure out what my first step was. I oftentimes felt behind. It wasn’t so easy to just trust that things would work out anymore. Not planning and learning to take things as they come helped me take a step back and seriously evaluate each possible path forward. As different opportunities arose, I felt confident that no matter what I chose, it would be the right choice.

In my opinion, Bonderman is the definition of uncertainty, and 2020 has been nothing less than uncertain. From the uncertainty in my own life to the uncertainty in the world, I have become accustomed with sitting with that. While neither of these uncertainties have been fun, I have the skillset to cope with that. Every day of Bonderman was uncertain in its own way, and learning how to manage that has proven invaluable. Even when I made a decision about what my next step would be, it came with its own set of uncertainties, but that is something I have come to expect now. It no longer seems as daunting and, in some ways, brings some excitement.

I wrote the first half of this post back in June, but some part of me wouldn’t let me finish it. I don’t know exactly why, but I guess I knew there was some part of the story that was still left to be told. This past weekend, I attended my white coat ceremony for my MD/MPH program. As I sat there taking it all in, I couldn’t help but think about Bonderman and how I ended up here. All the dots had finally connected.

The Bonderman Fellowship will take me a lifetime to fully comprehend. It is so much more than 8 months, and it is the reason that I am pursuing an MD/MPH. It has set me on a path I never foresaw, but a path that feels nothing but right.

Reflection Project: Chetali Jain, 2018-19

What is the Reflection Project? This summer we asked our fellowship alumni to reflect on their experiences abroad. Fellows from all six years of the fellowship told us how the fellowship has impacted them in the years or months since they returned from their travels. 

[Originally written April 13th, 2020 in this blog post. Read her past posts for more context on the injury she sustained at the end of her fellowship]

I know it seems odd to have finished the blog for my Bonderman journey in the year after it “ended.” This past year has been extremely illuminating, and revisiting it in this post and the last sometimes felt like re-lacerating things that were already processed, healed, and moved on from — which might explain why it took so long to complete. One way or another, I wanted to finish what I started in this blog, and even though the timeline hasn’t been conventional, I think that’s kind of the point. I didn’t include a ton of material from that time because I think it is important not to be narcissistic about one’s pain, and because the fact that it was highly unsoothing comes across through what’s there.

Grateful for the simple act of putting my arm above my head, something that seemed inconceivable about a year ago when I broke my collarbone while abroad.

This past year has been an exercise in resilience of the body and mind for me. I’m happy to report that I can resume normal activity, swim, climb, and do >15 push-ups once more — my ear is fine, too. Ernest Hemingway wrote that we are strong at the broken places. After being broken down and built back up, I feel the truth of those words in my bones.

Looking back now, I still don’t think it’s authentic to euphemize any of that period. It was an experience, possessed. Practically demonic in its hellacious-ness (there is a ‘however’ though). However, perhaps such a jarring juxtaposition of conditions was necessary to invoke the growth and understanding I was aiming for in myself. Of course, it is easy to say this with the perspective of being a year removed from the incident and with my health restored. The point is, there were silver linings to dispel the darkness of the nightmare.

I got a new family. My mom’s uncle and aunt in Mumbai opened their spacious and beautiful home to me, and I was able to spend the month of recovery there. They told me I could call them nani and nana which means grandma and grandpa since I don’t have living grandparents. I got to do the whole “grandparent” thing because of them which was cool and something I never thought I’d get to experience. Almost every day, my great aunt would bring up the fall/breaking my collarbone and make fun of me mercilessly which was refreshing. They also had a brilliant chef who would cook whatever I wanted including garlic naan and mango lassis and sabjis made from vegetables fresh from the farms my surrogate grandparents own. Their house is close to the beach, so I went for walks there when I was feeling up to it. I got close with my mom’s cousins and their kids, as well because they visited so often. I wouldn’t have otherwise gotten this extended family.

Getting to put substance behind my words. Prior to my Bonderman departure in 2018, I wrote this haiku for CGIS:

There is only now
Peaks or trenches, no flatlines
Don’t lose your passport

Well this was a trench, and I had to face that if I believed in my own words. After all, what’s the point if you’re not feeling to the fullest of your capabilities, giving everything moment-to-moment? I’m not recommending or wishing that anyone else has to go through something like this, but when or if vicissitude strikes, it’s not insurmountable and if you let it, it will make you better.

It’s like I was tested in extreme ways so I could not just say the things I say but actually live by them. I truly believe you have to experience things (whether it be thrilling changes or soul-crushing stagnancy) in order to really know. For example, saying that “nothing lasts forever” is different than understanding/accepting it. Experiences like this helped me understand this, feel it in my newly healed bones.

Love of my family. I’m so appreciative of my family and friends. Everyone who matters in my life was there for me. I got to see how loved I was, and I’m thankful for that.

Freedom. I’ve read that having “freedom” (no responsibilities) can be illuminating: can we be the person we want to be when nothing is stopping us? When there’s no external pressure, are we who we think we are? The cognitive dissonance that arises when there’s a mismatch can make it seem that freedom is revealing.

But I define it differently. Freedom isn’t the absence of obstacles or obligations; it isn’t a mirror. It’s the ability to be in control of your mind, be who you want to be, even when it seems impossible to do so. Freedom to me is being that person regardless of what’s happening around or inside you. It’s liberation from being swayed and controlled by your surroundings and circumstances, your external or internal environments.

