ANnika Swanson Berman
Deputy Director of Strategy, Innovation, and Impact at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Life on the Road
I don’t even know how to describe what the Road Less Traveled has been for me. I have always been passionate about the outdoors, foreign travel, cross-cultural understanding, and helping others. But, leading for the Road Less Traveled transformed the way I thought about many of these issues:
it deepened my belief in the power and importance of the outdoors and the true value of all young people getting the opportunity to immerse themselves in and challenge themselves.
The Road Less Traveled allowed me to become friends with Costa Rican farmers, colorfully-beaded Kuna women, and yak-herders in Northern India. However, none of these personal connections compares with the rewarding joy of facilitating and seeing young people make those connections – sitting with an RLT participant in a herder’s stone hut, using our hands to makeshift conversation with a wrinkled Ladakhi woman over hot butter tea and much laughter; watching the elation on participants’ faces as we returned to a Kuna island after an afternoon adventure on a different island and about 30 Kuna’s lined the shore cheering and waving with excitement at our return; seeing a participant determinedly confront his fear as he lowered himself nervously into a crevasse and, minutes later, seeing his beaming smile as he came climbing back up the ice wall.
Being a leader for the Road Less Traveled taught me how to push people beyond their comfort zones while letting them know they were safe and supported 100% of the time. I learned how to bring people from different backgrounds together and help them forge genuine friendships through shared challenges and triumphs. It taught me how to keep a group of 12 young people enthusiastic and laughing when we were caught in torrential downpours in the Alaskan wilderness and our food was running low and the bush plane that was supposed to drop off our new food supply couldn’t get in because of the weather.
The Road Less Traveled never failed to ground me in what was important – every summer, the Road Less Traveled was a blessed opportunity to step away from the heady rush of a university campus, from academic and job pressures, from the distracting buzz of civilization and to focus on people and places – on real needs, real opportunities, real challenges, real beauty.
The emotional and physical well-being of those around me were my top priorities. I fell asleep at night, exhausted from a day of intense physical activity and high-energy interactions, thinking not of exams, or upcoming deadlines, or what to do on my weekend, but on how to support the guy who was having trouble connecting to the group, how to challenge the girl who couldn’t be challenged, how to manage tomorrow’s hike given the incoming weather, how to inspire participants through what I knew would be a grueling 40K kayak…and reflecting on the surprises and challenges and elations of the day.
Perhaps most of all, the Road Less Traveled was for me about people and hope. It was the place where I’ve had the most true, most genuine, and perhaps most intense interactions with people – and that is a beautiful thing. Being in a situation with people that forces us to drop our pretenses, to become vulnerable, to be honest…and to have the opportunity to shed all past baggage and be the versions of ourselves we want to be. To struggle together, to succeed together, to sometimes fail together, and to learn how to work together. And the people I called “colleagues” at the Road Less Traveled were some of the best people I’ve known – the most caring, committed, passionate, and downright fun to be around. I learned so much from working with them and had such a blast doing it - they continue to be some of my best friends and greatest role models.
And hope – the Road Less Traveled was surely what led me to teach in England and to work at Youth Venture, empowering young people to lead social change. The participants made me laugh in the middle of crises, surprised me with their insights, pushed me to think beyond my conventional assumptions, challenged me with their energy, independence, and antics. But, most of all, they inspired me. With their genuine passion, their creativity, their enthusiasm for adventure and learning and their interest in other people and places. With their goodness.
It changed my approach to social change – from focusing on brilliant ideas and innovations to focusing on developing and unleashing the incredible power of each individual to create positive change.
The youth years are a perfect time to do that, and to have the opportunity to facilitate such a transformative journey for young people is a rare gift – one that I only hope I’ll have a chance to experience again.
A couple memories that stand out:
- Our first 40-K kayak in Costa Rica. No one was quite expecting it, not even the leaders, and it came as a brutal shock. Our group was apprehensive, but willing to take it on (perhaps they saw they had no choice). We got up at 4 AM and spent the next 14.5 hours paddling through darkness, sunrise, rain, sun, and wind, past monkeys and turtles and unseen crocodiles. It was a long – we groaned, we laughed, we cried, we sang Disney songs, we played endless rounds of “chocolate or vanilla”. but we got through it, and it ended up being a highlight of the trip for many. It remains a vivid live experience of the power of a shared challenge; the incredible exhilaration that comes from pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone; the ability to dig deeper and find the strength to continue; the beauty of a group working together – someone with energy voluntarily joining an exhausted peer to give them some relief and encouragement.
- In Costa Rica, I had a participant who didn’t want to be on the trip – his parents had made him come. He began the trip reluctantly joining in our activities and wishing he were at home with his lacrosse buddies. But he soon found himself becoming close friends with the other participants as they shared challenges and epiphanies. He found himself exhausted and fulfilled after a day of hauling materials for a new school through the rainforest. He got into thoughtful discussions about what it means to be an American doing service abroad – what do we even mean by “service” and what is its value? And, perhaps most importantly, he played with the Coast Rican kids and develop a rich friendship with Martin - the Costa Rican man who oversaw our construction on the school – who, despite their different languages, taught him all sorts of things about local construction techniques and the rainforest. Day to day, I watched him get more involved and eventually take on a leadership role in the group, having become genuinely passionate about the work we were doing and the new culture he was discovering. The truly powerful moment was the last night of the trip when he told me that, despite his parents’ promise that he could do whatever he wanted to the following summer, he had decided to sign up for another RLT community service trip. The trip had really transformed him. He had become taken by Costa Rica and the rainforest and learning about new places and issues. This remains for me one of the most important parts of the Road Less Traveled – the experiences at that formative time can completely change a young person’s interests and direction and can open up a whole new world for them.
I hope to create positive change in the world; to run a marathon; to become bilingual; to spend much time outdoors in beautiful places and help others experience and enjoy wilderness; to reduce my ecological footprint and help preserve that wilderness; to help the business, social, and public sectors work together more effectively; to keep learning about and falling in love with other cultures; to help build an everyone a change maker world; to truly live my values; to grow my own vegetables; to be happy and make others happy.