The Traveling Teacher

After my freshman year at Doane, I made a decision that turned out to be pivotal for my life: I signed up to be an Orientation Leader that following August for the incoming freshman class (OLs came a few days before the start of Fall Semester to help with move-in and, well, orientation activities). Was it the program itself that changed me? Not, not at all. It was the professor assigned to our group, Dr. Betty Levitov, who made all the difference in where my life would go and how far I would travel, quite literally, in this world.

At our very first luncheon, Betty was bubbling over with enthusiasm for the semester abroad she was planning for the following year, 2002. She was all set to take a small group of students through seven different countries in Africa, teaching literature and linguistics, arranging safaris and local apprenticeships, and guiding us to learn about life, other cultures, history, and international travel, all at the same time. And the best part? She was still accepting applications for students to join the group! Also key to my life at the time? She was also still accepting students as advisees who were interested in becoming English majors, which aligned with a newly discovered goal for my undergraduate studies. 

Just as I knew I wanted Betty to become my academic advisor, I also knew instantly that I wanted to go on this incredible trip she was creating. The out-of-pocket cost wasn’t much different from the (already expensive) norm at Doane, as our tuition and room & board fees went to covering the cost of much of our traveling semester. It also wouldn’t put me behind in my studies at all as I would take enough credits to earn a normal 15+ credit hours while moving from country to country. 

My parents were not thrilled with the idea (I had never flown overseas before much less left the country for an entire semester) but eventually and reluctantly, they agreed, which was probably at a great cost to their worry, especially when 9/11 happened just weeks after giving me the green light to go and less than 12 months from when we would actually leave. Betty navigated everyone’s concerns with parent meetings and patient answering of questions; even though there were still nerves amongst the group, our trip to Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa began to take shape into a three+ month itinerary that would replace the first half of my junior year that I would have otherwise spent in Crete, Nebraska. 

The memories from that semester spent halfway around the world are too vast and varied to record here (that’s what the 2 1/2 inch-think scrapbook I made my senior year of college is for), even though much of the trip remains fresh enough that I probably could write a book about it. In fact, Betty already did write one that I later got to help promote through the University of Nebraska Press (as a former grad student who once did TA hours for them); you can find a copy of Africa on Six Wheels: A Semester on Safari on my shelves where it will have a home for the rest of my days. However, for a quick glimpse into life as an undergrad on the foreign road, consider the following: blowing as many of our van tires as countries we visited, practicing Swahili vocabulary lessons whilst standing in the Indian Ocean, wandering open stall markets for everything from souvenirs to clothes to fresh food, falling in love with all the animals we got to see on safari, poking my nose over the edge of Victoria Falls (dumb; don’t do stuff like that, except maybe do because it was amazing), creating a found-family with 16 other people (13 students, 1 professor, 2 adult helpers, and 1 Australian chef/driver), and a million other little moments that added up to the most incredible semester of my life. 

Of course it wasn’t just the overseas travel that impacted me. Having Betty agree to take me on as an advisee brought me other connections once we were back stateside such as an internship my senior year with the Prairie Schooner, the literary mag published by the UNL English Department. A year later I would begin my own graduate studies in that same department. Although I never took an entry-level writing course with Dr. Levitov while I was at Doane, her teaching and her love for her subject matter encouraged me to pursue my own love of words in that grad program which is what landed me teaching experience and the degree necessary to start my own career as a college-level English instructor in the years that followed our world travels. 

In the two decades since that first trip to Africa, Betty has remained a source of love and support in my life. She got to know Ben when we were fortunate enough, prior to starting our family, to travel to Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda for three weeks in 2008 with an alumni group from Doane (hello, bonus passport stamp and gorilla trek!). Even that trip feels dated now, but over the years, thanks to the beauty of the internet, Betty has observed my family grow and has always made it clear how proud she is of me and the paths I have traveled in this world. How fortunate I am that one of them crossed hers when it did and lead me to great adventure both abroad and at home. 

This is us: Fall, 2002 and Spring, 2019. 

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