I have visited third world countries before, experienced poverty and seen hungry people, bankrupt businesses and disadvantage. But living in a third world country for eight weeks opened my eyes to new perspectives on it that I had not even considered. As the hopeful sort of person I am, I never thought much of the “you can do anything you set your mind to” mentality. It always made total sense. Cinderella stories and rise-from-the-ashes stories abound, and there was no reason to believe otherwise. Sure, it’s a hell of a lot harder for some people. But during my time in The Gambia, it was the first time I had ever truly considered the possibility that there were huge faults in this argument. Don’t get me wrong, I was not naïve enough to believe that educational advancement and life goals were just as easily accomplished by one in one circumstance as one in another. I recognize differences, and I knew that some people were bound by their economic, social and cultural confines. But I had never thought about the point at which telling someone they could do anything stopped being fair.

For most of the children I worked with at the YMCA, this idea is one that is more than important to ingrain in their brains. They are students who have the opportunity to advance their education, their academic success and their prospects, although not easy, are far from impossible. Their parents are determined to further their education, and they are in schools with resources like pencils, books and paper. These are the students who benefit from the motivation, who need that push, drive and focus, and doors may open. But when does it do more harm than good to tell people they are capable of anything?

But I tutored one girl, outside of the YMCA, with a blind father, a physically disabled mother, and multiple mentally disabled brothers, and it was totally unclear to me how much hope one is supposed to give. Her situation didn’t warrant much hope, but her drive to do well in school was inspiring and promising. But when she is 18 and in school and counted on to support her family, how am I supposed to know what to say? At what point does installing false hope in people become cruel, and who has the right to make that call to stop? And I realized, that she can make the call herself. She knows the limits much better than I do, and she knows her determination and levels of success in a way I will never even understand. The attitude with which we approached her studies was the only way she seemed to understand assignment by assignment, day by day.

I have visited …

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