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  • Emily Bennett

To Learn is to Experience

“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.” -Miriam Adeney

As I finished my two-week long adventure to Bali and Australia, I returned back to New Zealand and spent the weekend in Rotorua with the other nine individuals I originally traveled abroad with. During our stay, we got to experience a traditional Maori meal and ceremony from the Mitai family (a native Maori family in the area). Our group was one of several nations- ranging from the United States to Australia, New Zealand, China, Canada, Korea, Sweden, London and many more- visiting the Mitai Village and sharing in a night of great tradition.


When the meal was over, our host said that there had been a few questions that had been brought to his attention during the evening, mainly on the topic of religion. He described to us that the Maori people believe in a process of life as well as there being a "mind" as the creator of life, not necessarily a being. "In the beginning there was nothingness. What followed nothingness was darkness. Then came light and from light warmth. This warmth then created life." Their belief system is simple and straightforward, but what intrigued me the most was his final question to all of us:


Does anyone here actually know why we’re here?


The entire room remained silent as we all sat there waiting for some grand profession of knowledge to suddenly emerge from the corner of the room, but it never came. In fact, he waited quite a while for someone to speak up, which made it that more painfully obvious that none of us had the slightest clue what we were supposed to be doing here. He then told us what he believed to be our purpose- "to learn." I guess I was hoping for something a little more philosophical and life changing to fill the silence because I felt disappointed and unsatisfied by what he said, but this was the grand profession of knowledge that came: to learn.


As I sat with those two words for a few minutes longer however, I realized that he didn't mean to learn as in to learn the Pythagorean theorem, Newton's third law or even basic grammatical structure... he meant it as in to learn life. That might not make a lot of sense to you, and that's okay, but looking back at the life-changing trip I had just taken to Bali and Australia, I knew exactly what he meant. Let me try to explain.


School is so important, and your education can never be taken away from you, but no textbook or class can prepare you for the overwhelming impact of entering a third world country. It can’t accurately describe how the skin of an elephant feels on your fingertips or mimic the perfectly tuned trumpet sound that vibrates out of its trunk. It won't show you what the Indian ocean looks like or smells like when you're standing at the shore, watching the sun rise above the waves in the distance. It can’t accurately depict the electric blue of the Great Barrier Reef, the depths of the coral caverns or the motion of a sea turtle as it swims beside you. It doesn’t prepare you for a fifteen hour flight, a chaotic gate change at the airport, or the most efficient way to overcome Bali Belly. No photo you see or lecture you attend can accurately give you the proportions of the Sydney Opera House or the vastness of a rice terrace. It won’t show you how it feels to stand on the edge of a 524 meter cliff or prepare you for the adrenaline that comes with swinging on a hanging vine in the jungle. It can’t imitate the motion of a kangaroo as it takes food from your palm or the deep purple sun sinking on the horizon of a new continent. There’s no textbook or class you can take that will give you the same feelings as being in a temple in Bali or church in Sydney. It can't wake you up, stimulate your taste buds, test your patience, captivate your mind or fill your soul up the way an adventure in a new place can. Nothing I have ever experienced in school has prepared me for, or could compare to, those two weeks.


They say that experience is the best teacher and my God is that the truth. I learned so much every day I was gone and quite honestly, none of it was intentional. I think that many times in our lives we assume that learning is something we do, but I think in reality learning is something that happens to you. You live out your life and each moment you experience and each person you come across becomes a teacher. So many people, especially young people, despise learning because they associate the verb with standardized tests, essays, and equations; what they may not realize is this: you are a life learner not just an academic, textbook, degree-based learner. And very commonly you will learn more from your experiences outside of a classroom than you will attending a lecture or taking a test- as I've heard it said before, experience is the only teacher that gives you the test first and the lesson later, but it is the best.


I'm not sure what everyone else was thinking of in those moments at the Mitai Village, but I couldn’t get the memories of my experiences out of my head. Every day I'm abroad I'm finding that, not only am I learning about the world around me, but also the world within me. Who I am, what I enjoy, what I don't enjoy, what inspires me, what displeases me, how to be proactive and attentive and responsive to the things that surround me. I'm not sure if we are here just to learn like he said, but I do know that I am beyond grateful to have experience as a teacher and that this type of learning is molding me into the person I want to become. Here's to many more lessons to come in the best classroom I can think of- the world.

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