Today I found an old essay I’d written in response to one of those boring, limiting college essay prompts. It was something along the lines of: “We take pride in the diversity of our student body. What qualities can you bring to this campus that will contribute to sustaining this diversity?” I remember reading that prompt and thinking there had to be something unique about me that would set me apart from all the others. But I couldn’t think of anything except the awards I’d won, or the accomplishments I’d made, or the skills I had acquired. But telling those stories feels like I’m branding myself, like I’ve become a commodity to be traded amongst college campuses and my accomplishments are just advertising.
I didn’t want to feel like I was advertising myself. I wanted to be raw and real.
So instead I wrote “A Different Kind of Rich,” which was about my experience in Italy when I was 15. This was my attempt at proving that no matter how many spectacular things I do, this is who I’d be at my core. I felt like it was worth sharing:
Everything about Venice screamed elegance and wonder. I was intrigued by the picturesque bridges and allies where the gondola boats passed, playing live music. The vibrant array of glass art on every corner was dazzling. Still, among the beauty as with everything, there were signs of struggle and disparity.
We passed a pregnant homeless woman on our way to the art museum. Something about her seemed to draw our attention. It’s not everyday that we are presented with such a circumstance; pregnant women don’t sit on the street and beg, they stand up and fight for a better life, for the sake of their child. That’s how it’s supposed to be. So the way my mom perceived her wasn’t out of the ordinary: “It kills me to see this. You’d think she’d want a better life for herself and she can’t get that by begging on the street all day.” She did have a point. That child would have to grow up on the streets if this woman didn’t take action.
I watched the pregnant woman bow repeatedly towards the church. The amount of urgency and disparity on her face said it all. She wasn’t happy with this life. She knew perfectly well what this life would mean for her and her future child. That’s why she was spending her time praying. She knew the full extent of her circumstances and needed guidance. Sometimes strength is the ability to seek help. I embraced her with undeniable empathy and before I realized it, I was defending her: “You don’t know her story. She could have been raped or kicked out onto the streets by her husband, we won’t ever know. But we have no place to judge her when we don’t know the story.”
That day I discovered there is a difference between pity and empathy. Pity is feeling sorry for another. Empathy is understanding.
Rome sealed the deal. I remember the feeling of the summer air that night we saw the Trevi Fountain. It was after dinner when we had our share of wine and gelato, no agenda, just exploring. Everywhere I turned there were couples making wishes and throwing coins into the fountain backwards. If you threw the coin over your shoulder it symbolized your return to Rome and everlasting love. There was something magical about this fountain and it’s promises.
We made our way to the Spanish Steps. More couples romanced in the streets and all up the staircase. Christmas lights hung year-round on the trees, flaunting beauty and advertising love. A gentlemen holding a rose approached me: “A rose for the beautiful lady!” I took it without thinking; it was a young girl’s dream come true. My fairytale life came to an end when my grandpa laughed and told me the rose wasn’t free. Embarrassed, my mom paid the poor fella and took a snapshot of me holding my rose. But ah, to be romanced, that is what every girl wants right?
At the top of the Spanish Steps I gazed over the horizon of lights. I could see life dancing in the air, infecting everyone who breathed it. I held my rose with pride as I felt all the magical elements of Rome join in unity. These are the moments that enrich the human experience. In that moment, I was alive.
Travel is the one thing we spend money on that makes us rich. When I say the word rich, I rarely mean divine in taste. I am talking about gaining moments where you catch yourself learning and growing as an individual; moments that ask more of you than just being present; and moments that require you to set aside your ego. What I’ve learned is that in order to engage in and learn from the human experience, you must allow yourself to be just that: human.