Recent grad Shanley Smith (2019) spoke with the English Department about her post-Hope path, which included mission work in Romania and a sudden return home to Holland in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What do you plan on doing with your degree?”
Of all the answers I had prepared throughout my years of undergraduate, teaching rock climbing to youth in Romania wasn’t on the list. Yet as I marched to grab my diploma in 2019, that was the answer I had up the flowing sleeves of my graduation gown.
I moved to Lupeni–a Transylvanian town roosted between the Carpathian Mountains–a few weeks after graduating from Hope with a degree in Creative Writing and Classical Studies. My life developed a rhythm that summer that, as I look back, feels nothing short of idyllic. Work tasks varied: I set routes at the gym, kept spontaneous water fights under control, and belayed young climbers as they scaled rock faces in the Carpathians. Sundays, my only day off, were dedicated to soaking in the Transylvanian landscape. When sabbath arrived, we’d rise early to spend morning and afternoon in the glory of the mountain ranges.
Even after stretching my eight-week internship into three months, I hadn’t satisfied my growing adoration for Lupeni. During week three, I volunteered at a children’s book camp. My supervisor directed me toward it when she discovered our kindred passions for literature and education. The book camp, one of a kind, revolved around children’s rights. Every book we read empowered children to know and speak of for their rights as determined by UNICEF. This is how I met Brandi, an American-expat librarian. Out of her own home, she ran the town’s only library–one dedicated specifically to children’s literature. What blossomed from Brandi’s response to a need in her town had over the years grown into a national literacy initiative. She founded Citim Împreună România (Reading Together: Romania), an organization that promotes reading aloud to children in a fashion that fosters enjoyment and produces lifelong readers. She has lectured at events across the country on reading techniques and helps run Romania’s annual incubator for children’s authors and illustrators. This incubator has helped put children’s lit on the map as a respectable genre and prides itself on empowering artists to incorporate Romanian narratives into their books. In short: Brandi had the Midas-touch of creative innovation.
My coworkers at the gym enthusiastically endorsed my interest to intern for Brandi in the future. Though it should be said, no one was more excited than Marc. At the time I referred to him as just a friend; a year later he slipped a ring onto my left hand. But that’s a different story, albeit one of my favorites
In August I returned to the United States with an internship offer and a long-distance boyfriend. By January of 2020, I had stuffed my life into two suitcases to return to both of the aforementioned prospects. Little did I know I’d only stay two months.
Covid-19 showed up swiftly at Romania’s door in March. The schools closed. Library programming stopped. Then my sending organization called. Rumors circled that the United States would close its borders. Two days later Marc and I boarded a plane bound for Michigan.
Looking at the latter half of 2020, I knew the months to follow wouldn’t go according to anyone’s plan. I couldn’t help but think of Brandi in Lupeni. When she saw her community in need, what did she do? She met the need. She created a library.
As fall neared in Michigan, I looked around at the community that had raised me. Chatter about school systems peppered the streets. Would they remain online? How would we keep families healthy? But the question that stuck with me: What about outdoor education?
It’s times such as these when the often quoted words of Frederic Beunchner come to my mind: “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” This summer I looked around Michigan and saw a community in need of safe activities for their children. Experts had already declared the outdoors a low-risk environment. And during times as wild as 2020, I knew that a little art goes a long way in restoring hope. In response to a growing enthusiasm for outdoor education, I developed Creative Explorers: a nature-based writing program specifically for young artists and outdoor enthusiasts.
I intend to pilot my first classes this fall. At times, I wonder if I’m the person for such a task. But then I remember Brandi. The woman who stepped up in her community. She noticed the need intersecting with her deep gladness. I look at her story and recognize, that’s exactly where I now stand.
For the foreseeable future, I look forward to giving back to the West-Michigan community as I teach classes on the very soil that raised the writer I now am. Beyond that? I plan to let the road ahead continue to surprise me. So far my path has done an exceptional job at that. And truth be told, I’m a bit excited for whatever twist astonishes me next.