Whether things are easy or hard, am I in control of my mind and my self? That to me marks true freedom. Going through what felt like total physical annihilation — and the stormy emotional climate it created — brought me closer to that level of equanimity. Life seems smaller, more manageable now. The world not so impossibly mysterious. It’s not this perfect sense of serenity, but it’s closer to it than I would’ve been if I had only had easy, non-painful experiences up till this point. I don’t feel as attached to the idea of perfection, guarantees, plans, or permanence anymore — and far from being sad, I find this to be a very soothing and healthy mindset. I’m sure there will be awful and amazing things down the road for me, but maybe I can handle it all better now.

Goodbye. I thank the Bonderman Fellowship with complete sincerity for all of it. Reflecting like this makes me consider what Bonderman isn’t: it’s not $20,000, or month 1 through month 8 of a fellowship, or pretty pictures and heartfelt captions posted on Instagram. Bonderman is a spirit with which you lead your life, through all the upheaval and upliftment alike.

Reflection Project: Kelly O’Donnel, 2017-18

What is the Reflection Project? This summer we asked our fellowship alumni to reflect on their experiences abroad. Fellows from all six years of the fellowship told us how the fellowship has impacted them in the years or months since they returned from their travels. 

 

“One big question we get asked as fellowship advisors is what happens to the fellows after they finish the Bonderman. So I wanted to pose these questions to you all: Since the end of your fellowships, what have you been up to? How did the Bonderman influence decisions you made? What impact did it leave on you?”

This email appears in my inbox, and my mind starts spinning. I’m amused because the only truthful answer is this; I’m still figuring it out.

For me, Bonderman was a wild vacuum of new experiences, trials, and opportunities that presented themselves in such rapid succession that there rarely existed time to digest their impact. In many ways, I was operating in survival mode; so much of my mental capacity focused on acquiring and applying the skills needed to get by in constantly evolving circumstances, I couldn’t stop and reflect on the lessons those circumstances had imparted upon me. Which is why I’m unfathomably grateful that I journaled, documenting almost every day of the experience. It has been absolutely invaluable to reflect upon those entries, and I’ve made it a point to read back over my writings on their respective calendar dates of entry in the two years since. I find that the way those experiences affect me change over time, as I reprocess them in the context of my changing life. The growth I’ve experienced as a result of Bonderman has largely occurred in the days, months, years since I returned to the United States, with time to ruminate and decide how to integrate 9 months worth of intense experiences into the rest of my lifetime. And despite the fact that I’ve been back to ‘normal’ life for nearly two years, I feel that I’m still in the early stages of understanding the impact that Bonderman has had on who I am as a person, and how it has (and will continue to) influence my path.

First day of Bonderman Fellowship, Batticaloa Sri Lanka. I spent several weeks learning about creative arts rehabilitative resilience programs for children impacted by the trauma of civil war and tsunami.

Each person who embarks upon it has a distinctly unique experience of the fellowship; my fellowship, as it relates to my career, was largely confirmatory of my passions. I entered into the journey interested in learning more about psychosocial adaptation in communities in the developing world affected by traumatic events; war, famine, drought, natural disasters. My travels throughout South Asia and the Middle East in particular ignited a fire within me to continue this work, and when I returned to the US I began volunteering in various capacities with several nonprofits working with refugees and immigrants, both internationally in camp settings and in my own neighborhood through resettlement programs. I gained a passion for examining the impact of culture on psychopathology, and a framework through which to better understand global issues of migration, politics, and human rights. Cumulatively, these experiences led me to apply to doctoral programs in clinical trauma-focused psychology; and in February 2020, I was fortunate enough to gain acceptance to my dream PhD program. 

Being overseas for 9 months ultimately provided an incredible opportunity to redefine my life upon return. I returned to the United States with a completely blank slate, and got to asking myself the hard questions; Where do you want to be? Who do you want to be? And as I thought long and hard about how I wanted to build up from ground zero, I realized that the answer was obvious. I had never felt greater joy than among the peaks of the high Himalaya, steeped in a culture of mountaineering and immersed in the beauty of the natural world. So when I thought about where I would be happiest, where I could live a life of recreational passion, Colorado was the clearest choice. I spent a lot of time thinking about the kind of life I wanted to lead in Colorado, and the values from Bonderman that I wanted to incorporate. Beyond my professional commitment to global mental health, I had also gained a great respect for the interconnectedness of the planet that I wanted to remain mindful of in my day-to-day choices. I decided to adopt a plant-based diet for this reason, being cognizant of the impact that my meat-eating habits had on the ecosystems of the world, the public health of communities living near factory farm facilities, and geopolitical, economic, and social issues tied to animal product consumption. Having my eyes opened to so many intricacies of the planet brought a sense of responsibility to align my behavior more ethically; to care more about recycling, to pay harder attention to the representatives I was electing with every vote, and to be extremely humble about how completely imperfect I am.

Friends made on Bonderman came to visit me in 2019, and I was able to take them on a 2-week road trip throughout the USA!

