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  • Brenda Hershey

In Pursuit of Passion

*This piece was published in the Roosevelt University Blog in 2018


It had been nearly four years since I graduated from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio with a B.A. in International Studies. Contrary to what seemed a more traditional route, I chose to study the Middle East, Peace & Diplomacy, and the Arabic language. The more I studied, the more I realized how little I knew about this world we live in and our global co-inhabitants.


Soon after graduation, I packed my car and moved to Chicago in search of some professional development and a better understanding of myself. Over the last few years working full time in an Executive Assistant role, I was gaining invaluable experience but didn’t feel passionate about my pursuit and my overall contribution to society.


I began volunteering with my local neighborhood association in Buena Park, and soon discovered my passion for community development and organization. I was able to segue from my small-town Ohio upbringing to my new urban environment by becoming a regular volunteer and serving on several committees in my neighborhood association. It was here that I witnessed individual voices coming together to make actual change happen and began to feel like I was a part of something bigger; something that mattered.


With an intermediate level of Arabic, I decided to start spending my time volunteering with Arabic-speaking refugees. I had known I wanted to work with those less fortunate, and mentoring Syrian refugee families in Chicago enhanced my vision. Few things have felt as rewarding to me in my lifetime as spending time with and forging bonds with these families, as well as the Syrian refugee teenage girl I mentor.


About a year ago, I was blessed with the opportunity to join the USA-CUBA Goodwill Tour teams as they travelled to Cuba to donate school and baseball supplies and interact with the local community through a common language: baseball. It was here that I saw a different level of poverty, and it deeply moved me. It was also here that I first experienced a different level of generosity; a generosity so incredible it still gives me goosebumps. How could these two things- poverty and gratitude- coexist as strongly they do? The answer to this question was turning out to be central to the vision I had of life and my place in it.


With this newfound inspiration, I was determined to see more of the world. Because of my experience in college as a delegate on the Council of Palestinian Affairs in the Model Arab League, I knew giving a voice to the voiceless was something I could tie into this budding vision.

After some research and a lot of thought, I made a determination: My second international trip would be the West Bank, Palestine. Bold move, sure. Many friends and family members warned me with gruesome stories they’d heard and tried to persuade me otherwise, and while I appreciated that they cared for my well-being, I felt very good about my decision.


In August 2017, I headed to the Middle East. I studied Arabic at an education and culture center in the city of Hebron and lived with an incredible host family. Palestine presented me with experiences I couldn’t have anticipated, and a million opportunities to grow. Akin to my experience in Cuba, thinking about the level of poverty and yet the depths of generosity I encountered on a daily basis brings tears to my eyes.


Throughout the trip, I witnessed several encounters of verbal and physical harassment against my Palestinian brothers and sisters. In Jerusalem, I bought and wore a full length Muslim gown and was verbally harassed by soldiers myself. My most profound experience, however, was in Tel Aviv, as I was verbally harassed for about three hours by security guards in the airport. It was here that I not only witnessed, but truly felt what it was like to be attacked in this way… something I’d seen Palestinians go through on a daily basis but couldn’t fully understand.


After my trip to Palestine, I knew that my time in the classroom was far from over. I saw human rights violations in a way I couldn’t have imagined and had some of my own rights violated. I understood that my mission involved being true to myself no matter what and standing with those who are oppressed and silenced. I made a determination to one day work with refugees abroad promoting self-sufficiency programs and community development. Upon my return, however, I was still working at my full-time office job and felt deeply compelled to transition into something that’d move me closer to my ultimate career goals. What was that next step? I had no idea. What I needed were the tools to equip me in realizing my vision that had been shaped up until this point with my experiences at home and abroad.


With this in mind, I came across Roosevelt’s Community Development & Action Master’s program. The program resonated with me immediately, and now, nearing the end of my first semester, I cannot imagine anything suiting me better. Looking back on my transition from working full time to being a full time graduate student, I truly feel like this program chose me. With classes where I choose projects that cater to my specific interests and gaining knowledge and developing skills directly applicable to the nature of my future work, I don’t think I could’ve found a better program to prepare me for whatever the Universe throws at me next.


My Mission: To make an effort to shine no matter what, to love unconditionally, and to be a kind and gentle soul (even when nobody’s watching).


Sincerely,

A Continuous Work In Progress


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