Living Abroad with Purpose: Marie’s Year of Service
Marie had just graduated from high school and was looking forward to attending St. John’s College, her dream university in New Mexico, USA. However, 2020 proved to be a year of uncertainty as universities worldwide switched to online-only classes due to the pandemic. Determined to experience the world more authentically and meaningfully, Marie (Class of 2020 / France) discovered Points Coeur, a French NGO dedicated to bridging the gap between isolated communities and the rest of the world.
Points Coeur is a global organization with 40 houses in remote areas around the world where nobody wants to go. Their mission is to disrupt the isolation these communities experience by sending 4 to 6 volunteers aged 18-35 to each of these houses. These volunteers live with the locals, share their daily life, and work with them to create a community where everyone feels connected and valued.
On her mother’s suggestion, Marie visited one of Points Coeur’s houses in the Paris area. The volunteer’s authentic joy and commitment to experiencing life together with isolated communities worldwide captured her. So she applied for their 14-month volunteer program and was assigned to a house in Napoli, Italy.
A New World: Marie’s Transformation in Afragola
As the plane descended towards Vesuvio’s majestic slopes, Marie’s heart raced with anticipation for the journey ahead. Little did she know, the next 14 months in the former historic center of Afragola, one of Italy’s most underprivileged cities, would transform her vision of the world forever. Marie eagerly embraced the local lifestyle, immersing herself in the culture and language of the community.
She spent her mornings learning the local dialect, traditions, cooking, and art, particularly music, becoming fully absorbed in the vibrant culture around her. The afternoons were spent with the children, older residents, and single mothers, working hard to create a sense of togetherness in a community that felt abandoned by the rest of society. As Marie became fluent in the Neapolitan dialect, she quickly realized how powerful language could bring people together.
Humility, Hospitality, and Love: The Lifelong Lessons of Marie’s Volunteer Work
“If you’re a UWC ISAK Japan student taking a gap year, my advice is to take on a genuine engagement. Do not go into your gap year without a project, without being engaged in a cause,” Marie advises. Despite her love for Italy and its culture, her time there was not without challenges. While living in a community is a common experience for UWC ISAK students who live in on-campus dorms, Marie took this to a new level in Italy. She spent every moment with her four to five fellow volunteers, 24/7, doing everything together and praying for forgiveness every evening. “It was hard to always share everything, ask for forgiveness daily, and have a common mission,” she recalls. Yet, this impressive dedication in the long term provided Marie with lifelong lessons: “I lived a true friendship with these people [in the neighborhood]. They are masters of humility, hospitality, and love.”
From a South of France vineyard to Karuizawa, Italy, and New Mexico
Marie’s childhood was rooted in a close-knit community nestled in the idyllic town of Pézenas in the South of France. Her family vineyard and the comforting familiarity of small-town life offered a dreamy backdrop, but Marie yearned for something different. She wanted to break away from the family-centered lifestyle, explore new cultures, build meaningful friendships, and challenge herself. So, with the UWC movement always in the back of her mind, Marie applied to her French National Committee and was ultimately accepted into UWC ISAK Japan.
The call for adventure: how Marie pursued the unknown
Marie’s UWC ISAK experience was a life-changing adventure that opened her eyes to the beauty and depth of Japanese culture beyond the world-famous animes and mangas. From the art of refinement to the tea ceremony and calligraphy, she was fascinated by the Japanese commitment to perfection and mindfulness in every small act. And as if the cultural immersion wasn’t enough, she also developed valuable skills that she carries with her to this day. Writing compelling essays became her forte, which she often finds herself doing at St. John’s. Learning how to balance academics, personal projects, health, and social life was no easy feat, but it proved an essential life skill for which Marie is grateful.
But the most memorable experience for Marie was the week-long biking trip to the Northern island of Hokkaido with Mr. Underwood and Mr. Lacoste. It was a challenging adventure that pushed her limits, both physically and mentally. Biking to the western coast of Honshu to ride a boat with an onsen onboard may seem daunting, but for Marie, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As she reminisces about the trip, she can’t help but feel grateful for the opportunity to explore Japan’s scenic landscapes and bond with her teachers and classmates.
Finding Lifelong Bonds in the Pursuit of Faith
At UWC ISAK, students are free to choose their own path, but sometimes the abundance of options can overwhelm the decision-making process. For Simon (Class of 2022 / New Zealand), volleyball was his top priority, while for Marie, her faith took precedence despite the challenges. For example, attending church in Karuizawa required a 45-minute walk to the train station, followed by another trek from the train to the church. And to make things more interesting, the mass was conducted entirely in Japanese, a language Marie couldn’t understand. But the experience led to one of her most beautiful friendships at UWC ISAK. She met Kristīne from Latvia, who also attended the same church. The two became inseparable and remain the best of friends to this day, despite studying in different parts of the United States.
Marie recalls, “These long 45-minute walks almost every weekend helped us get to know each other in-depth, and we shared an unbreakable bond.” Kristīne even volunteered with Point Coeurs in their Senegal house; both have incredible stories about their experiences. For Marie, the challenges she faced in pursuit of her faith at UWC ISAK made her stronger and helped her form lifelong friendships. It’s a testament to the unique community that UWC ISAK fosters, where students from different cultures and backgrounds come together to build meaningful connections that last a lifetime.
The Next Chapter: Marie’s Ongoing Quest for Knowledge and Connection
Marie’s journey from a tight-knit French vineyard community to a small mountain college in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has been full of transformative experiences. Yet, despite the cultural shock and the vast difference in surroundings, she has found continuity in her quest for knowledge and connection with people. At UWC ISAK, she learned to balance academics, personal projects, health, and social life and understand the present moment’s importance. She even created a deep friendship through a shared commitment to attending a Japanese church in Karuizawa.
Now, at St. John’s College, Marie has taken up the study of Great Books and finds herself surrounded by people who are different from her in their ways of living and thinking. She is on a path to discovering the world’s beauty and understanding its people. While her studies may be intellectual and isolated from the rest of society, she remains true to her passion for being with people, artists, and children. In the future, Marie hopes to return to Europe and maybe Italy to pursue her passion for connecting with others.
Marie’s journey is an inspiring example of the transformative power of education, which enables us to expand our horizons and broaden our perspectives. At UWC ISAK, she discovered the richness of Japanese culture and the importance of community, and now at St. John’s, she is delving deeper into the world’s great minds. We wish her all the best in her studies and eagerly await the next chapter in her journey.