I could go on and on about the way Bonderman has shaped my life since, how I’ve grown as a result of those 9 months overseas. I’m far more independent now; Bonderman taught me that being solo should never be a limitation, and I’m so grateful for that. I don’t know anyone else who would take international vacations alone, or embark on a weekend backpacking trip in the Rockies with only a novel and a can of bear spray for company. It taught me to be proud of that; that being capable of being independent isn’t weird; it’s strong. I’m far more introspective now, and I’ve learned to be proud of that too; while friends chide me for being ‘too reflective’ or ‘too emotional,’ I know how much bravery it takes to look deep into the mirror and think critically about your strengths, your flaws, your biases, your opinions, and why you’re thinking that way at all. I suppose that overall, Bonderman abolished my naivete and my willingness to be complacent. It showed me that I could be a better me, and that the world truly needs better humans. Thinking about how I can grow and better accommodate the needs of my local and global community has become a top priority, knowing that I will fail time and time again and it will be painful; but that that growth is more important than my discomfort. It is in this way that Bonderman has made my life a lot harder; it put my privilege in the spotlight, and demanded that I use it. I was given an unbelievable opportunity that most will never have, and I feel a sense of obligation to honor the things I learned, the voices that were shared with me. 

Bonderman pushed me to be better and to work harder, and I love that. It means that I am very very tired most of the time, but for good reason. Other fellows have more articulately described how the fellowship teaches you that the greatest limitations in life are the ones you put on yourself; and it feels so good every time I smash through one of those self-imposed limitations. It leads me to believe that I’m capable of so much more than who I am and what I do right now, and that promise inspires me. 

When I think back to my application essay 3.5 years ago, I recall needing to establish two objectives for my fellowship: firstly, that Bonderman would facilitate my personal and professional growth. And secondly, that that growth would in turn be beneficial for the world. I am undoubtedly a better person because of Bonderman. In regards to how I can use the experience to make positive change in the world around me; I’m still learning how best to do that, but I know that I am well on my way. For that, I am endlessly grateful. 

Reflection Project: Mackenzie McIntyre, 2016-17

It took me three months, seven “hey just checking up on you” reminder emails, and an immense amount of emotional labor to write this blog.

The issue with writing this blog wasn’t that I didn’t know what I had learned. I can list a dozen facts I learned, two dozen skills I practiced, and at least three dozen versions of myself I lived during those short (yet long?) 9 months.

No, the issue is that I have absolutely no idea when any of that happened, why it happened, or how it happened.

It’s something you’ll learn quickly after first leaving: a lot of things simply ​happen​ to you. Sometimes, you’ll know exactly what happened and and when, so you’ll grab your pen and write a blog all your friends and family will read.

And then sometimes, you won’t even realize you’re changing until you no longer fit into the old version of your life. And that’s a lot harder to write, much less publish.

I’m still figuring out this person Bonderman produced. This sounds absurd, but the person I am now is so much ​me​, that I can’t tell you at all who she is. I can only tell you who she was before she left.

She was white. She was queer. She was female. She was not a very good cook, but she was an excellent dinner guest.

But now who is she?

That’s the weird part. I am still all of those things. Yet, I’m somehow… different?

I came home white to a country that still gives me more because of that. I came home queer to political parties that still fight about that. I came home female to a patriarchy that still hates that.

It’s as if I kept all of those labels (because you have to — this world doesn’t let you forget your labels), but shapeshifted underneath them. Everyone still cared about my identities, but only I cared about the community inside myself where all those identities live.

And that’s the only way I can describe to you how Bonderman impacted me — it taught me how to be a community both inside and outside of myself.

It didn’t teach me how to be alone. It taught me how to be ​together, ​both in a crowd and in solitude. And that’s an active lesson, because it needs to be taught over and over again every single day, by practicing the three things necessary to surviving Bonderman:

  1. How to listen.
  2. How to trust.
  3. . How to change.

So first, I learned to ​listen​ by starting off my travels believing that this was finally my moment to not listen at all.

I thought, “I am the only one telling me to do anything!” For once, I didn’t have to listen to anyone’s advice on how to live my own life. I thought that Bonderman was a time for me to do absolutely anything I wanted to do for no other reason than that I wanted to do it. Only I was informing my decisions now.

What a gross misunderstanding of the intent of the Bonderman Fellowship! The idea that I, a queer, white, American woman, could prance into unknown territory and welcome myself into other people’s culture and livelihoods while listening only to myself doesn’t make me a traveler, it makes me am imperialistic self-promoter.

When you’re a guest within someone else’s culture, you don’t call the shots. You listen and you follow. My travels weren’t about not letting anyone tell me what to do. They were precisely about other people telling me how to exist inside their world without causing harm to them, their space, and their culture.

But you can’t stop at listening. What was the point of listening if you don’t follow the voice?

This meant that I had a moral obligation to ​trust​ that when I listened to someone describe their life to me, that’s exactly how their life really exists.

This is where Bonderman most questioned what I learned in college. In school, you are trained to always receive information with scrutiny. To fact-check, cite, dismantle, organize, and sift.

But Bonderman taught me that it shouldn’t always be that way when the information you are receiving is the existence of another human being. That very same scrutiny we apply when deciding whether the most recent internet meme contains factual information or not does not get to decide the humanity or identity of another person.

When you are an outsider, you have to blindly trust that when a community or a person is speaking to you, they are telling you their truth. Their world exists outside of you. They exist exactly the way they say they do, regardless of how you perceive or believe them. It’s not up for discussion.

And only they know how to survive in their world, which, when traveling, also happens to be the foreign world you just stepped into. So you trust them. Because that’s the only way to approach an unfamiliar place — by trusting those familiar with it.

