People to People Student Ambassador Program is an organization where students of varying achievements are selected to participate in life-changing educational travel. Last summer I was selected to travel from Amsterdam, Holland to Dublin, Ireland. Mid way through the three week trip we arrived in Normandy, France. My story begins here.
The year before, I had studied the tragedies of D-day and the horrific effects that it had on that beautiful French seaside. With sleepy eyes and a vacant expression, I had sympathized with an over generalized textbook version of the tragedies. Now standing inside the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial grounds my history book failed to be another tedious homework assignment, it became reality. It leaped before my eyes; jagged cliff walls that were once swarmed with men ascending to utter chaos and destruction, perverted hilly landscapes caused by cascades of bombs and artillery, scattered cement bunkers laid in ruin across the lifeless sea cliff.
However much I wanted to return to that naÃ¯ve, sheltered version I had learned in class, I could not. The images before me burned deep within my subconscious. It was almost impossible for me to believe that the beaches of Omaha and Utah, spotted with sunbathing, speedo wearing Europeans, were witness to such a massacre. As I weaved through the seemingly endless rows of marble crosses individually inscribed with the names of soldiers who had sacrificed their lives on that fateful June, day it had never occurred to me the number of lives that are lost at war. Now this is not entirely true, but viewing the death toll of a war on CNN or Fox News is entirely different from being confronted with row upon row of tangible crucifixes.
Searching for my friend Cassidy’s great grandfathers’ name seemed like an insurmountable task. We eventually did find his cross and as we stood there looking down at it among the thousands of others I realized just how easily this could have been my great grandfather, my father, or even me. It took me a while to realize that at that moment I had matured. Before this, life had seemed like an infinite period of time, an endless book in which the story of my life could be written. Now standing on that seaside precipice, sovereign and for the first time isolated from my parents, I was becoming aware of my independence as a person and began to value life and the experiences before me.
My mind reeled over the pictures of the cemetery, past and present. One being the sculpture of a man in the center of the memorial grounds with his arms stretched high toward the sky, standing tall and dignified. It was this man that I had transformed into. I returned home with a new self-awareness, no longer clinging to juvenile textbook simplification. Now, like the man, I stretch my arms toward the sky and imagine the future. Everyday I get new hints at what this future and its experiences’ hold.
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