Climbing up makeshift steps and over unsteady rocks, we brushed against itchy green leaves; while cleansing water droplets fell on our skin, we followed a strange and yet familiar man as he guided us through the depths of the rainforest.
That's where I found myself a little over a week ago, when I spent my Spring Break in the beautiful country of Jamaica along with 10 other students, a fellow trip leader, a graduate student and a staff member on an International Alternative Spring Break Trip.
Sponsored by the Center for Leadership and Service, the Alternative Break program is in its 21st year and allows students to sacrifice their Fall and Spring Breaks to go serve in an area of need in a community outside of Knoxville.
A self-proclaimed veteran of the program (this was my third trip, second I co-lead), it was nothing like what I expected, and yet still everything I had hoped it could be.
When I initially got back, I felt like something was missing. The trip had done something to me, scratched an itch I never thought I had, replaced a puzzle piece I never noticed was gone.
After a few days, I've finally put it together – what this trip had done for me was tie together all of the mismatched, frayed and loose ends of my college career. It had woven together the unknowns, questions, possibilities, hopes and, of course, dreams, of a starry-eyed, 22-year-old, about-to-be-graduated college senior.
The experience had managed to do all of that in a week simply by showing me another part of the world.
In our own community, we become desensitized to both the beauty and the harshness of the environment around us. Both the glint of the sun on the Sunsphere and the homeless man asking for change on the corner disappear because they are part of our daily lives. But when we go somewhere new, that routine crumbles away.
The complexities of both the ugly and the beautiful are freshly examined and conclusions, suggestions, and solutions come out.
Because I was in Jamaica, I finally understood:
How an industry centered on the gratification of others can exploit and impoverish the people who work in it — the people who the land truly belongs to.
How the simplest things, such as getting rid of the bag of trash in your apartment at the end of the day, can become complicated in a country with different resources.
How I am privileged, and though I can feel guilty because of that privilege, how it is more useful to instead use my privilege for the greater good of others.
How it is possible to learn the most from the people you serve and from the people who you lead. And how we can all still respect and love each other, despite differences in opinion.
How letting go of the constant technology and talking to only those present can be liberating, even if it is only for a week.
How the Western perspective on what a community needs or wants is not necessarily what that community needs or wants.
In reality, these were all things I knew inside of me before I left for the trip but the new perspective helped me develop. I'm not saying we have to travel to do this, but it may help.
Get out of the bubble of our comfort zones and experience the world in a new way, in any way really, that challenges our assumptions and disproves our stereotypes.
These thoughts consumed me as I followed that strange and yet familiar man on our hike in the Jamaican rainforest. Though the terrain was unfamiliar, we could follow along thanks to the light from his bamboo torch.
Our Jamaican torchbearer demonstrated to us what we always knew: one who shadows oneself to give light to others is really the most valuable player on the team. Without him, they would be lost to wander in the dark.
Perhaps then, the most valuable thing and what I ultimately learned was the Volunteer spirit is not just confined to our university walls. It can be found anywhere, in anyone who bears the proverbial torch, whether that may be in the rainforest of Jamaica or the halls of UT.
Victoria Knight is a senior in microbiology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.