Starting grad school after two years of travel, adventure, and self-discovery

This month, I’m finally back to school after two years off. I’ve started my graduate program at the University of Oregon and the past week or two have been full of orientations and learning the ropes of a new academic system and culture.

It seems like a good fit so far.

As I begin relearning how to have an attention span, I’m turning the page from that little two year window in between finishing my undergraduate degree and moving out of Santa Barbara and today. It’s a season of my life I affectionately refer to as The Gap– marked by diverse adventures, constant nomadism, and a whole lot of learning.

Two years and some change ago was when I finished my career at UC Santa Barbara. I knew that I would eventually want to go back to school for a higher degree, but I also knew that I didn’t want it to happen right away. First, I wanted to travel and see as much of the world as I could. I wanted to take in different experiences, working on things out of passion and necessity. I’ve blessed enough so that being able to take a more unconventional path was a possibility, and I knew I didn’t want to squander it.

I also knew that I really wanted all the things I did in that timeframe to shape whatever was to come after. I had my eyes on pursuing a career and future that tied together my Love for other cultures and interest in international issues with opportunities to help others. That meant I wasn’t just going to travel around for fun. It would be fun, no doubt, but I wanted to go to places to learn. I looked at the lives of a lot of people I admired, and I noticed a common thread was that first they went somewhere. It was there that they met a person or discovered a world that kept calling them back, and it was through this pursuit that they became the people I admire.

So, I moved out of Santa Barbara, and began living as a nomad.

A little timeline of those two years looks like this:

Sticking around Santa Barbara for a couple months to get closer to Deanna, just as we’d started dating.

Going on tour across the Heartland with Liberty in North Korea.

Spending a month off over the holidays to reconnect with friends and family in Santa Barbara, San Diego, and Sacramento.

Going to South Africa to live at 5Cees, an orphanage and care center.

Coming back and living in San Diego for a couple months, working at a movie theatre to save for the next adventure.

Accompanying Deanna to London for her internship, then backpacking in Morocco and Scandinavia.

Backpacking some more with Deanna in Western Europe, after her internship.

Taking a road trip up the coast to Portland with Matt.

Moving to Bakersfield to be closer to Deanna and work as a substitute teacher. I was a little more stationary at this time, save for some trips to Utah and Colorado.

Going to Asia (Thailand, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan) over the summer, visiting friends and family, and also seeing a refugee camp and the DMZ.

Taking a road trip to Montana and Idaho.

Spending the remainder of my summer across California to spend time with friends and family before moving.

Getting engaged.

Moving and settling into Oregon.

It’s been an excellent two years, and I wouldn’t change much about them. What’s funny is that somewhere in the back of my mind, I had a bit of an expectation to go to grad school at the end of it all with a very clear idea of what I was going there for. I would know exactly what issue I would want to work with in which region of the world. I think I expected that my focus would be more specific at this point.

But looking at the things I’ve learned, I actually feel more ready than ever to put down deeper roots and to launch into a new season. I may not know the specifics of where I’m going, no one really does anyway, but I do know elements of the life I want. I do know what I’ll be prioritizing, and I have a sense for what I can and can’t control. I set out to learn as much about the world and myself firsthand as possible, and I can gratefully say that it happened.

I learned that life is short and fragile, but when a life is lived well, it’s beauty is on a whole other level. I know that my idea of what that looks like surrounds living deliberately, forming deep and meaningful relationships, asking big questions and living a life of faith, living beyond yourself to help others, and appreciating everyday things as adventures.

I learned that a deep sense of meaning feels like gratitude to the extreme. I’ve learned that a full and beautiful life isn’t just marked by mountaintop experiences, but also some valleys and in-betweens, and being able to feel all of it is a mark of fullness.

I learned that the most meaningful things you can give somebody else are second chances and presence. Ironically, it was while I was across the world, in South Africa, that I best learned the importance of being present- being present for people and in moments, and it’s a lesson that has continued to evolve. We think our ideas will change the world, but really, it’s more about where we invest our presence.

I learned that above all, God wants to be present with us. That his presence transforms us into Love, and that it all begins with his Love for us.

I learned that the world of helping others can be a complex process, but it’s also humbling and worthwhile. I learned about hope for North Korea and about life at an orphanage in South Africa and about life inside a refugee camp.

