Y.A. contributor Taryn recounts how she went from foster care to living abroad, from where she’s come from, and how that has guided her life. Living a life that seemed so small motivated her to want to do much more, and her story reminds us how life can change in unexpected ways.
Growing up, I was always mesmerized by my classmates’ stories of travel over school breaks.
Some went somewhere completely new and exotic each time, and others frequented the same old haunts. Both sounded majestic to me. Traveling Europe over spring break and trekking in Cameroon in the winter? Returning to their cottage in the country each summer break? Count me in.
As someone who grew up in an unstable home environment before moving into foster care while starting high school, the trips they recounted seemed beyond my imagination. While my friends were experiencing exciting places, I was working every day so that I could buy food for the week. When others were celebrating at Friday-night parties, I was living in a shelter and couldn’t go anywhere unsupervised.
Their lives mirrored those in the books I read. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t see myself in those stories.
Hearing their descriptions, I concocted an idea of the world in my mind. I listened to their stories time after time and took in every detail. After they would relate stories, I would pour over maps and pinpoint precisely where they went and what they saw.
I took notes on everything – many people in South America speak Spanish, but some Portuguese and French too? Expectations for women are different in some countries. How would I have to adapt to experience them?
These stories captivated me. As time went on, I knew that one day I wanted to recount my trips instead of just listening.
In the meantime, though, I was struggling to get through each day. School was so important to me, but I was led to believe I would never be successful there. When I missed the bus, I walked the two hours it took me to get to my local high school. They took me on a tour of a Job Corps program and told me to consider looking into alternative programs. I was often pushed to see myself as inferior to consider a future different than the one I so much desired.
The problems outside of school were even worse. Before entering foster care, I lived in a home that was unsafe and traumatizing, especially as a child. I worked every weekend and school break to save money for food and essentials.
I was the first one to sign-up for holiday hours so that I could earn time-and-a-half. Eventually, I moved into the foster care system and spent weeknights moving from place-to-place rather than studying and planning for a future.
With the ache to see the world burning within me when I had barely left my hometown, I petitioned my social worker to allow me to take a school trip to Germany. In contrast, in high school (in my home state of Massachusetts, foster children are not generally allowed to leave the state on their own). I worked for over a year to save money from my job at a coffee shop and was boarding my first plane at 15.
Though an eight-hour plane ride to Frankfurt was a doozy for my first one, everything was exciting to me: the size and shape of the plane! The safety demonstration! The little meal! My excitement only increased once I arrived, and I was seeing stars the whole time we were there.
Everything was new and different in Germany, especially coming from foster care to living abroad.
People speaking a language that was only vaguely familiar surrounded me, inspiring me to practice. The people even seemed to carry themselves differently. You don’t say “how are you” to people you don’t know – a skill that took me years to master. There was no time to collect your coins at the supermarket carefully. The food was different, beverages came in bottles I had never seen before, and everything was so inexpensive in comparison to my home base in New England!
The exciting changes continued to appear, and my love for the unknown continues.
I knew then and there that I was going to do everything I could to keep seeing the world.
As a freshman in college, I learned that I could travel to Lake Tahoe over winter break with the ski team. I took on a few extra work-study hours and left the East Coast for the first time. Soon after that, I learned about Alternate Spring Break and spent my first college spring break in Utah, volunteering at the world’s largest no-kill animal shelter and visiting my first U.S. national parks (Zion and Bryce).
I met with my college advisor and asked for suggestions about what I could do over the summer; her advice brought me to a study abroad program learning about theater in London and introducing me to the magical halls of Oxford and Cambridge. While there, I went to the world premiere of the last Harry Potter movie and was face-to-face with J.K. Rowling. I toured Windsor Castle, went to my first nightclub, and learned how to pronounce “queue.”
The doors kept opening, and I leaped through each one, flying through the air and landing wherever I could.
Each new experience only increased my thirst to see and do even more.
Seeing parts of the U.S. that were new to me led me to wonder what else was out there.
I worked harder than I ever had in school and spent much of my free time browsing options. I looked at all the abroad programs my university offered, overwhelmed by the choices. Spend the summer in Cannes for the film festival, or do an internship in Kenya? These were options that had never felt available to someone like me, but here they were at my fingertips.
Many of my friends went back to their childhood homes that the first summer during college, but I wanted more. I wanted to see more, do more, be more. This was the first step, and I was going to do anything I could to make it happen. From foster care to living abroad, I had a taste for travel I couldn’t forget.
Though it seems that finding and executing these experiences has always been easy, there have been many trials and tribulations along the way.
Before I learned about that program in London, I first received a rejection from another one in Europe. I was initially waitlisted for the spring break trip, only to be taken off shortly before the time came – which unfortunately disqualified me for the possibility of receiving financial aid. The trip would cost me around $600, more than I earned at my work-study position in a month.
