When you were 17, what did you want to be?
After I stopped wanting to be a ballerina or a princess, I thought about being a veterinarian, but I really had absolutely no idea. I was the fourth of five kids, and the only girl. I got good grades and participated in all these sports and marching band and I was president of the French Club and I started a community service club. I also went through a prolonged grunge phase, featuring lots of flannels, hair down to my waist, and drawing the anarchy symbol on things. With five children, my parents were extraordinarily proud of me, and very much like, “Whatever's happening, let's not mess it up.”
I was also on an intensive academic team in high school for two years, and when it was time to really start thinking about where to go to college or what to do for an adult type life, I was so burned out on academics that I didn't want to do any of that at all. It was eight months out of the school year, and both years that I was on this team we went to nationals because the coaches were so driven and incredible. It was a very, very important formative academic experience, but it made me not want to do any of that anymore.
How did you decide to attend Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis?
I actually only applied to one college, and I didn't even want to do that because the idea of going to college was so unappealing to me because the academic team had been so intensive. I was admitted, but I just couldn't fathom the idea of actually going. I had gotten a job hostessing at a restaurant during my senior year, and from that different restaurant, food, and beverage industry opportunities presented themselves to me.
So for my gap year, I worked at restaurants and saved a lot of money and made a lot of friends. As my gap year drew to a close, I thought, “I feel like I should go to college, but I really do not know how.” All of that planning that students do in high school, I didn't do any of it because I could not bring myself to do it. So there I was, 19 years old and not sure how to go about doing it at all. And then a friend who I worked with at a restaurant was going to IUPUI, and she really liked it.
IUPUI was still mostly a commuter school then, and I lived at home for the first two years of college. I never had that urge to run away from my parents, like a lot of 18 year olds do, so living at home didn't feel weird or stifling. I was very, very happy [at IUPUI].
My very first semester, I was in a speech competition and I came in runner-up. There was a speaker's lab on campus where student workers would help other students brainstorm, write, develop, practice, and perform speeches for a variety of things, and the staff members at that lab asked me if I would work for them. So my second semester of college, I started working in the speaker’s lab, and then I also became a math tutor. I quickly found a community, and got involved on campus in ways that really suited me.
How did you choose your major?
I spent two years undecided, and then I landed on English with a concentration in linguistics. Even though I was undecided, I was a very good undecided student, taking a broad variety of things that interested me. I was very drawn to humanities, but I figured I might as well take calculus because who knows what major I’ll want to do. I ultimately needed zero math classes, but I loved calculus and finite math and it was all interesting to me.
When I took an introductory linguistics course, it just knocked my socks off and piqued my interest so much, from learning rudimentary phonetic transcriptions of words to the parts of the mouth where you make different sounds. I looked at other courses in the same concentration and just kept taking them.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
I got married my junior year of college and when I graduated, I moved to Bloomington because my then husband was starting his Ph.D. I ended up getting a job at Indiana University as an office manager in the academic advising office of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. I was a jack-of-all-trades, managing all of the advisors’ schedules, working on student recruitment and admissions, everything that needed to be done.
I also worked at a winery part-time. It was a sweet weekend gig. My interest in wine had been piqued by a food and wine-pairing course I had taken my very last semester of college, so I excitedly started working for Butler Winery. The owners of the winery were the most intellectual, lovely, hardworking people, so even when things were challenging, I was always eager to spend time with them.
I loved college so much, but I worked very, very hard to graduate in four years with a 4.967 GPA while working the whole time, and I was burned out on academics. Are you sensing a trend? It was very nice to have a couple years off, just working nine to five, coming home from work and cooking dinner. But I always did feel, ultimately, that graduate school was a path that I would take. I wasn't convinced that I wanted to become an academic, and then one day I came across the Maurer School of Law [at Indiana University, Bloomington]. I thought, “I very much enjoy critical analysis and the intersection of thought and language, and all of these skills that are extraordinarily important in law school are basically what my undergraduate degree was in.” So I decided to start studying for the LSAT. I got myself the books and studied and got an above average score and got admitted.
The first year of law school is as hard as it is reported to be. It was perhaps harder for me because I began to go through the process of getting divorced my first year of law school. So then my second year [of law school] felt significantly more doable. You have a lot more autonomy in course choices second year. And I participated in moot court, which is a law school standard, and did well in that and enjoyed that experience, although I never wanted to be a lawyer who has to go to court.
