Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Hard Lessons of a Gluten-Free Undergrad

Picture this, if you would. There’s a gluten-free student living in a college dorm for five weeks. There is no kitchen to use, not even a fridge. The college isn’t particularly gluten-free or allergy friendly, but the student wants to be as nutritionally balanced as possible.

Until the end of July, this will be my reality.

I’ll be honest; I thought eating would be the most challenging part of this internship, but it isn’t. I miss my kitchen, and my family (no more than fifteen minutes away) misses my cooking, but I’ve made do with what I have in my dorm. Since last Wednesday, a coffee maker, a rice cooker, a water purifier, and a mini fridge are the only appliances I’ve brought with me. The closet, particularly the top and third drawer of my dresser, is my pantry for eating ware and foods that do not need refrigeration. The meals I’ve been making are basic, easy to put together, and similar day-to-day, but I anticipated that. With all my running around, basically working eighteen-hour days until today, I’ve resulted to eating three meals a day. I think I’ve lost a little weight, with all my walking and carrying things all over campus, but it’s nothing too severe or worrisome.

In fact, this is the first in a long time that I’ve felt like “me”. I was always the girl who was optimistic and energetic, the girl with a personality you couldn’t contain, and because of that I could relate to a wide spectrum of people. Maybe it was the trip to Sweden that changed me, a paradigm shift that made me more introverted and rarely reaching out to people. Maybe there was an evolution in my emotional intelligence or, maybe, that I’m finally being treated for my hypothyroid condition like I should have been all those years ago. Yet this internship, the fellows who came here and the colleagues I work with, have turned back the clock to the Morri I thought had disappeared.

For years I had worked on leveling out my extremes. I was either high on life, a ball of energy, or crashing for a few days after to recover. If I wasn’t smiling, there was the assumption that life was not kosher in the Land of Morri. I was either grounded and calm or fluttering in the breeze. There was no middleman. It was a crazy roller coaster ride.

Looking back on that part of my life that, strangely enough, was up until the end of my freshman year in college, I realize that there’s a significant difference to then and now. Those were manic extremes, true, but I believe a part of the old Morri has shined through because I have something to do that I wholeheartedly believe in. I have wanted to be a part of this program since last summer, and the fellows are such wonderful kids. I’ve learned how to say things in multiple languages. I’ve had deep, philosophical discussions with them randomly throughout the day. I’ve listened to a sad story of one, where I spent the majority of Sunday afternoon sobbing like I haven’t done in such a long time.

In less than a week, I’ve learned a series of hard lessons. Despite my being the youngest mentor of the Institute and, at most, only being a few years older than these kids, it was extremely difficult to realize that I wasn’t a fellow. I wasn’t one of them. No matter how much they like me (and I them) and regard me as their friend and confidant, I am still their mentor and have to walk the very fine line between authority figure and “buddy.” Not only that, but as mentioned before I had to listen to an extremely sad story, who was asking – no, pleading – me and the other young mentor that they wished to stay, their parents telling them to not come home because it was so dangerous... I felt so helpless. With blurred eyes I glanced across the table at the other young mentor did I realize he was just as horrified and felt just as vulnerable as I had.

I wasn’t prepared to hear the very real injustices and cruelty that existed in this world, and I briefly questioned if I was in the right field. As an undergraduate CAR student, I haven’t gone abroad and experienced conflict first-hand like my colleagues with their Masters and PhD's have. I’ve only sat in classrooms where documentaries showed how vicious people could be (and Sweden doesn’t compare to places in the Middle East or Africa), but that is significantly different to listening to someone you’ve grown to care for, someone you’ve taken under your wing and developed a connection with. I have become so attached to many of them that I wish I could tell them it will be okay. I wish I could scare the boogeyman that haunts us all, and keep them here where it is safe. But that isn’t fair to them; all I can do is be there and honor them by listening to their stories.

My biggest fear is developing such a thick skin that I become numb to these types of stories. It is a blessing to experience empathy and compassion with all your heart and being, no matter how upset you become. I am sure to hear many more stories, and I may hold them and cry, but while they’re here I can guarantee safety and love. While I’m here, I’ll never stop caring.

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