This brings me to my final lesson: how to ​change.​ The really cool thing about this one is that if you’ve done the above two things, you’ve been changing all along.

If you learn how to listen to others and how to trust their perception of the world, you’ll also begin changing what you believe. And when you change what you believe, you change who you are.

Honestly, the Bonderman Fellowship is just a neverending lesson in fluidity. It’s sitting in Boston, three years later, as an epidemiology graduate student in a run-down, over-priced apartment, still wondering what lessons Bonderman taught me and how the heck I even learned them. It’s struggling to write a cohesive blog post because I can’t put into words the results that follow from listening, trusting, and changing.

And that’s because it never stops. If I were to write this blog next year, it would be totally different. And that’s because between then and now, I will have done a whole lot of listening and a whole lot of trusting.

This brings me full circle: Bonderman didn’t teach me how to be alone, it taught me how to ​not be alone.

What I only realized just now is that becoming a good community member means I have also created a community within myself. The reason I can be at peace while all alone is because I treat my mind and soul as a community gathering of all of my identities. I listen to them, trust them, and allow them to change my world.

Traveling to unfamiliar places taught me that in order to survive, there needs to be one place in the entire world where I am completely and utterly at home, and that’s within myself. I am my own community.

I’ve come to the end of this blog, and if it seems messy, that’s because it is. It’s disjointed, unfinished, and endlessly contradictory — just like travel.

The really cool thing about traveling is that you don’t have to know who you are. You don’t have to know who you’ve been or who you’re going to be. You don’t even need to know where you’ll be going.

You just need to know ​where you currently are​ and ​who you are currently with.​ And then you need to trust that the rest will come together one day.

Good luck. Have fun. And don’t forget to wear your seatbelts!

Reflection Project: Scott Haber, 2016-17

What is the Reflection Project? This summer we asked our fellowship alumni to reflect on their experiences abroad. Fellows from all six years of the fellowship told us how the fellowship has impacted them in the years or months since they returned from their travels. 

Leaving for the Bonderman Fellowship, I was an odd mix: part biomedical engineer and entrepreneur, part meditation practitioner, and mindfulness teacher. On the orthodox end, I was fresh off a master’s degree with a nationally acclaimed medical device to show for my work. On the heterodox end, I was teaching mindfulness to gym and corporations, taking myriad courses under the suspect label of “nature-based mindfulness” and “deep spiritual ecology” and spending countless hours alone in the arboretum. The culturally valued side of me wanted to run with entrepreneurship – and just about everything around me reinforced that pole. Using the grit of entrepreneurship to advance modern medicine, how could I go wrong? Yet, there was something about studying my mind and sharing self-inquiry practices that clicked in a way that I had never experienced while giving a product presentation. It was like I had two different shoes. The former I had to force on, and even though it felt a little clunky to walk in, everyone told me how great it looked. While the other sneaker I could slip on without untying the laces, but it often prompted wide-eyed looks of bewilderment. Split evenly between two diametrically opposed poles, enter the Bonderman fellowship – I hoped it would provide some answers, or at least minimize some of my questions. 

When I left home, a predictable thing happened. The normal reinforcing circumstances of culture that had been a ubiquitous pressure across my life vanished. There were no longer teachers telling me what to study, assignments with the questions already built-in, friends passing along trendy memes, or parents in my ears with the typical “shoulds” and “shouldnt’s.” The story that I became accustomed to telling people – an elevator pitch of what I was working on and why I should be valued – completely dropped away. That’s the funny thing about travel: the past and the future suddenly become weightless. You only have so many moments with the people and places you encounter. Who you were in the past or who you want to be in the future, takes the back seat to who you are in this moment. And, more and more, the person I was showing up as was not someone who gave much thought to medical devices or thermal dynamics.  

Less predictable was not what was being subtracted from my life, but what was being added in. As I adapted to traveling to unknown external worlds, my inner world was also shifting to an unknown domain. I became fascinated with subtle psychological differences between cultures, which led me to ask questions: Why do some cultures hold others’ eye contact, while others routinely struggled to look at their friends across the dinner table? Why did city-goers appear to be in a rush, while families in the Cambodian countryside would sit on their porch for the better part of a day, without any preoccupation with time? Why did cultures with less, appear to have more? I didn’t realize at the time, but these questions were all bound to a central theme: How do our external worlds shape our internal worlds? 

 In academia and entrepreneurship, I was accustomed to questions being tethered to results. Assignments came with grades, prototyping was accompanied by measurable data, pitch decks resulted in funding, and years of academia gave way to a flashy degree. But the questions I was now asking weren’t tied to some end result. I simply loved the process of asking the questions themselves, for no other reason besides that they lingered in my psyche, slowly helping me better understand myself, the world around me, and how those two continually intertwined.  

 Hindsight makes a picture seem clear as day. It would seem evident that after months of this inquiry, I would inevitably want to share my observations. But this transition was anything but natural or inevitable. I left home as a deplorable writer (I had to enlist an army to assist me in drafting and redrafting my fellowship essay, sorry advisors.) But as the days passed on the fellowship, I started to fall in love with writing. Poetry, blog posts, long-form essays, you name it; I wasn’t any good, but it didn’t matter. I would write in whatever form felt natural and send my musings to anyone willing to read. And those who knew me best were shocked to learn that there was someone inside of me who could string together coherent sentences. To compound matters, I was gifted with a camera for my birthday. Before I knew it, I was a full-fledged, novice storyteller, spending my days wandering cities and countrysides, with music in my ear, camera around my neck, journal in my pocket, and nothing but time and space to explore.  