With the new beginning of going back to school, one question I’ve been getting a whole lot has been the ever-ubiquitous “what-do-you-want-to-do-with-that?” or its many variants.

“What are your eventual aspirations?”

“What sort of job do you want to do afterwards?”

“What is your Personal Legend?”

Okay, so Paolo Coelho is the only one who’s ever asked me that last one, in the form of me reading The Alchemist, but the inquiry repeats itself.

What’s funny is that the more and more I’ve felt prepared to return to school, the more and more at ease I’ve been at responding to those questions with “I don’t know,” or perhaps more accurately, “we’ll see.”

It’s not that I don’t have any ambitions (I don’t think that’s something I’ve ever been accused of) or that I really don’t know what I want out of life. It’s actually that I do know what I want out of life, and less than a hundred percent of it surrounds career.

As I’m making this transition, I’m reminded that this new season in my life isn’t completely about grad school, or even Oregon. Those are big players in my life, but there are even bigger components. My relationship with God. My relationship with Deanna. My place in a community. Among the many things I’ve learned over the past few years is that we often overplan for a career and underplan for the other elements of a whole life. I might not know the exact specifics of where the next couple years will take me, but I do know what I want me life to be full of.






The other week, I was in a meeting with my advisor, and I was explaining to her that I had recently gotten engaged, and while I would enjoy working on projects with global impact and would actually enjoy a good bit of travel, long term, I wanted to be rooted and based in the U.S. I told her that it’s what I saw as best for me and Deanna and whatever future family awaits.

She assured me that this desire was something I didn’t ever need to apologize for, and she congratulated me on getting engaged. She told me that I’m at a really great starting point, with specific interests, but encouraged me to continue to get a feel for different opportunities that are out there. She told me about grads who were still based in the area, still working on things related to their interests. She mentioned a lot of local organizations with global reaches, and I discovered one of them was an organization I liked a lot that I had no idea was based in Eugene. She told me of somebody I had to meet, who worked for an international development non-profit as locally as Portland. Someone who, by all appearances, had a great sense of work-family balance.

At an orientation session later that week, another faculty member stressed that the program was very much carve-your-own-path. She held out a sheet that listed program requirements and explained that everybody gets it done in a different way.

I’ve been growing more and more comfortable without knowing what’s coming next, because, although people love to ask that question, nobody really knows for sure. I’ve been asked what I want to be when I grow up since I was four. That answer has evolved from lawyer to president to baseball player to genetic engineer to journalist into its present state of semi-ambiguity. I know the different things I’m open to experiencing and the skills I have to offer. I know my answer when people ask me what’s my dream job (for those keeping score at home, it’s to have a either a travel show on the Food Network or a food show on the Travel Channel).

I don’t see this transition as an end to all the learning I’ve done over the past two years. When I left Santa Barbara, I felt as if I had already grown a lot there, and it was hard to imagine what further growth would look like. Only looking back allows me to see all the different ways I’d grown. Although it’s hard to imagine at this point, I expect to be amazed by some of the things I’ll be learning in Oregon.

I don’t see this as an end to adventure. When I proposed to Deanna, I told her that the things that a marriage demands make the term “settling down” horribly inaccurate. While I won’t be doing as much globetrotting, I am always still down to see a new place.

I don’t see this as an end to the relationships I’ve formed over the past few years. I saw each of the trips across California, the US, and the World, largely as opportunities to invest in relationships. If anything, the past couple years were a great training grounds for maintaining meaningful friendships over miles of distance.

What I do see ending is my habit of changing addresses every couple of months. I also hope to travel less, or at least, differently. I will be less inclined to go to an unfamiliar place “just because,” since I now already have a lot of places I’m connected to that I’d make more of a priority to revisit. (South Africa, I’m looking at you!) I see this as a beginning of a new season, though. A season of more staying. Forming deeper roots. Building a solid foundation for marriage. Getting connected into a surrounding community- that’s something I’ve missed. I look forward to more presence.

All the while, I couldn’t be more thankful for The Gap. I would not be ready to be doing what I’m doing, to be going to grad school, to be pursuing a new life in Oregon, to be getting married, if not for the meaningful things I learned by going new places and taking them in with my own eyes.

Philippe Lazaro2014