This I Believe – Ms. Kristen Spangler

The following is a speech presented by Ms. Kristen Spangler as part of our This I Believe Series:

I believe in travelling, often and widely. When I was a child, we were always on the go: a Sunday drive out the Turnpike, a day trip to West Virginia, Gettysburg … again. I was bundled up in the back seat with some toys and a few books, and off we’d go, stopping in small towns for food and pulling over for a picture of an interesting rock formation or historical marker. These excursions were exciting. I loved seeing new places and eating new food. I was convinced that malls in other parts of the state had better merchandise. I bought Lindt chocolate because it was imported, foreign, exotic. It was, to be frank, anywhere but here.

I’m from Lewisberry, you see, born and raised, as my father before me. It’s a tiny town, where everyone knows everybody. If I got in trouble for talking in class, my parents knew before I got home. But I was always ‘Darwin’s daughter’ or ‘related to those other Spanglers’; I was never Kristen; I was never me. I was convinced that those road trips gave me a chance to be someone else, to be as exotic and foreign to others as that Lindt chocolate was to me.

The older I got, the less enticing those road trips were. There was a sameness about them, to the point that I felt I couldn’t endure another abandoned coal mine, railroad or Civil War battleground. It didn’t take long for me to recognise the apathy for what it really was: jealousy. While all my friends were on their second, third, … fifth trips to Disneyworld, I hadn’t ever been past Virginia.

By my senior year of high school, my apathy turned to desperation. While I worked another shift at Roundtop, my classmates were jetting off with parents and siblings, together one last time before our adult lives were to begin. My best friend had gone to France the summer before and was about to leave for Florida—right in the middle of the school year—while the best I could hope for was a night on the slopes. Everybody was going places, getting away from here, finding their own ‘exotic.’ Yet, here I was, stuck in south central PA, my only joys our trips to far-flung high schools for band competitions. I wanted to experience the feeling of being far from home, of being someplace, well, exotic—but how, I didn’t know. My family were dirt poor, after all. We’d only recently been homeless, and only now were getting back on our feet. A holiday was simply out of the question.

Enter the Rotary International Youth Exchange, a once in a lifetime opportunity to spend a year abroad. Word circulated through the upperclassmen one day that an information session was taking place in the high school guidance office. Anyone interested was encouraged to attend. I had no idea what Rotary was or what one had to do to qualify. I just knew that if there was a chance for me to ‘get out of Dodge,’ it was worth taking.

Applying was arduous. I needed numerous pictures (in the days when that meant developing film), multiple copies of handwritten applications, personal essays, report cards … I had to attend several interviews, the teams conducting them growing larger and older. It was such a tough process that I resigned myself to not being chosen. My last round of interviews was at YCP, a gruelling, half-day affair. All around me were these hyper-accomplished kids, overachievers compared to my paltry résumé, and I was sure I’d not make the cut.

The letter arrived shortly thereafter. I’d been accepted. I was going away, like, away away.

I spent my exchange year in Norway, definitely not what we might term an exotic locale, yet still not tiny little Lewisberry. I wasn’t Darwin’s daughter or that Spangler girl anymore: now, I was ‘the American,’ the ‘exchange student.’ But it was there, giving speeches about my home, answering questions like, “Does everyone in America have a pool?” that I realised why I liked the exotic, the foreign, the unknown. It was because I was learning, and not just about others. See, I knew my own culture and my own hometown so well that no matter where in Pennsylvania I travelled, it seemed to me much the same. This was definitely not Pennsylvania, and I was definitely not related to any of these people. I was eating new food, learning a new language, learning a new way of being. And in that, I learnt to be me, the me that loves learning about new people, new places, new cultures. Travelling gave me a sense of myself AS myself, not in relation to my surroundings or my heritage. Travelling showed me that the world was not confined to how far on 81 or 83 I could drive. People say that travelling expands horizons, but in this case, it was literally true. I always knew there was more out there than just what was two tanks of gas away. Here I was, Kristen Spangler from Lewisberry, proving it.

That exchange year was my first time on an airplane. I haven’t stopped flying since. But I haven’t stopped driving, either. One of my last major getaways was a road trip to Massachusetts. And yes, they sell imported chocolate there.

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