People say that travel changes you. I say travel makes you more you. Imagine you had a whole day to yourself. You can do anything you want, with anyone you want, anywhere you want. Now repeat this process every day for the better part of the year. At the end of the year, what would you be interested in? How would your perspective change? Who would you become? 

 The process of becoming – at least through my experience of travel – is two-fold. First, it’s getting used to what’s not there: family, schools, friends, etc. – all the familiar constructs that have become intertwined with our identity across a lifetime. After the initial dissolution of the familiar, the next question is: what remains? What thoughts linger? Where do your observations and gaze regularly visit? How do you elect to spend your time without being told how to pass it? I contend the pieces that remain are the more authentic version of you: it’s the you that is unencumbered by cultural impositions, whose been there all along, lying dormant, just waiting to be rediscovered. 

So what advice would I give to prospective Bonderman fellows? The first piece of advice is openness. Travel most serves those willing to internally travel. Are you open to explore unknown parts of your being? Are you okay with letting go of prefigured ideas, perspectives, and aspirations? Are you willing to go through the messy work of finding how you like to pass your time without anyone else there to instruct you on how to pass it? While I believe travel has riches to offer all, those who hold the least tight grip on preconceived ideas stand to bear the richest fruit. This fellowship can form those who are willing to be unformed.

 The second piece of advice is courage. Traveling isn’t just about just “finding yourself,” but accepting the person that you are becoming. You may encounter new (or old) parts of yourself, and those parts may not be valued or supported by your pre-existing social structures. You may find the work you want to do, is not work that is economically incentivized. With the temptations and habits of home, you may struggle to remain connected to the person you felt you were abroad. Everyone prepares you for leaving, but few will prepare you to come home. The most challenging country I ever went to was returning to my own.

To be truthful coming home is something that I am still getting my bearings with – something that I am not sure I can put into words here. How can I explain what it feels like to go from having absolute freedom and agency, to living in a room in your mother’s suburban home? I remember giving a presentation to prospective Bonderman fellows, and one of them asked me, “what’s it like to come home?” For many awkward moments, the only answer I could muster was silence. 

Interviewing Ray Dalio

Reintegration is a challenge that has no easy answers and no quick fixes. For me, acceptance comes in waves. There are days where I feel entirely at peace with the journey, and others where I am overcome with waves of nostalgia for my itinerant past. Judging from conversations with other returned fellows, it’s something we all experience, and maybe something you never really come to full terms with. Rather, it’s an ongoing process of integration and detachment, remembering and forgetting. But it’s all part of the program, as Jack Kornfield says, Laundry after the Ecstasy. 

I’d like to discuss this matter of coming home in more depth, but I have a ways to go in terms of organizing my thoughts on the topic. Regardless of the difficulties with coming back, no matter the offer, I wouldn’t trade in the experience. Since the fellowship, my life has taken on a character that would be unrecognizable to the person who left 4 years ago – a person that I am proud to tout. There’s the interesting stuff: playing semi-professional basketball and working as a freelance photographer in Bolivia, covering events as an investigative journalist, and interviewing people like Ray Dalio, Eckhart Tolle, and Gary Vaynerchuck. There’s purely financial stuff: working as an essay specialist for Chinese students applying to American universities, spending summers landscaping, and working the front counter at a local market. And then there’s the work that lights me up: teaching people meditation and holding nature-based mindfulness retreats, and, whenever the mystical intersection of free time and inspiration appears, writing a book. 

Remember those questions I was asking about psychological differences across cultures? Well, they never went away. My work has become resolving those questions in a way that makes sense to others. In other words, writing a book. On the most meta-level, the book addresses how modernity conditions away our innate sense of well-being and how it can – or given our existential crisis- how it has to condition people to create a more whole population. I hope if there’s anything you take away from my process, it’s that the stuff which sticks is the stuff that matters. 

When I take a step back and read all this aloud, I have to admit, I get a little timid. Storytelling? Writing a book? Since when did I become that person? I must be out of my mind. But then again, anyone who does this fellowship is, necessarily, a little out of their mind.

Travel in Zanzibar post-Bonderman

Reflection Project: Dillon Kim Sanchez, 2016-17

What is the Reflection Project? This summer we asked our fellowship alumni to reflect on their experiences abroad. Fellows from all six years of the fellowship told us how the fellowship has impacted them in the years or months since they returned from their travels. 

Its undeniably hot. The air is dry and still except for the heat that seems to radiate off the earth and cement. I look out my window to the cacti covered mountainside, shaded sporadically by the green-barked palo verde trees; the mountain is set against a brilliantly blue Arizona sky. It is the same expansive southwest sky that I looked at four years ago before I left the US for the first time. How many miles have been between then and now? How many moments of reflecting upon the strange places I landed? How many worlds have I walked in and out of? Whatever started with the Bonderman has certainly not ended. It has catapulted me onto a path that continues to bewilder me, it continues to propel me; it has been the engine to my insatiable propensity for movement.

