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How traveling to Guyana changed me as a student

By Katie Burrell

I went on a trip out of the U.S. with the goal that I would learn to be brave and independent.

Having only left the country once before on a family cruise to Mexico, I knew I was missing out. As a completely unseasoned traveler, my worldview was sculpted from growing up in North Texas, moving back and forth to Oklahoma and a couple days in the most touristy spot of Mexico.

However, as a journalism student, I’ve made it a priority to diversify my friendships, read stories by other people about other places and cultures and to always look at the planet with an open mind. This mantra, albeit harmless, was insufficient. Reading and listening to others’ ideas and experiences can keep a student keen, but now I know life is learned best when experienced firsthand.

So, I spent two weeks in Guyana with five of my peers from the mass communication department, and five students I had never met before from the College of Health Professions at Texas State. I flew on a plane for the first time, in the aisle seat of course, from San Antonio, Texas to Miami, Florida and a major layover later I was in Trinidad/Tobago then to Georgetown, Guyana.

I experienced so many firsts within those 24 hours-my first plane ride, my first-time on the other side of the U.S., my first time meeting some of my trip mates and my first time feeling completely elated knowing that I had no idea what the next few days of my life would look like.

We got off the Caribbean Airlines plane and immediately stepped foot on black pavement, surrounded by darkness, stars and humidity. Straight through customs, baggage in tow, we were through the small airport and welcomed by a camera crew. I talked to fellow journalists for a quick online segment that was posted the next day, and squished myself into a van for a bumpy, and what felt like forever ride to Project Dawn. We stayed at Project Dawn, a large hostile in Liliendaal, Guyana for the majority of our trip.

Project Dawn is where I made spaghetti one night because we were too exhausted to go out. It’s also where I learned to play gin rummy, met a Canadian anesthesiologist, ate countless meals of chicken and rice and learned the value of being far away from home sometimes.

I wanted to be a more adventurous student. I wanted to consider myself a brave traveler and well-rounded journalist and I hope I am still on my way to be all of those things. But what I really learned on this trip, following students around in hospitals, interviewing locals and hanging out with school children was that my whole life is not in Texas. I discovered that I felt most at home when up late at night discussing sources with my roommate, fighting off mosquitos in the Guyana interior and laughing too loudly in a bumpy van.

My trip to Guyana was not easy and each day presented a new challenge but with the help of my peers I felt at home because I was thriving as a student. I learned firsthand what it really means to be open minded to the world and to myself. The culture of Guyana bears its similarities to the U.S. but is overall so different, and I’ve learned to embrace that.

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What Guyana taught me about my fears

It’s Jan. 6 and we’re exploring Stabroek Market in Georgetown. I’m following our group, lead by Denroy Tudor who works for the Ministry of Public Health, taking in the crowded and packed market. It soon becomes clear that Tudor is working on gaining us access to the clock tower that stands high above the market.

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The first tiny, winding and hole-filled staircase.

In my head, I’m thinking, ‘Wow, what an experience! We’re going to get to do something that not even all the locals do.’ 

It never occurred to me, that we would have to climb to the top …

… on winding staircases that aren’t completely closed off…

…that you can see straight through.

Back in Texas, my mom can’t even get me up more than one ladder step because of my fear of heights. Now, here in Guyana, I’m hurriedly following my group and trying not to get lost in the throng of people and products.

Before I know it, before I can process it, I’m ascending the steps.

I grip the handrail as my heart pounds against my chest and I’m trying to keep my emotions in control.

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Looking down at the market from the halfway point.

‘I want my mom. Right now. I need her,’ plays on repeat in my mind.

I make it half way, I’m told.

There’s only one more winding staircase between me and the top of this clock tower. I mindlessly trudge on, determined to take step after step and only think about that.

I can’t turn around, not really, because there’s the rest of my group behind me on this tiny, winding, hole-filled staircase. I shift my gaze from the market below me when sunlight begins to infiltrate my peripheral vision.

I emerge onto a patio of sorts, with a 360 degree view of the market. Bright buildings, cars and umbrellas are visible in every direction, except for the side with a gorgeous view of the Demerara River.

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View from the top of the clock tower.

For a moment, I forget about the internal struggle I faced to get myself up the clock tower. I forget about the fact that I will have to go back down the tiny, winding, hole-filled staircases.

I look around at the city that has been my home for the past four days. The city that has welcomed me with open arms. This beautiful city filled with beautiful souls.

Before I came to Guyana, I was filled with so much anxiety about being away from my mom, my lack of respiratory therapy knowledge and my skills as a reporter.

As I’m staring at the people and cars below me, I’m also taking in the people surrounding me. My instructor who brought me here, my teammates who never fail to make me laugh and the respiratory therapy students who happily teach me about their work.

I’m realizing that I have it within myself to try new things, to accomplish things no matter how much they scare me. And, just as importantly, I have people in my life to help me along the way.

I go down the stairs with an adrenaline high. I don’t see the holes below me, I don’t trip over myself as much on the tiny steps and this time…

…there’s a smile on my face.

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Me smiling on top of the clock tower. Photo by Holly Wise/Global News Team.

Photos by Skyler Jennings/Global News Team