When I travel, I ask my counterparts—other young people—what is important to them? The answer I usually receive: the "American Dream."
I then ask these young people what the American dream means to them? Their answers fuel me and inspire me to take action in my own life.
One response stood out: “To me, the American dream is not about moving to America but being able to create a better life for my city.” This was the bold response by Maria, a young girl I met while teaching English in Marghita, Romania.
When I taught English in Romania and Croatia in the summer of 2011, I went in with the understanding of teaching underprivileged students who had little formal training of the English language. I left with lasting friendships, but what truly impacted me was that I was the teacher and I was the one who learned so much.
Maria, a young student herself, told me that she would never visit the United States; she would never see my home of New York or even leave her city. This hit me. She spoke English better than any other student, knew American history and culture better than anyone I have ever met abroad, but was determined to stay in her town.
This was not because she could not leave, but because she saw her place in the world as giving and providing for her entire town. She and her family were paying to rebuild a school for the town that the national government refused to provide funding for. I asked Maria what I could do to help her and her family in their bold mission, but she told me she could not answer that, I had to discover my answer for myself.
I thought hard and decided that I did not want to leave Romania without sitting down with the Mayor and challenging him on his policies for education reform and what he was doing to help the young people of the region like Maria.
I was granted my meeting, welcomed and pressed for the same when I met with the Mayor in Croatia.
My position as a foreigner gave me a platform to advocate for my peers in a way that I thought that my age would have prevented me from doing so.
It was here that I realized that a leader is not confined to age, race or gender but is defined by their passion and will to make a difference.
From this journey, I challenged myself that whenever I traveled, I would meet with a young person face to face and ask them about the issues in their town, region or country so I could best understand these issues; then when I am in a position to best address it, I would be prepared to do so.
I was compelled to do this because I was driven to learn and do more for the world beyond myself. I think the way that I think and act the way that I act because I believe that change begins with each of us.
This desire to want to do more for the world beyond ourselves is not something that can be taught or that is birthed within us but is a product of our own experiences.
The American dream means something to all of us but the trap lay in how we respond to what we ascertain as to what the core of the dream really is.
Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said it best: “if your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.”
Not long ago, I asked a top 40 Forbes 400 list billionaire what keeps him up at night. He said “failing.” He continued by emphasizing that while it is a worry, it does not impede his ability to do what he sets out to accomplish, it only motivates him.
Your dream should scare you, but you should use that fear to motivate yourself. In doing so, you just may change the world. True success is not a tangible point in time. It is the journey you will take to get there.
I have had the pleasure of traveling to about twenty countries and meeting many young people along my travels. I learned a lot about these people through my experiences, but I have learned even more about myself and the country I call home.
No experience has compared to my encounter with Maria. I will never meet her again, but I will also never forget her and what she taught me.