One of the best diners I have ever had, on the hill top above the Kali Gandaki

The Bonderman brought me back home to the Americas with the sensation of rounding a familiar corner or cresting a friendly hill to old vista that is etched in one’s memory. As undoubtedly that I was home, the Bonderman gave me something else: something that I had set out looking for. In the fall of 2015, I had written in my application to the fellowship that my purpose of leaving on the Bonderman would be to find a home wherever my head lay and my feet rest; I was tired of becoming used to being “America’s other.” Indeed, that is what I did and what I have continued to do since. From the hills of northern California, the highways crisscrossing the Mojave, the galactic interchange of D.F, the pine studded valley which nestled a horse ranch in Chichihuestan, and back across the haunted and beautiful Sonoran desert- After the Bonderman I have found home time and time again. And I could not keep still. Since the beginning of the Bonderman until just this past Fall I had not stayed in a town for more than three months. But from all the people and places I came to know, I began to feel a deep sense of focus, purpose, and drive that has pushed back to school.

In the most remote patches of mesquite and chapparal, saguaro and ocotillo there are bodies decomposing in the harsh Sonoran sun in Southern Arizona; there are drones and helicopters, checkpoints and soldiers. There are bones of loved ones that will never be found. I have seen some of the most wretched and unbelievable things, not when I was abroad on the Bonderman, but after returning home and volunteering with No More Deaths in the Sonoran desert and in Tijuana-San Diego from the winter of 2018 through the spring and summer of 2019. I witnessed the most remarkable and humble acts of courage by men, women, and children of all walks of life who sought a better life; who dared to traverse the international line that separates the north from the south. Upon traveling across the US-Mexico border from indigenous protests to indigenous protest, upon witnessing the barbarity of US border militarization I came to see a cross section of this continent. Like an x-ray of a living organism, the blood, bones, tissue, and muscles all could be seen operating in unison. It was trade policy, resource extraction, labor policy, the political economies on a continental scale intermeshed with the legacies of indigenous genocides and settler colonial institutions, all contradicted by the promise of republican democratic principles; but what was I to do?

On the banks of the rio bravo/ rio grande, in the town my great grandfather was born in in Coahuila, Mexico the night before I crossed on foot the same bridge he did in 1917, 100 years before me.

I saw the genius of community organizers, the compassion and the skill, the daily sacrifices of healing and galvanizing communities to fight historical oppression. But I know I could not dedicate my heart to that sort of work. My pieces did not fit that puzzle and for whatever reason they do in another world. I am pursuing a dual degree at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and at the University of Arizona College of Law in a master’s in international relations and a JD as a Williams Achievement and Huerta Scholar. The dual degree between professional schools on the opposite sides of the continent certainly is a plus for me. It keeps a little distance below my feet.

I’m working tirelessly on UN reports ranging from topics on indigenous rights to migrant children in detention, I’ve gotten to know and I’m working closely with some of the most interesting and inspiring professors in international law and human rights. I feel fortunate to say that while I do not know exactly where I am going, I certainly know that I am not going to stop moving anytime soon. I have the Bonderman to thank for that.

-Menlo Park, Tucson

Reflection Project: Harleen Kaur, 2015-16

What is the Reflection Project? This summer we asked our fellowship alumni to reflect on their experiences abroad. Fellows from all six years of the fellowship told us how the fellowship has impacted them in the years or months since they returned from their travels. 

It’s peculiar to look back on a time of constant movement from a time of forced stillness. And yet, it is more curious that my time as a Bonderman Fellow is finding more resonance now than ever before. Perhaps it is the quietest echoes of my travels that I find again in quarantine—despite the constant movement, there is also an underlying stillness. While the world swirls around our temporary shelters (at least for those of us who are privileged enough to be in a safe and healthy place), there is an odd quiet that seems to be punctured only by fresh waves of uncertainty crashing into the shoreline of our consciousness.

As a Bonderman Fellow, I was constantly reminded of the fleeting nature of our lives as deep, life-changing connections were separated through physical distance again and again. Many long-term backpackers talk about this dual nature of travel; no matter how long I stayed in a place, a few hours or months, I was always aware that, just beyond the stillness, movement would come again. Even now, I am thinking about all the ways our lives revolve around iterations of movement and stillness, and our need to remain grounded in both and assured by the permanence of neither.

***

Becoming a Bonderman Fellow felt like the most appropriate way to transition from the first stage of my life into the second. A way to completely untangle and unravel all the certainties that had been built up throughout my upbringing. While I applied to Bonderman to broaden my U.S.-centric perspective on policy and legal reform centered on immigrant communities, I quickly learned how drastically my upbringing and education within the U.S. had limited how I could imagine liberation. The more I traveled, the more I became unsettled, not just physically, but mentally. Although I was born and raised in the U.S., I found myself “belonging” more in places with which I had zero connection, often passing as part of the diaspora or native-born. I felt the safest I had ever felt in my life. This sense of belonging and safety was one I had never experienced until the age of 22 and… it completely terrified me.

Until then, I had been able to claim a distance from the responsibility for injustices I recognized in the U.S. because I knew I did not belong, so the burden of these legacies of oppression did not belong to me. This safe distance from the oppressor side of injustice had driven years of activism, culminating during my undergrad, and only served to fuel a one-sided victim narrative of oppression, particularly as a dastaar-wearing, woman of color from an immigrant family who had never felt her humanity validated in mainstream spaces. Yet, as I was “outed” as American throughout my travels, I was left reckoning with something that had not come up in my years of activism—the privilege I gained as an American while simultaneously facing various levels of oppression from the same system (and, as I would continue with my learning, the privileges gained as a non-Black, non-Indigenous U.S. citizen).

