Step Outside Your Comfort Zone to Discover Your Passions
Ned Flanagan (2013)

I am a Woods lifer. I attended the school from Montessori preschool through eighth grade. I have an older brother Owen who graduated from The Woods two years before me, and a younger sister Bridget who went to The Woods through fourth grade. Needless to say, The Woods was a pretty big part of the first 13 or so years of my life; the majority of my best friends, memories, and growth all came from The Woods.  I still really miss playing football and basketball with friends during break and recess, laughing in class, and loud bus trips to an away game or to Williamsburg and Gettysburg. 

Another aspect of The Woods that I remember fondly is the guest speakers that came to talk for Upper School Chapel on Monday mornings.  I remember sitting there listening to the speakers and critiquing their talks in my head or just assessing who did a good job and who missed the mark.  I would think about what I would do to make a funny and entertaining speech or at least something that would keep people from falling asleep in their chairs.  Little did I know I would be back to talk, and when I started to think about what to speak about I completely forgot about all of my ideas for giving an entertaining, meaningful talk and was back at square one. When I was invited by Mr. Maloney to speak at Chapel on January 18, I started by asking the students the following:

“Has anyone ever asked you: What do you want to do when you grow up? Or Which high school do you want attend?”

I don’t know about you, but to me these and other similar questions always seem like really big questions, especially if it were someone or some adult I barely knew asking. I always questioned why that person could so casually ask me what seemed like such a huge question. It wasn't just that I found this type of question way too serious to casually ask, it was mainly that I have always struggled to come up with answers to these questions.  I do consider myself a pretty indecisive person, but I couldn't imagine how anyone could so definitively say what college they wanted to go to or what job they desired.  I struggle to choose between a burger and nachos when at a restaurant, so making a decision when there felt like millions of possibilities seemed impossible.  I realize not everyone has so many options, but coming from a place like The Woods with a great education and determined people around you makes the possibilities seem endless.

With that said, choosing where to go to high school was a tough, drawn-out process for me.  After all the talks and the weighing of different options, however, I ended up deciding to go to Georgetown Prep.  Looking back on it now, no matter what I chose would have worked out great, but at the time it felt like the decision of a lifetime.

Throughout my freshman year at Prep I enjoyed my classes, playing soccer and lacrosse, and making new friends, but I didn’t feel like I was an important member of the community or like I was really contributing anything substantial to the community. 

As a result of this feeling, I made the promise to myself that I was going to get more involved and really try to broaden my horizons the following year.  Instead of simply joining every club and later not becoming involved in any of them, I chose to stick to the things that I enjoyed, found interesting, and was exposed to at The Woods.  I had taken Spanish all throughout my time at The Woods and knew that I wanted to continue learning the language, so I joined the Spanish club.  I had done some service activities and had been shown the importance of serving others at The Woods, so I joined a club called the Arrupe Society: a club dedicated to community service.  I had taken art class every year I spent at The Woods and loved it, so I decided to join the yearbook club to have an outlet for creativity.

Some of my favorite memories that came out of my increased involvement were fun and light-hearted such as playing in the Spanish club versus German club soccer match and learning how to make traditional Chilean or Peruvian food.  Some of the more serious ones were serving homeless men and women on the streets of DC and comforting a man who sat in a detention center in Virginia after learning he would be deported from the United States and separated from his two kids.  The transformation from being a little underclassmen learning from the presidents of clubs to being on the other side of the table actually leading club meetings as an editor of the yearbook was also an incredible feeling.  While my experiences at The Woods remained in my memory, I no longer missed them, I cherished them and used the memories to remind me of the lessons I was learning.

Continuing the mindset of trying to get as involved as I could, I applied for a service trip through Georgetown Prep set for the summer after my junior year.  The trip traveled to an organization called the Kino Border Initiative.  I didn't really know anything about the organization aside from the fact that it that did work on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, so I knew beforehand that I would have the opportunity to both practice Spanish and serve downtrodden men and women in need of help.  That week I spent with ten classmates and two teachers with the Kino Border Initiative was undoubtedly the highlight of my summer.  My classmates and I spent the majority of that week working in the comedor.  The comedor is an aid center situated in Mexico roughly 100 yards from the border wall that quite literally splits the city of Nogales in half.  In the aid center, priests, nuns, and volunteers serve meals as well as provide medical care, toiletries, and clothes to recently deported migrants.  Working at Kino, we tried to provide aid for men, women, and children who were sent to Mexico—deported— through the city of Nogales.  A lot of the time, the deported migrants have no money, no place to stay, and in some cases have not lived outside of the US for as long as 40 years.

My first morning working in the comedor, the roughly 50 men and women receiving food all sat down and prayed before eating.  I sat in the corner watching, and was so overcome with emotion that I literally almost started to cry.  Seeing men and women who have just gone through quite possibly one of the most defeating experiences of their lives close their eyes and bow their heads to give thanks and pray to God put me in absolute awe.  Although I didn't know when, I knew immediately after this experience that I wanted to come back for more than just my weeklong service trip.  I didn’t know then nor do I know now what to think of the issue of deportation politically, I do know that these people are in serious need of humanitarian assistance and that is one thing that I think we all can agree that every human deserves.

With my experience at Kino in mind, when I began applying for colleges, I started to think of the possibility of taking a gap year before college.  Gap year is an extremely broad term that is basically a year in between high school and college to pursue something that is not necessarily school.  Again the decision of going straight to college or taking a gap year was very hard for me (surprise, surprise), but the more I thought about my experience in Mexico, the more I wanted to return before college.  Ultimately, I decided to take a gap year, and the only thing I knew I wanted to do was return to the Kino Border Initiative.

Although I had taken Spanish throughout my time at The Woods and at Georgetown Prep, I still felt I needed more real-world practice to really prepare me to go back to Nogales and comfortably talk with the migrants in Mexico.  With that in mind, I decided to go on a program this past fall that was based in Peru and Bolivia.  As my friends left for different colleges, I left September 15th without my phone along with a group of 11 other students my age and arrived in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. 

The program focused on language and cultural immersion. Waking up every day in someone else’s house and walking out into a completely different city made it so that I was constantly challenging myself, learning new things, and meeting new people.  After about three months I had completely forgotten what my phone felt like in my hand and began mixing English words with Spanish words, but most importantly, I gained so much perspective on how other people live their lives in comparison to my life in Bethesda, Maryland.

I returned from South America in December 2017 and in late January 2018, I returned to the border to volunteer again with Kino Border Initiative for about two months.

Back to those questions, I still struggle with similar questions, but I have learned that the more you try new things and push yourself outside your comfort zone, the easier it will be to discover your passions. At times you will be nervous and it will pay off. What is more significant than the decision itself, is how you live it.