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Treading Water: Reflections on ReOrientation

By Shannon O’Brien, Casa Fred Green, Tacna, Peru 15, Loyola Marymount University. Adapted from her blog.


When I first arrived to Tacna, Peru, one of the outgoing volunteers told me that the first year is comparable to treading water: though you might move your arms in circles, it’s really about all you can do to just stay afloat. It’s not until your second year when you truly begin to learn how to swim.

This water analogy has stuck with me ever since, and as I approach my one-year mark in-country, I can wholeheartedly agree this year was about learning how to float. Only in the past month have I finally begun to feel as if I’m starting to swim.

Thus I found it fitting that the theme for my Re-Orientation retreat was water (and that we spent the week by the ocean!).

The week helped me re-enter Tacna feeling calmer and more confident even though my first year is coming to a close. I will have to say goodbye to the two second-years who will have gracefully accompanied me for the past 12 months, and then I will have to put my big-girl pants on and become a second-year myself. Before retreat, I did not feel ready to welcome new volunteers to Tacna when I am still learning so much. But now I am surer of myself. I may not know everything about Tacna, but I can share what I do know, and that is enough.

The idea of “enough” has been on my mind a lot, for apart from transitioning from my first to my second year, I will also be changing placements. Ultimately, JVC hoped to send a new volunteer to Colegio Miguel Pro (where I currently teach English with another first-year) and asked if I would consider moving to Centro Cristo Rey, which is a before/after school program for underprivileged youth. I thought about the change for a couple months. I was excited by the idea of trying new things. But I struggled with the idea of saying goodbye to my kids at MP a year earlier than they expected, of not being able to watch them grow.

After a long period of discernment, I eventually felt at peace with the idea of changing placements. Yet as the year begins to come to a close, I’ve started feeling anxious about whether one year at Centro will be “enough.”

One reason I was attracted to JVC was the two-year commitment, and the growth that only a two-year relationship at a worksite can bring. I had to let go of that worksite relationship in order to say “yes” to the switch. I had to remind myself that I am not here to “start” or “finish” anything, but to be, to learn, and to accompany. And if I fully give myself to my service, one year at each placement will be enough. Being content in the stillness during a day of silence at ReO/DisO helped me have faith that one year at each placement is “enough” because I don’t have to be “enough” of anything. I already am.

Peru is helping to teach me that, but it’s still easy to forget “I am a worker, not a master builder.”

In a weird way, starting to say goodbye has actually helped reaffirm that I am enough. When my program coordinator visited Tacna, we met with my supervisors at Miguel Pro and discussed my service to the school this last year. I went into the meeting expecting a professional talk about where I have grown and where I can continue to grow, and to begin the process of my despedida (goodbye).

I entered the meeting feeling nervous. I have never looked forward to notifying my supervisors I’m leaving. How do I leave while saying “thank you”, when those are the only words I have in response to how the staff and students at MP have accompanied me this past year? How do I honor the way MP has welcomed me into this space?

Rather than giving me advice, they thanked me for being me: for being “expansive,” “extroverted,” and for challenging the status quo. Then they sent me off with their blessings. I left the office with nerves replaced by humility.

It’s unnerving when someone sees you more clearly than you see yourself. Especially because I haven’t felt exceptionally extroverted, or tender, or brave this year. Yet here were three of my mentors, pointing out these traits in me, traits I aspire to embody. How did I show all of this without realizing it? Am I really all that, or is it more in simply trying to be all these things that I am made? In wanting, do I become?

As James Martin, SJ would say, the desire to desire God is more important than already desiring Her. So, though I may not always be proud of the person I have encountered within myself this last year, maybe recognizing that and still striving to become the person I know I can be makes all the difference.

Saying “yes” to changing placements was one step along the path to becoming a fuller version of myself. Just as committing to serve as a JV was an earlier step. It hasn’t always been easy— reforming my sense of self, adjusting to a new culture and new place, trying to learn how to teach— but after reconnecting with the larger JV network during retreat, I feel recommitted to the call that originally brought me to Peru.

I am grateful for all that MP has given me this year and I am ready to give all I can to Centro. I am grateful for what I’ve learned during this time of transition, and I am ready to welcome new JVs into theirs. I am ready to be a second year.

I am ready to be “enough.” I am ready to swim.