Jun 9, 2005

Can Lightning Strike Twice?

The spring of 1998 found me hopelessly confused. I was in my third year at the University of Buffalo studying engineering and all I knew was that I wanted out. I didn't see myself as an engineer, was profoundly uninterested in what I was studying and desperate for meaning. After struggling for years, I finally came to the conclusion that I was wasting my time and my life and that I needed to switch to another discipline or simply drop out of school. The only thing holding me back was I'd made a promise to myself; I needed to switch to something not away from something. And that, to my dismay, turned out to be the problem.

I've always had a lot of competing interests. At the time I was fascinated with disciplines of philosophy, english, or ecology. I was working for our student magazine as a writer, and loved it so daydreamed about journalism. I'd gotten back from a year abroad in Wales, so imagined a life doing international relations. I wanted to help people, and couldn't help but notice that the basic requirements for and engineering and degree and entry into med school weren't too different. And better yet, I'd met people who lived out my fantasies on the road. I met a man who spent the last decade traveling by doing origami, a women who'd circumnavigated the world as a volunteer sailor and professional scuba diver, and another who was riding across the country on his bicycle. With so many options, ironically, I had no inspiration for any of them. They all sounded cool, but none sounded like me.

So, instead, I found myself at the door of a stranger, Dr Mook, the engineering Dean for international studies and begged him for advice. He listened carefully, asked me to fill out some forms and before I'd known it I had been offered an all expense paid grant from a generous engineering association, GE3, to study abroad at ITESM in Monterey, Mexico for the summer. It was an amazing opportunity but I felt guilty accepting it. I later found out the ITESM is one of the top technical schools in Latin America, and they asked someone ready to turn his back on technical academia to spend the summer there. So I called the GE3 office and asked politely, 'What classes do I need to take?" and when they replied, "Anything" my mind started racing. "So I can go through this list, and choose any class I want and your grant will cover it?" When they agreed I felt bad, but deliciously devious. That summer an engineering association was about to fund a soon-to-be engineering dropout to study Spanish, Mexican cooking, and Latin American dancing.

PuertoAngel, Mexico

That summer will go down in my personal history as one of the all time best summers. I lived with a generous and kind Mexican family, met some wonderful people and fell in love with a beautiful country. I studied spanish with a charismatic teacher who brought us into the city to experience the joy of authentic Mexican life. I cooked elaborate Latin dinners in a mansion on the edge of the school, plucking limes from the tree outside the window for each dish. And in the outdoor courtyard of that same mansion we learned Salsa and Merengue with a Cuban woman so lovely and charismatic sometimes it was hard to breath. Once classes let out I spent a little over a month going south to explore the wildly varying but inevitably fascinating, beautiful and friendly country of Mexico.

The wildest part of the journey came in the end. My travels finished in the Chiapas, in southern Mexico and my return flight left from Monterey in the North. As I sat on the bus watching countless hours of mexico roll by I noticed that I finally knew what I wanted to study. And it was something I hadn't really even considered when I left, but it seemed so obvious and satisfying that I no longer had any doubt. I have always been interested in environmental causes, and technical solutions to them. So then it just seemed natural to stay, focus on my interests, and leave with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. But by the time they tried to graduate me I realized I was nowhere near done and ended staying until they gave me a Masters degree also in Mechanical Engineering (with an emphasis on sustainable buildings). To this day can't tell you what exactly happened that summer in Mexico, but it was so bright of a light I've steered by it for nearly 7 years.

And that brings us to today. I've spent the last two years working as an engineer in a small consulting firm in Amherst Massachusetts. We did a variety of work but much of it came down to making 2D drawings into 3D models which we converted back into 2D drawings that turned into a 3D reality. It's valuable work; by bringing things into our models we are able to see problems, and opportunities, that previously wouldn't have been clear. We designed materials processing plants so they could fit together just so. We played a small, but critical, role in making a world class architectural masterpiece fit together as its designer imagined it. By designing in a virtual world we save waste in the real one. Our company was small, but never once have I doubted our value. The principle of my company has a special genius for visualizing and absorbing and considering a lot of information. We could 'see' things before they appeared, and would guide the process to solve problems before they arose.

Center for Theater and Dance at Willaims College Massachusetts

I've learned a lot over the past couple years and am certain I could've learned a lot more. But, in much the same position I was 7 years ago I'm awash with ideas but completely lacking a sense of what I should do. While good, I'm pretty sure the job I left last month wasn't for me. Some things have changed; I'm looking for what I should do rather than what I should study. I'm not sure if I should stay in engineering, the US or even hold onto my idealism.

So, although we've got a lot of things we'd like to do on this trip I really only have one thing I hope to accomplish. I'd like to find a vocation.

The Americas once gave me everything I didn't know I was looking for, and offered me more if I kept moving south. So I ask today, with an open mind and open heart: What Next?

Breezing Up A Fair Wind

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