During a summer internship in Manhattan, I attended a press conference for CAIR-NY’s law suit against the NYPD’s unregulated and unlawful surveillance of Muslim communities and families in the NY/NJ area.

Understanding the depth of my social location for the first time through a global context, rather than a local one, made a few realities quite clear: (1) we have a necessary and urgent responsibility to treat each person as fully human because our destiny is a collective one and (2) every institutional system and structure we interact with is fully rooted in ensuring we forget this. Whether it was discussing with local activists in Cochabamba, Bolivia the worsening global conditions a (at that time potential) Trump presidency would bring or witnessing the present-day impact of colonial violence across Asia through mass poverty and destruction of natural resources, Bonderman taught me that our collective fate as a global community was indisputable. What was more doubtful was whether we could commit to the decades of (un)learning, dismantling, and rebuilding it would take to co-create a world free from these inter-generational burdens.

To further develop this framework and potential solutions post-Bonderman (the only frame I can see my life with now), I entered a new relationship with movement and stillness. Starting a PhD in Sociology at UCLA, I began to study how my own Sikh Punjabi diaspora had rooted its sense of belonging in a selective remembering of the trauma experienced across time and place, severely limiting our capacity to imagine liberation outside the frameworks imposed on us by various permutations of structural violence. Moving beyond this survival mode is not simply an academic project; in moments like this, we can and must feel the deep resonance of fighting for our collective humanity in a way that is not constrained by structures of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy. Bonderman taught me that, however far you travel, no matter how deep into the “untouched” parts of the world you go, these structures come with us. And so our fight to challenge them must, too.

***

A photo with the lovely Eiko from my visit.

As I look back on my blog posts now, I see a recurring theme: my struggle to understand how we conceptualize home. As I mention on my blog, my ideas of home were already messy. My parents were immigrants who escaped state violence in Punjab only to settle in rural, working class Wisconsin. I lived in three different states growing up and, by the time I started 9th grade, I was attending my fifth school. Notions of home, migration, unsettlement, and rootedness had chased me from generations before my life into my own. Perhaps this is why, even in my PhD research, I often return to a question that I wrote in my final blog post as a Bonderman Fellow: “how much responsibility do we each hold in making our places homes for everyone else?” In other words, what do we owe to one another as we all work to re-center our humanity? The Bonderman Fellowship answers this essential question. Traveling across the world for nine months, without prior connections or experience, is a sure way to develop a rapid trust and faith in the idea of global community and connectedness.

While I could fill a book with all the stories of unbelievable amounts of love and compassion that were given to me (and have many friends who continue to tell me I should), there is one that I always look back on with disbelief. My 22nd birthday was the second day of my fellowship and, while I had never been one who needed a massive celebration, I missed the opportunity to gather with my loved ones. My parents encouraged me to find a way to celebrate myself while I was in Japan; perhaps it could be a nice way to start this journey of independence. I found myself in Ureshino, a small, rural town known for its beautiful ryokans (Japanese guest houses) and natural hot springs. While some meals were included in my stay, lunch was not, so I wandered off one day with a large mission: to find a vegetarian meal in small town, rural Japan.

A photo from the Facebook page of Eiko & Company; upon doing a quick online search while writing this post, I was happy to see Eiko and Paul reopened their restaurant in 2018 and have been flourishing.

An undergrad friend had clued me into HappyCow, the vegetarian version of Yelp, which miraculously showed one restaurant just a few streets over! I made my way, walked up to the door, and found it locked. When I peered inside, the set up certainly looked like a normal take-away counter restaurant, but it seemed like it had not been running for some time. I stood there disappointed for a few moments, calculating my next steps, before turning away to find a convenience store. As I walked away, I heard a noise behind me and turned to see a middle-aged Japanese woman gesturing me inside. She sat me down at a bar stool and told me she’d be right back. A few minutes later, a white (American I soon learned) man came into the room and introduced himself as the woman’s husband. He had been stationed in Japan during the war; they met, fell in love, he stayed. What ensued was several hours of being fed fresh vegan food, pour over coffee (the man declared himself a connoisseur and said he regularly paid a hefty price to get beans shipped from Colombia), and rigorous discussion of citizenship policies, homogenized national identity, and imperial history of Japan. When I left, the wife came out with a beautiful ceramic mug, saying that her family had been making them for generations and she wanted me to have one as a keepsake. I was stunned. I am perhaps more stunned today because, what I could not know days into my fellowship is something like this would happen at least twice a month.

Often, I think back to Bonderman and tell my mom, “I don’t know if I could do that again. Even having done it, the prospect sometimes scares me when I think about all that I did. All that I trusted.” Perhaps this is our largest issue. In finding ourselves stuck in these systems of oppression, now being told that our interconnectedness and proximity as society members is what is killing us, we forget the necessity of centering our humanity. Perhaps a basic charge, but one in which I still find merit. The true challenge is establishing this humanity on an equal plane, which can only be done once we effectively organize and dismantle the structures that dehumanize us, particularly because this dehumanization happens unevenly. Additionally, we must challenge the lack of humanity we see in ourselves when we believe our value can only come from participating in and being complicit in these systems of oppression.

Whether or not your reeducation journey involves becoming a Bonderman Fellow, all I ask is that we put in the work to show up to this community with a deep understanding of what we are bringing to the door, the tools and histories we carry into the house, and how we decide to make our homes—especially for those who seem most distant from ourselves.

