Have you ever looked at a picture and not recognized yourself? When I look at this photo, I hardly feel like the same girl in the picture. It feels like this photo was taken years ago when, in reality, it was only taken two months ago. How much my life has changed in two short months.
I left the comfort of my childhood home on August 26th. My heart was broken by someone unexpectedly and was broken even more as I said goodbye to my family and 94-year-old father. Over the last four years, I have traveled to 30 countries (six solo) and lived in four others. During this time, I never once cried in the airport saying goodbye to my family. However, something about this time was different as I found myself questioning my decision to leave my elder father and life as I knew it. I vividly remember the feeling I had walking away from my family. I forced myself to go through the security line and didn’t turn around to look at my family for fear that I would go running back to them. Leaving was especially difficult for me because, in my previous experiences abroad, I always chose the place I was going so I was usually excited and fairly confident in what was ahead of me. This time, the Fulbright Commission decided the place I would call home for the next year. The Commission decided on Zhytomyr, a small city of 250,000 people in the middle of the country and a place where I knew absolutely no one.
After a day of travel, I arrived in Lviv, Ukraine on August 26th, heartbroken, missing my family, and still battling chronic stomach problems. I spent 10 days in the city visiting friends from the two summer camps I participated in at the Ukrainian Catholic University. I am so thankful for them as they saw me, not as the heartbroken mess I felt like, but instead as their smiling and passionate teacher and friend. They reassured me I would be happy in Zhytomyr and gave me the boost I needed to keep moving forward.
At the beginning of September, I arrived in Kyiv to spend the next few days there for an in-country orientation with the other Ukraine Fulbrighters. Just as we were getting comfortable with one another, it was time to say goodbye and head to our respective placements around Ukraine. The moment I had been anticipating since April was finally here: it was time to go to Zhytomyr!
I boarded a run-down bus with two women from my University, trying to convince myself I was ready for what was ahead. The bus was 100 UAH (about $4) and made me nauseous as we swerved down roads made of potholes and dirt. It took two hours to arrive to Zhytomyr. We arrived in the city after dark and I had the same feeling I have every time I spend the first night in a foreign place: “What did you sign up for Kat?”
After living in Zhytomyr for two months, I have an answer to that question. I signed up for this experience to challenge my ways of thinking, to meet new and different people, to learn a new language, to overcome many obstacles, to see a new place, to use my life experiences to teach and inspire young adults, and to walk into love. While the last few weeks have been far from easy, they have been some of the most rewarding weeks of my life. I have experienced life in a way that I never have before as each day is filled with excitement, humor (lots of it), challenges, and uncertainty. I wake up not knowing what the day will hold. I always joke that there’s never a day in Ukraine without a surprise! The only thing I know is that each day will bring some story that I can’t wait to tell my family and friends.
I could share countless stories with you, but I’ll just share the most powerful lessons I’ve learned in these last few weeks:
1. Heartbreak is difficult, and is even more difficult when you are moving to a new country. It’s okay if you lose yourself for a little. I lost myself for a few weeks in the beginning of this journey and couldn’t remember why I wanted to move to Ukraine and do a Fulbright. However, through the difficult moments, I realized that you’ll come back stronger than before even if you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel in the moment. It also helps to have trustworthy friends who will remind you that you are whole with or without that person in your life.
2. You don’t need much to be happy. I brought two big suitcases with me. While I thought I packed minimally, I realized I still don’t need as much stuff as I thought. I made a pile of clothing to donate here, and continue to challenge myself to live with less and with more intention.
3. True friends are a gift from God. I am so thankful for my friends at home who have checked up on me and continue to care about me even though I am far away, for my Ukrainian friends at UCU who have supported me and reminded me to be a light wherever I go, and my new Fulbright friends who have made me laugh so much and who always listen to me with an open mind and heart.
4. Without your health, you can’t do the things you love. I have spoken about this many times on Instagram in light of all of my health problems. With the help of my doctors, diet changes, and exercise, my stomach and energy levels have been improving slowly. I am very grateful for this and encourage you to take preventative health measures when you travel, to exercise daily, and to take time for yourself.
5. It’s important to give yourself grace when you make a big life change. I’m the type of person who wants everything to be perfect in the quickest amount of time possible. When I go to a new place, I want to know the best places in the city, learn the language quickly, make friends, do everything I can at my job, and travel all at once. That’s a recipe for burnout. Grace from God helps us slow down, enjoy the journey, and take time to appreciate what’s around us. When you feel rushed or anxious next time you make a big change, pray to God for grace.