Tijuana to Islamabad
2002 graduate shares how an immersion experience later led him to Pakistan
In the fall of 1997, while I was visiting prospective colleges, the Jesuit trail brought me to St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. My host student, assigned by the school, seemed nice enough, but when it came time for socializing on Friday night, I was a bit underwhelmed. He told me I would be hanging out in his dorm room while he attended choir practice.
Before my big night began, we had dinner with some of his friends. I remember sitting across from a guy with a large red beard and thick glasses. He informed me that he and some friends were heading to the Spectrum to see a band called Phish. My heart sank. There wasn’t any other event I would have rather attended. I never did get his name.
Four years later, when I was a junior at Loyola, 20 Greyhounds were gearing up for a Project Mexico service trip to Tijuana under the guidance of Fr. Tim Brown, S.J. I was lucky enough to be part of that team.
One night, after a few days of mixing cement and doing other work in the community, we had our usual team dinner, which included the program hosts who lived there year round. That night, I sat across from one of the hosts, Andy Schaefer. We traded stories and he told me he had gone to St. Joe’s.
After jokingly telling him my memory of being left for choir practice during my prospect visit, he looked puzzled. He said he remembered that night because his friend was both in choir and a host for incoming students. Turns out Andy was the red-bearded guy in glasses. For the second time in four years, we sat across from one another at dinner. We were shocked at the coincidence.
A year later as a senior, I led the Project Mexico team to Tijuana. Once again, Andy was there facilitating the program. He not only delivered our team an amazing experience but did it repeatedly for university and high school groups traveling south of the border throughout the year. After dropping our team off at San Diego International to head back to Baltimore, I shook his hand and thanked him for his continued effort. It didn’t occur to me that our paths might cross again.
In 2005, after teaching under Fr. Frank Nash, S.J., in Bangkok as part of Loyola’s program in Thailand, I settled in San Francisco. Andy had recently moved to the Bay Area, and we caught up over a few beers.
The following summer he invited me to visit Panama City where he was working for Sustainable Harvest International. Trusting his sense of guidance and spirit for adventure, I booked a flight. As we traveled all over the country, Andy’s fluent Spanish made life much easier, paving my way for yet another amazing experience deep in a foreign community.
In 2012 he assumed the role of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) country director for Pakistan. Around that same time, I had taken interest in filming and editing videos. Knowing this, Andy threw another opportunity my way—a project in Pakistan. Heavy flooding in the south in September 2012 had left thousands without shelter. CRS began a program building temporary structures and needed videos to document the process. Andy offered to fly me to Islamabad in exchange for my video work.
Four weeks later I was on a 19-hour flight, having little clue as to what I was in for but trusting in my past adventures with Andy. When I landed at 3 a.m. in Islamabad, he was waiting for me at the airport just like in Tijuana 12 years prior.
After a day in the capital city getting acclimated and being briefed by CRS security advisors, we traveled 650 miles south to a town called Jacobabad, where the temperature hovered around 115 degrees. My duty was to film as much as I could, the focus being the process local villagers (beneficiaries) followed. These people traveled a few miles via tractor to a warehouse in Jacobabad, picked up specific sets of building supplies, and headed back to their respective villages where local CRS building experts would assist in the process until every shelter was functionally in place.
We spent four full days in flood-affected areas. Some people were still waiting to build their structures while others had successfully completed their own.
Through this adventure, I got to see something most never will—the inner workings of an international relief organization. Electricity was never a sure thing. Coordinating our field movements with local government and police was required. Food can be sketchy, and one’s health can never be taken for granted. (After accidentally ingesting local water one night, Andy and I were both in bad shape for 48 hours.)
I was pushed to my limits. My respect for international relief workers skyrocketed after getting a small taste of daily life in the field.
After days of labor, heat, and challenge, I found myself questioning why I had chosen to be in this situation, just as I had with Project Mexico. The answers this time quickly became clear. My eyes were being stretched wide and I realized that these lessons of life in a faraway land will serve me for years—easily worth the price of dehydration and some foreign bacteria. I realized that as we get older, such situations don’t present themselves as easily, and we have to search them out. Having friends like Andy doesn’t hurt either.
Programs like Project Mexico are a gift to students looking for that first or second glimpse into worlds very different than their own. What we see in those worlds can determine some of the direction we may take in our lives.
Without Project Mexico, my curiosity about the rest of the world would not have been triggered. I also would not have met Andy. Considering the depth of our friendship and numerous adventures he’s already lead me on, I’m certain another will come. And without question, I surely will go.