I only had a few days to decide whether the experience was worth the expense.
In the end, my desire to volunteer at the animal shelter ultimately outweighed my financial fears, so I took on extra hours and signed up for a few paid research studies to make it happen. Nevertheless, I spent the rest of the year teetering on the edge of an overdrawn bank account.
Between the spring break trip and that summer in London (which is capital-E expensive), I didn’t have enough for the security deposit for my sophomore year apartment. I was moving off-campus to save money, but coming up with first and last month’s rent, PLUS, a security deposit at one time proved well beyond my financial capabilities.
I reached out to my university’s financial aid department and took out a small $1,000 loan.
With this loan, I was able to reduce some of the financial stress that I was experiencing. The $1,000 may have grown a bit, and I could have avoided that by skipping these different experiences. I knew that the feeling of finally being able to adventure on my own would far outweigh the $1,000 loan at 5% interest.
I spent several years trying unsuccessfully to master the German language. In a cruel twist of fate, the study abroad program on my mind in Germany rejected me as a junior. This possibility was something I had never considered. It was something that others struggled to believe.
A few weeks later, the reality hit, and one of my longest-standing dreams slipped away in a matter of moments.
I had to face every person who had expected me to be going abroad, find a new apartment in a matter of weeks (which is not an easy feat in Philadelphia), and face my first significant rejection since starting college. I was shocked, embarrassed, and without a plan for what came next.
It is in these moments of failure that other doors open, doors that we aren’t always looking for. We don’t always see them when we are focused on what could have been rather than what is.
All of my hardest rejections led to experiences I could never have imagined.
My rejection during my first year of college led to a summer spent in London: tours of the Tower of London, late nights that ended with greasy falafel, and a world filled with that beautiful British accent. While the study abroad rejection may have been hard to swallow at first, I soon after learned about opportunities in Ghana and South Africa. In Ghana, I taught first and fifth grade in a school, unlike any I had seen. The South African program led me to a national arts festival filled with scenes of Apartheid.
From foster care to living abroad, each experience taught me more than the last, and I saw new parts of the world, I had never even considered visiting.
My desire to live in Germany never went away, motivating me to seek a Fulbright Scholarship in the country. Teaching in Germany (rather than studying) allowed me to immerse myself completely. My town was the most beautiful place for me, totally new. I spent three years in the position and made a tangible difference in my students’ lives.
I had tried to map out every moment of my life, but these experiences were all unexpected.
Growing up in an unstable situation led me to believe that my life had to be well-planned to be successful. However, the unplanned events are what I cherish the most.
My program in London was all about theater, an area I had no experience in. I had hardly heard of Ghana before but ended up meeting some of the most interesting people I know.
I grew more during my first year in Germany than I ever had before.
As an extrovert, I had never learned to enjoy spending time alone. I didn’t appreciate solitude, surrounding myself with people as much as possible. Living abroad changes this quickly. Memories haunt me of crying on the train just two months in once the excitement waned. I had worked so hard for this, shouldn’t it have been easy?
Despite these moments where I questioned everything, I was still happy to be there.
I tried to meet people anywhere I could and said yes to every invitation. I reached out to organizations and asked if I could volunteer. In October, I finally found one: a refugee home that desperately needed volunteers. I tutored math and German, took the children on adventures around the area, and immersed myself in the intricacies of their cultures.
Working with refugees fulfilled me in new ways, and I met so many interesting people.
A few years later, I had to leave Germany due to visa issues and needed to find a new adventure.
I learned Spanish through Middlebury College’s language schools a few years ago and have always wanted to use it somewhere. The idea of joining the Peace Corps has lived in the back of my mind since the fifth grade, so I started looking there. They had a position in the Dominican Republic as a literacy coach for primary schools. I applied, packed my bags for the Caribbean. Just two days into my Peace Corps experience, my plans changed due to COVID.
Within a month, I had applied to and found my next adventure: teaching primary school in the Alaskan Bush. After two stints abroad had ended due to factors out of my control, I decided to find a unique location in the U.S. where I could live and teach. A few weeks ago, I landed in my new home: Goodnews Bay, Alaska.
It’s funny how life can change so quickly from foster care to living abroad.
Though teaching in the Alaskan Bush was in my immediate plans, I knew the Peace Corps door closing meant there was another exciting opportunity for me somewhere. Days later, I saw an ad for my current school district on Indeed.
Taking all of the opportunities that have come my way and embarking on constant new adventures has become my favorite pastime, and I am more than ready to see where this one takes me.
Can you relate from going foster care to living abroad? How have your life plans changed in ways you never expected? Did you think you would end up where you are now?
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