There’s no question 2020 has felt like a really imaginative, and sometimes scary, work of fiction. And yet here we are, finding our way through it. All the chaos and emotion has me reflecting on a trip I took 30 years ago that, at its core, was about personal growth, breaking down barriers, and finding common good to build upon.

The summer before my junior year of high school, I spent three weeks in Russia (the Soviet Union at that time) with 60 other high school-age track and field athletes from across the U.S. While the trip was based on running track, it was more a goodwill-building program on the heels of the Cold War. 

I was 15, I had never been on a plane, my knowledge of Russia centered around an “Iron Curtain” and the KGB, and I was really a very average athlete. To say I was nervous going on this trip would be a gross understatement. And, as a parent now myself, I have to say I think my dad was crazy for putting me on that plane. But man, I’m so glad he did. 

It’s really hard to wrap into a short paragraph the impacts that trip has had on my life. The easy, tangible answer is that it compelled me to minor in Russian in college. In the years following the trip, it was the basis for me befriending local Russian families who welcomed me into their homes so I could continue learning the Russian language and culture. It gave me friendships — some of my best friends today were fellow teenagers I met on the trip. It planted the seed that would grow into a desire to experience other cultures, and has resulted in me going to places like Yugoslavia, Spain, and Ireland. 

Harder to put my finger on is how that trip helped me develop as a young person. There was no parent there to look out for me or tell me what to do. In fact, I think I was only able to call home twice. I had to make friends, find my way through places where I couldn’t read the signs or understand the language (there were no cellphones, no internet), and learn speak up for myself — all of this provided a sense of self-confidence I didn’t know before the trip. It helped me understand that while I had an image of Russians as cold and stern and bad, those Russian teenagers were just like me. I got a sense of food and culture and architecture that was totally different from anything I had ever known, and it was fascinating. 

Today we live in a different time. Sometimes it feels like we’re working too hard to put up walls, and we vilify anything non-American and anyone doing life differently than we do it. We politicize everything — even wearing a protective facemask in the midst of a global pandemic. 

One of my biggest disappointments with COVID is that I think it will impact international travel for some time, and I so desperately want my kids to experience the world outside of the United States while they are still young. There is so much to learn, so much potential for growth, so much understanding and perspective to be gained from building bridges with those who live life a little differently than we do. 

That said, I think there are plenty of opportunities right here at home for all of us to practice building those bridges, offering up a smile when you’re not sure of the words to say, and trying to find the common good upon which to build.


Kym Byrnes