What is most remarkable looking back on my photos now is in how many I am alone. While this perhaps best reflects my journey on a surface level, I often failed to capture the quick moments of connection with fellow travelers or hosts who took my photo, documenting me alone in my travels. To these connections and moments of humanization, I am eternally grateful.

Reflection Project: Tyler Mesman, 2014-15

What is the Reflection Project? This summer we asked our fellowship alumni to reflect on their experiences abroad. Fellows from all six years of the fellowship told us how the fellowship has impacted them in the years or months since they returned from their travels. 

Submitted May 2020

It’s been exactly five years to the month since I completed the Bonderman Fellowship and my plane touched down again in the United States. 

If I had been asked in that exact moment the proverbial interview question “where do you see yourself in five years?” – I definitely would not have had an answer for you. I don’t even think I could say with confidence that I would see myself doing what I do now.

Wherever you go, Go Blue!

My only plan when that plane landed was to collect my Pontiac Bonneville from the family friend who had been safeguarding it, load it up with the scant possessions that fit on my back for the last nine months, and drive the 2,300+ miles from Ann Arbor to Washington state where my mom had a spare bedroom waiting for me. No job lined up, just a bed to sleep in.

An untraditional plan? Probably.

But the Bonderman Fellowship itself is just that – an unimaginable, international interruption to the traditional course of events from high school to college to career and “adulthood”.

In preparing to write this reflection on my fellowship experience, I (of course) turned back to the source material – my original Bonderman travel blog. Re-visiting my pictures and re-reading all my musings elicited nostalgic memories of the people, places, and food I experienced over an incredible, life-changing trip.

I was (admittedly) notoriously bad about updating my blog on a regular basis, often using bad Wi-Fi as a convenient scapegoat. But I still feel like my blog captured the essence of my journey. In an early post I promised that I would write a big sappy final post at the end of my adventure that would sum up my feelings and revelations – regrettably that post never materialized. At the time (and even now) it was impossible to capture the experience in words in a way that would do this experience justice. 

A small Hindu temple in Mumbai which only opens once per year based on the cycles of the moon.

Today, 5 years on, not even this reflection will be the perfect encapsulation of everything I learned and how much I grew during the Bonderman Fellowship – but it’s a start.

Since moving to Washington, I’ve put my political science degree to good use in working for various Democratic political campaigns. It started in 2016 when I worked to turn out voters as a field organizer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in Minnesota. (I had to explain to so many people that no, Michigan actually has claim to the U of M title so please cease and desist).

After a demoralizing loss, I returned to Washington and found work as a political consultant and fundraiser to Democratic campaigns and progressive ballot initiatives. My win/loss ratio isn’t perfect, but I am proud that I get to work in a field I am passionate about and I can affect change in my own small way.

I don’t believe that I would be doing this work or even living in this part of the country if the Bonderman Fellowship hadn’t intervened in my life in the way that it did. After all, my original plan after undergrad was to move to Washington D.C. and start my new life there, perhaps as a staffer on the Hill. 

The Twelve Apostles Mountain Range at sunset as seen from the peak of Lion’s Head Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa

Five years later, I am so grateful that original vision didn’t come to fruition. Not only did I end up in an entirely different Washington, but the Bonderman Fellowship expanded my horizons past a narrow vision of who I was professionally and what I could contribute to the world. 

I think my blog post “Before I Die” is still probably the best encapsulation of me wrestling with those emotions over the course of the fellowship. Today, as I write this from my apartment in Seattle, I’m still grappling with those same feelings and figuring out how to implement that mental and emotional change into my daily life while the greater world around me hasn’t really changed its expectations of who I am or who I should be. 

The Bonderman Fellowship is simultaneously an extraordinary and at times a very lonely experience. It made me more confident to take risks, more adaptable to operating without a clearly defined plan, more empathetic to the suffering and struggles of others, more aware of my privilege, more patient when things go wrong or are out of my control and it allowed me to see the world in a way that I never thought possible. 

So often when explaining the Bonderman to other people they told me it was “the trip of a lifetime.” I think they were only half right – I (probably) won’t ever take a trip like the Bonderman again, but it kicked off a lifetime of more traveling and cross-cultural immersion. One thing I know for sure is I will never see the world the same way again. 

A misty morning trek through a tea plantation outside of Munnar in southern India.

Welcome to Our New Site!

Photo by fellowship alumna Shruti Arora

Welcome!

New site, same look! While no Bonderman fellows are currently traveling, the Bonderman team has been spending some time working on things on the back end. That includes moving our content to a new, LSA-branded site. The lsabonderman.com site will be retired and all new content will now be posted here.

And speaking of new content: This summer we asked our alumni to reflect on their fellowship experiences and how the fellowship has impacted them in the years or months since they returned from their travels. Starting next Wednesday, July 8th, through the rest of the summer, we will share a reflection each week from one of our alumni. We will begin with fellows from our first cohort in 2014 and end with fellows who just came home this spring! Make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss them. The new posts will appear on the home page and also under the category “2020 Alumni Reflection Series” in the Previous Fellows tab.

P.S. Thinking of applying for the 2021-22 fellowship and wondering how the fellowship might be impacted by COVID-19? We recently posted a statement on our COVID-19 page. Please check on that page periodically for updates from our staff.

Bonderman Advising Team