Sera Gearhart ’19, a double major in public policy and French with a math minor, has traveled around the world as part of her studies at the University of Redlands. She spoke recently at the Celebrating Endowment luncheon during Homecoming and Parents' Weekend. Here are her remarks.
“On mange parce qu’il y a quelqu’un qui creuse.” Translation: “We eat because there is someone who digs.” These were the first words said to me by my coworker Dominique, an immigration lawyer in Geneva.
There are some lessons learned best outside of a classroom.
Do you know how to say “hello” in Siswati, [the language of the Swazi people]? Or that there are children living outside of Manzini, [a city in eSwatini (formerly Swaziland)], who are genius soccer players? Did you know that when you drive through eSwatini at night, you feel like you’re floating through sea of stars because the hills are lit up with lanterns and there is no electricity? Did you know that, in French-speaking Switzerland, we have a special word for wind that is brutally cold, la bise? Or that the first question you’d be asked about your native language is the meaning behind “Rock and Roll”?
Did you know that choice is a privilege, that children in eSwatini, a country 99 percent ethnically Swazi, might get a doll that looks like me, or no doll at all. That blonde hair and blue eyes can often earn you a trust and privilege you did not merit and certainly do not deserve? Did you know some situations are so painfully human you don’t need language to understand?
I would not be the person I am today without these experiences. Many universities plaster the catchphrase “experiential learning” across brochures and recruitment flyers––but I don’t believe any quite understands what this means like the University of Redlands.
Charitable giving is what brought me to Redlands in the first place. I was raised in Eugene, Oregon, and did not truly expect to leave my hometown for college. I’ve been lucky––I never had the chance to look back. I spent my 19th birthday on May Term in eSwatini, supported by this University to study global medical ethics. I fell into step with the Department of Public Policy and was pushed to my limits by professors and friends, like Greg Thorson, in pursuing my interests in public health. I spent the fall of my junior year in the mountain town of Saint-George, just outside of Geneva, Switzerland, where I studied global health and development policy and attended briefings at the international organizations I had always read about. I traveled to Morocco, staying with a host family. The following summer, I returned to Switzerland for an internship with a human rights organization in Geneva, working on a health promotion program for migrant women called “Femmes-tische.”
Throughout my life, all of my studies and work experiences have been conducted in my first language. I was born into a family with two English-speaking American parents, who were themselves born into the same circumstances. I had always been at ease linguistically before traveling abroad to study and work in my second language, French. During the first couple of weeks, I was very frustrated by the mistakes I made, and the feeling I was wasting my coworker’s time when I misunderstood a task or conversation. I felt trapped and unable to express how much I was learning and the extent to which I appreciated this opportunity. Working in a second language means relying on intense observation of mood and tone. It [means] relying more heavily on your empathy and on small gestures for the people you work with. Working in a second language means constantly reevaluating what is important enough to find the words to express.
Over the summer, I worked for an organization to connect migrants with community resources in Geneva.
Yet I was a migrant myself.
I remember preparing to translate a CV for a highly qualified refugee who had been forced to start over with her career after fleeing her country. With two master’s degrees in peace and conflict studies and numerous international publications, it seemed clear to me she was overqualified for the majority of positions. Yet she could not speak French. For the first time, I understood how frustrating that could feel. I am returning to California with a true sense of empathy for those in my community in these circumstances––a position I had always sympathized with but never fully understood.
Every day over the summer on the bus to work, I heard a minimum of four languages in conversations around me. I sat next to high-level workers at the World Health Organization and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I ate lunch in the same cafeteria as those at the International Organization for Migration. I spent a day at the lake with the family of a UN representative who worked on public health in Hungary and heard conversations over coffee about the next steps needed to truly eradicate malaria. I attended conferences in my free time and met American human rights activists such as Kenneth Roth and Catherine Flowers––with whom I was able to discuss the prevalence of poverty-driven illness in the American South. This summer was a dream––humbling, motivating, and grounding in every sense of the word. The investment that was made in me was not just monetary. These were contributions of belief, of passion, and of a desire to share gratitude for this institution with the students of my generation.
Grateful is too light a word for the way I feel about my experiences at this University and the ways I personally have been supported by everyone in this room. So thank you, for your support of my education, growth, and learning, both on this campus and thousands of miles away. Thank you on behalf of the many others on this campus who continue to learn and grow as a direct result of your commitment.
To learn more about Gearhart, see the Och Tamale magazine article, “Globetrotting for good: Forever Yours in action.” More information is also available on the Forever Yours campaign, the public policy major, and study abroad opportunities with the University of Redlands.