One course that really moved me was Family Law. I found so many aspects of family law interesting and meaningful, but ultimately not a doable practice area for me. Your clients, when you're a family law attorney, are almost always going through one the worst events in their lives. As an overly empathetic person, it was just too draining and painful for me. It's very, very important to me to be a good friend, to be a sensitive, caring person. But when it's your profession and your client needs to be managed and advised in a professional way, I am just so moved by sadness and strife that I just can't be professional in that setting.
I think, probably within my first year, it became clear to me that practicing law in a traditional sense, being a lawyer in a firm, was not going to be my path. But it's such a useful advanced degree with practically unlimited applications that I've never regretted the choice to go to law school, despite the fact that I've been inactive, but in good standing, on my license for a while. I could come back and practice if such a situation arose that I wanted to do that, but I'm not sure what that would look like.
I finished law school and I felt pretty aimless. I had a friend who had done some substitute teaching; you make a little money, you work when you want to, you're free for job interviews and applications and things like that. So I did that for a little while.
One day, I was subbing in a special ed classroom. My mom is a special ed teacher, so I’m not afraid of or confused by special ed kids like I think a lot of subs probably are. There was a student who was hearing impaired; I had taken ASL in college - I'm a very visual learner so ASL landed fast for me, and I really, really enjoyed it. So I was reaching back into the depths of my brain to remember some sign language and one of the teachers said, "You know sign language and you're comfortable with special ed students? Don't move. Let me go talk to some people." Apparently, that interception is very rare. People who know sign language are frequently actual certified interpreters who garner a much higher pay rate than a one-on-one paraeducator for a deaf, autistic student. So I ended up doing that for a year and a half.
When I was working at that job, my mom called me one day and said, "Hey, you remember my friend, Lynn? Lynn volunteers for a foreign exchange student organization called AFS, and she said that a staff position is about to become available and she thought you might like to apply for it." I had been looking for another job, but not terribly actively. I really loved my coworkers, but I was making no money working in special education and it was frequently very difficult. It was meaningful work, but not very intellectually stimulating, so I knew that it was not a lifelong profession [for me].
I had studied abroad for one semester of law school in Auckland, New Zealand, and I had always loved exchange students when I was a kid. One of my brothers dated a Swiss foreign exchange student for the year that she was in Indiana. My family was so close to her, and when she went back to Switzerland she wrote us letters and called me her American little sister. Largely incited by that experience, I had always loved people from other countries, so the idea of working for a foreign exchange student organization, particularly with teenagers, seemed like a very meaningful venture to me, particularly in the current state of world politics and geopolitical upheaval.
The bulk of my job consisted of working with the volunteers on my local team to find host families in Indiana, and also try to get American students to go study abroad somewhere. I was there for four years. I loved my boss, and I still keep in touch with some of my beloved co-workers. I loved getting to interact with the kids, even though that wasn't technically part of my actual job description. It was a fantastic experience and set of growth opportunities for me.
When I discovered We Roam (now WY_CO), I tried to work with AFS to create a new staff position that would enable me to stay working with AFS but also do this program. I thought it might be possible because every single country on our itinerary this year has an AFS presence, either American students going to those countries to study abroad or students from those countries coming to the US.
Ultimately, that didn't work out. AFS was undergoing some staff reorganization that didn't make it possible to create a new position like that. But I just couldn't imagine another time in my life when I would be able to put my things in storage and sell my car and give up my apartment, and I couldn't envision another time in my life when I would be so unencumbered to be able to do this kind of adventure again. So I resigned from my job at AFS and launched off on this adventure.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
I am a huge proponent of a gap year. Personally, I think it is a mistake that college is just what everyone is expected to do now after high school. I think many students are not ready for college at 18, or just aren't meant for college because they don't have an interest in it. I think that college isn't the be-all and end-all.
For me, I wasn't ready for college, and I am forever grateful that I had the awareness to know I wasn't ready for it. I was able to pay for all of college myself because I worked and saved a lot of money in that gap year. I think that regardless of what students do in a gap year, the opportunity to really refocus and take that break and give yourself the opportunity to get excited about college is really valuable. It all just worked seamlessly for me.
It's impossible to have everything figured out all of the time. Ruminating on missed opportunities, indecision, and procrastination have been big enemies of mine, and I'm still working on battling the rumination monster. Someone really intelligent once told me that if you're stressed out about a project or task and unsure of how to manage the stress, just start doing the task. There's no better way to manage stress than to handle the source of the stress.