When the Light Bulb Goes On

by Audrey Cook

Don’t ask me why, but I’ve always been fascinated by conflict. Whether it’s political,
economic, religious, or the polarization of ideas. Beliefs and perspectives have always interested me a great deal. It’s not because I love seeing people in distress or constantly fighting with each other, but rather because I’m interested in finding potential solutions (if they can be found at all) to the problems that leave us all scratching our heads. The roots of international conflict go much deeper than we even realize, and the thought of unearthing those roots intrigues me.

This past October, I had the privilege of traveling to one of the most controversial places in the world: the Middle East. I’ve always wondered how a region with such great commitment to morality, order, and religion, can live in such tension. However, the experience was much different than I could ever have predicted. I spent my 10 days there traveling the beautiful landscape of Israel. From Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to the borders of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, I got a taste of everything Israeli (not to mention, shawarma, falafels, and a fried fish staring at me as I ate it). 

It’s no secret that the political atmosphere in Israel is somewhat of a peculiar experience. In a way, the tension in Israel is very high.  But there is also an unspoken understanding that people are inherently different and that daily life must accommodate those differences. Walk down one street and then turn the corner, and suddenly the country looks a little bit different than it did before. The culture seems like a different planet.

Instead of the vast shopping malls in Dallas, I found myself shoved against countless Israeli men and women, bustling through the morning marketplace, sights and smells assaulting my senses from every corner. Men were shouting to try their fresh baked challah bread, cinnamon tea, or fresh produce. Women were feeling the different scarves and tapestries. The atmosphere thrilled me.

One of the vendors even told me I looked like J-LO and that he would be happy to cook and clean for me. The comment made me laugh, and I found myself falling in love with the live-in-the-moment sort of culture that thrives in Israel. There is a glimmer in the eye of the nation, and I really didn’t want to leave it. This is what I love most about traveling: finding the heartbeat of a nation, the heartbeat of people living their lives, fully engaged and aware of the moment they are in.

At the malls and shopping centers in Dallas, there are countless teenagers and adults with their eyes down on their screens, so unaware of the hustle and bustle around them. In this marketplace, not only were people not on their phones, but they were actually talking to each other, haggling and discussing and trading. That’s beautiful to me.

Strangers were connecting with each other. Foreigners are given the chance to do the same. I can’t tell you how many times I caught myself smiling that day, or how hard I laughed with people that didn’t even speak very good English. It was pure magic, and I’ll never forget it. It proved to me that even in the heart of conflict, people live life. People still smile even in their pain. It was inspiring, to say the least.

Perhaps the greatest reward of this trip was the realization that the best education is
often intangible. While this trip was not through UT Dallas, I’m so grateful to have had professors willing to work with the difficulty of missing classes so that I could pursue my wildest travel dreams. It was an experience of a lifetime, and I came home more aware of the outside world than ever before.

Hard to imagine, but there is so much life that exists outside of America, and to be honest, it was refreshing to discover it. This trip was a major step for me. I became more aware of why I’m going to college, what I want to do after college and how this trip can impact my life right now. Words can’t express how refreshing it was to get through a whole two weeks without being asked “what do you want to do after college?” And the irony was that I was finally doing “it”- that thing that I wanted to do “when I grow up”.

This is the very idea I wish I could shout from the mountaintops. Sometimes, you won’t know what you want to do “when you grow up” until you’re doing it. Then suddenly it hits you, and the light bulb finally goes on in your head. For me, I know I want to travel. I know I want to meet people of different religions, cultures and occupations. I know I want to help create a society that values different cultures. Why do I want to do this for the rest of my life? Because nothing can top it. Nothing else could ever come close.

I don’t know exactly how this’ll happen yet, but I’m content in just choosing to learn about what interests me in the meantime. That’s the wonder of college. It gives you that opportunity. That’s the thrill of being 19 or 20 and completely unattached. You can afford the risks. You can go on crazy trips that might not be convenient, but nonetheless will change your life. You can experiment and stay up way too late and spend hours on end alone in your room just thinking about the world and what you can do to change it. The trick is getting out of your bedroom and taking a few risks. Go for that thing that sparks a fire inside you. If you do, I promise that you’ll find the very passions you never knew you were missing.

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