Never underestimate the power of a day. Sometimes the moments you originally deem as insignificant become the moments that you shape the rest of your life.

When I was placed on the waitlist for Gannon’s Physician Assistant program in 2016, I was extremely disappointed. At that point, I thought that my dream of becoming a PA might not come true. A week later, I was offered a spot in the program. I immediately enrolled at Gannon and never looked back. I did not know at the time that doing so would positively affect my life in more ways than I could count.

Since coming to Gannon, I have met hundreds of phenomenal people and have grown as a student, leader, and friend. I often find myself wondering, “How, with all the other places and opportunities in the world, did I end up here?” or “this really feels like home.” These feelings of “home” and love didn’t fail to surface even when I was on an Alternative Break Service Trip (ABST) almost 3,000 miles away from Erie, in the heart of Mérida, México.

Although I cannot fully articulate how my spring break trip to Mérida impacted my perspective because the impact was so great, I have attempted to compile a list of five simple phrases that share the lessons I learned during my trip. I encourage you to approach every situation, regardless of its original impact, with an open mind and open heart. In doing so, you will expand your worldview while finding exactly where you belong.

We are shaped by our history, and we have the power to choose how we live in the present.

-Mérida was originally inhabited by the Mayans, but it was eventually conquered by the Spaniards. Through slavery and violence, the Spaniards attempted to exert their power in the West and conquer as much land as they possibly could. The effects of Spanish conquest are very evident in Mérida’s Yucatecan culture. In downtown Mérida, grand palaces serve as visible reminder of Spanish rule. In other areas, the Mayan language is dwindling.

-Merida’s citizens recognize that an injustice took place, but they do not attempt to suppress their history. Instead, they educate others on their culture and create traditions, such as the Sunday Market, that demonstrate their cultural pride. They realize that the only way to prevent history from repeating itself is to recognize the past and live in a way that cherishes the value of every person in the present.

Ask questions before creating your own answers. Let everyone tell their own story.

-During the first few days of the ABST, my group traveled to a small, rural village called Yaxcabá. We stayed in a church and spent the majority of our time interacting with locals. Each member of Yaxcabá’s community had a wealth of wisdom to share and was eager to share it with anyone who asked.

-One afternoon, as we were painting a room in the church, we dove into a deep discussion with two of the locals. At one point in the discussion, one of the members of Gannon’s group asked, “What do you fear most?” One of the locals answered, “I fear not being able to help my family or serve my community. We can do more together as a community if we work together.” Every answer Yaxcabá’s citizens provided focused on their desire to provide opportunity for others.

-One five-word question opened the door to a two-hour conversation on fears, wishes, and goals. Although trends such as the importance of hope and faith were evident, each person had a unique story to tell. Those stories, which were unbelievably powerful, may have been hidden forever if we assumed that we knew them already.

Living outside of your comfort zone is the best way to live.

-My family and friends always tell me that I am a “selective eater.” Trying new foods can be really uncomfortable for me. My trip to México forced me out of my comfort zone each day as I pushed myself to try new foods during group meals. Although my tongue tingled for a few minutes after, I tried a habanero pepper (formerly known as the world’s hottest pepper). I have also discovered a love for tortillas and “poc chuc,” a pork dish that is a staple in the Yucatecan diet.

-Another highlight from my ABST was swimming in the Chihuan cenote. Cenotes are water-filled sinkholes that result from the collapse of limestone bedrock. As our group ventured into the darker areas of the cenote in our neon orange life vests, our fear was evident. Each member in our group linked arms and let out uneasy squeals as we slowly swam towards the unknown. At one point, a group member pointed out bat-shaped shadows. Those “shadows” weren’t just shadows. They WERE bats. Bats that decided to fly in circles above our heads. Every member of our group was uncomfortable, but we were all thoroughly exploring the cenote together.

-During other parts of the trip, group members stepped out of their comfort zones by flying in an airplane for the first time, attempting to speak Spanish with locals, sleeping in hammocks, and climbing Mayan ruins. We relied on each person’s strengths and life experiences to overcome obstacles that we faced. As a result, we created an unbreakable group bond and amazing memories.

God created you to serve your own mission.

I have taken dance lessons for over eighteen years. Throughout those eighteen years, dance has given me the medium to connect with people from diverse backgrounds. I never expected, however, for my dance background to give me the opportunity to connect with others on my ABST.

Near the end of our trip, my group had the phenomenal opportunity to interact with amazing students at Nueva Vida, an after-school program for young girls in Mérida. Nueva Vida empowers girls that face challenges at home through educational enrichment opportunities and provides them with a loving community. Although we did not originally plan to do so, I was able to work with another member of Gannon’s Dance Team and teach a sideline routine to the girls at Nueva Vida. When the girls danced, their smiles and energy were infectious. They were extremely grateful for the opportunity to learn something new, and I was extremely grateful to have learned and shared an art form that allows me to feel connected to people all over the world.

God grants everyone with gifts and talents that allow them to fulfill his call on their lives. Through the art of dance, God has given me the opportunity to serve others emotionally and physically. I plan to continue serving others through dance for the rest of my life.

Love doesn’t have borders. You can love anyone anytime, anywhere, and as much as you want.

-The amount of love I experienced in Mérida was indescribable. This love was demonstrated in countless ways, including hugs and kisses, food, quality time, and though words such as “our home is your home” and “we are blessed to have you.” The people I interacted with in Mérida did not care how long I had known them or where I came from. In their minds, each person should be included, valued, and showered fully with unconditional love.

-I learned through this unconditional love that service is not helping. “Helping” implies an unequal exchange of goods, but service is an exchange among equals. When we serve, we share with everything we are and do not apologize for what we are not. Service and true love do not drain us, but instead fill our lives with everything we could ever desire. By accepting love from others and loving others for who they ARE and not who we may WANT them to be, we become whole.

I would like to thank Gannon’s Center for Social Concerns for creating an enriching Mérida ABST, my friends and family for their support, my group for their open-mindedness and humor, and everyone from Mérida and the Mission of Friendship for their hospitality.