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The adventure awaits… a letter of introduction

Salaam Alekum, samay xarit yi,

Peace be unto you, my friends,

I am so excited to be traveling back to a place that I love and somewhere that I called home for 6 years. Senegal is somewhere that grabbed me as soon as I stepped off the plane. The marche full of fresh mangoes and cashew apples, the colorful fabric of people’s boubous that contrasted with the beige cement buildings and sandy streets, the call to prayer that marks the day as it passes. I can’t wait to explore it with you and to see it from a new perspective.

After 6 years working with Dragons, the question that I still come back to is, Why do I travel? I came to Dragons from the world of international development. I had been working in Dakar, Senegal, at the international headquarters for an organization dedicated to community empowerment through non-formal education. I was living in a place that I loved, alongside a team that I adored and respected, on issues that I cared about. But I still wanted something more. Jennifer Lee (a screenwriter and director whose work includes Frozen and A Wrinkle in Time) said, “Be fearless in pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.” I couldn’t believe that I had somehow made my way back to Senegal after having studied abroad there during university. But yet, my office felt far away from the Senegal that I knew, even though I was living in the country. And I didn’t feel that fire – that soul-touching fire that Jennifer Lee referred to.

At the time, a participant of Dragons’ Bridge Year Program (a partnership between Where There Be Dragons and Princeton) was volunteering in my department. And, oh the tales he would tell! He would come into the office with wonderful stories of his homestay family and learning Wolof around the shared lunch bowl. He would come back from week-long treks, telling the stories from nights exchanging tales with villagers over the campfire. When an opportunity came up to join Dragons, I was initially hesitant to leave the familiar, but soon I was starting to feel that fire-in-the-soul again.

Since 2013, I have worked in Senegal primarily and, recently, in Indonesia and Morocco with Princeton Bridge Year, summer, semester and custom programs. And, when I look back, I know that, each of those days, my soul has been on fire. In learning local languages, I have learned different ways of expressing our reality. By cooking with my homestay mother, I have learned the beautiful gift of food and the joys of sharing the fruits of our labor. In making tea late at night, I have learned the sweet rewards of patience and the ability of conversation to make the hours slip by unnoticed.

Why do we travel? Dragons has shown me a way of traveling that asks us to be engaged, active learners. Eleanor Roosevelt (yes, that Eleanor Roosevelt) said, “Do not stop thinking of life as an adventure. You have no security unless you can live bravely, excitingly, imaginatively, unless you can choose a challenge instead of a competence.” This course will ask you to lean in to discomfort, meet challenges, and encounter the unknown. And that what is what I love about working for Dragons. Each day is an opportunity to explore, to discover and to learn.

But, I want to ask you: Why do you travel? Why did you choose to spend this semester exploring a new culture with a group of other students and instructors? What are your goals for this course? Where are coming from and where do you want to end up? This course will engage us with diverse points of view, challenge us to reframe our thinking, and ask us to go deep and to question further. And this course will continue to live with you beyond the 3 months – in the words of Miriam Beard (author and advocate of social justice), “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.

This Yak Board is a space to get to know one another before we meet, as instructors and students post introductions. It also serves as a forum for questions and (hopefully) answers as you prepare for your course. Keep an eye on the board as the i-team (Samba, Alyx and I) post additional notes, sharing resources and inviting you to participate in the exchange as well. During our time in Senegal, the Yak Board will serve as a place to share thoughts and experiences along the way, as well as itinerary updates, culminating in a shared journal to share with friends and family, but also to look back on after our return home.

To close, in the words of Calvin, from Calvin and Hobbes: “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy… Let’s go exploring!

Until soon,

Elke

P.S. You can also reach out to me by email at: elkeschmidt.dragons@gmail.co

Picture 1: Staring down a camel in the desert of Lompoul, north of Dakar.

Picture 2: With my host father at a wedding – I’ve known this family since my first trip to Senegal in 2008!