It’s 2019 and I am in the cafeteria at my high school in New Jersey. The room is buzzing around me. I’m surrounded by classmates, talking about their weekend and gossiping. You know, normal high school conversations. I can hear the clanging of spoons against thermoses and backpacks hitting the floor as people eat their lunch.
Although I am in the midst of all of it, my world feels quiet. I am at the end of the lunch table, eating my mac and cheese by myself and failing miserably at trying to be a part of the conversation and ringing laughter engulfing the room.
I’m friendly with everyone at school. I say hi to people I pass in the hallways and I hold up my end of group projects. But I don’t consider these people to be my friends. I wouldn’t, for example, get invited to hang out with them over the weekend. I know my reputation: the smart, nice… quiet girl. Not the fun party girl.
I don’t really like the reputation I have. But, as a senior in high school, I feel like it’s almost too late to change people’s perceptions of me. So I stick with it. I only speak when spoken to. I become really good at listening, but keep my responses to myself. I stay in my comfort zone.
When I walk into the first day of the Global Pathways for Students program in August, I expect to be in my comfort zone. I just assume that the program will be like in high school: I’d be able to fade into the background but still do well.
What I walk into is far from that. Much like in my high school lunchroom, people are laughing and having fun. But there are no books or white boards or desks. Instead, we are in the middle of the woods. I spot dodgeballs, colorful rubber lilypads, and a ropes course, all which we end up using later. I am a bit skeptical as to how this program will help me improve my global business skills .
I become even more skeptical when we start a brain teaser involving switching sides with another group, where the catch is that we cannot move backwards or forwards past more than one person. This might sound easy. But it isn’t. So many people are shouting out ideas on what to do that it makes it hard to get anything done. Nobody is listening to each other. We all agree afterwards that our “strategy” of talking over one another and interrupting each other wasn’t working. Then came the big question from our group leader: “What are you going to do differently next time?”
And as I stand there looking around at my new peers, all my years of listening and not responding come flooding back to me, hitting me right in the lungs. My heart starts hammering and I no longer know what to do with my hands.
I say: “Listen to each other with the purpose of understanding, not listening with the purpose of moving on to your point.”
My eyes widen as I realize those words had just come out of my own mouth. Had I just said that? Thankfully, I see a few thoughtful nods and hear several words of encouragement, and I release the breath I didn’t know I had been holding.
Perhaps I had been holding it my whole life. My heart rate starts to calm down and I feel a bit of a proud smile creeping up my cheeks as I come to the realization that maybe my words can be just as valuable as everyone else’s after all. Finally, I had found my voice.
Later that day, I can’t go on the treetop ropes course because of a knee injury. So instead, I am on the ground cheering for my peers, A “You got this!” or “You’re almost there!” has a bigger impact than I thought it would. It feels good to use my voice to help out a peer. It feels good to see that my voice matters.
Now, two months later and thanks to the Global Pathways for Students program, I’m creating a new reputation for myself. Not as the quiet girl. As the friendly, open, and supportive girl. Because now I feel confident responding, not just listening. And I can use that to elevate myself and others. Because every voice deserves to be heard.
Asha Shetler is a 2022 Global Pathways for Students Albrecht Fellow, and one of the Faces of WTCI.