Aya’s trip to South Dakota this year transformed the way she thought about herself and the world around her in a profound way. Read her full reflection essay on the trip here:

I was very excited when I was informed that I had been accepted to participate in an out-of-state trip to meet the initial ones who landed in America: The Native Americans. Beside the fact that it was going to be my first time meeting Native Americans, it was my first time going on a service trip, which made me feel blessed. It was an honor and a source of pride that I was going to be assisting the real discoverers of the Americas. Just as we landed in South Dakota and reached the reservation, that’s when it hit me that “It’s real; I’m not actually fantasizing”.
The first thing we did was take a tour of the Wounded Knee location and where the cemetery of all those who died there is located. A man came inside and gave us a little story about himself, the Wounded Knee history, and about the culture of the Lakota. I was puzzled and fascinated by their view of life, traditions, and culture as a whole. What struck me the most about his speech was in the end when he said, something along the lines of, “We might be poor economically, but we are rich in our culture and tradition.” I remember that I got goosebumps after hearing that because of the humbleness and the love of his identity that he showed and, I figured, the whole tribe shared as well.
Our work days were, as expected, the hardest. The first thing we did was move a lot of wood pieces. After that, we had a three hour sanding session, which was daunting. Muted from our surroundings by ear plugs, I patiently continued working, only expressing my exhaustion with facial expressions whenever my teacher brought new pieces we needed to sand. However, I pushed myself to find joy and to continue working by thinking of the purpose of why I was doing it, and the greater service it was going to present to the Native Americans.


Throughout the following days of work, I discovered that I had hidden talents with tools, especially drills. I really enjoyed drilling when we were building skirts for the trailers and handicap ramps. In fact, I believe that I have mastered that skill; that is a skill that I would not have learned or discovered or been blessed with if it wasn’t for this service trip.


I’ve also been able to build relationships with classmates that, otherwise would never have existed if it wasn’t for this service trip. I had a fellow classmate who was joining us in the service trip. I would see her everyday; we had history class together and her locker is right next to mine. Nonetheless, we never had a conversation with each other because I just didn’t connect with her. To be more honest, I have always thought she disliked me which made me conclude that I would never have any friendship relationship with her. In South Dakota, we were placed in the same group, and I was forced to see her, and work with her everyday. We connected to each other from the first day, and we found so much in common with each other. Surprisingly, we consider ourself best friends now. Ever since we returned back to school, she started sitting next to me in history class, replacing the loneliness I felt being the only one sitting in a table, and I don’t think anything can break our relationship now.


The most valuable time in South Dakota was when we had Native elders come in and teach us about their culture and language. I was mesmerized by their love and respect of nature, which I really appreciate. We need more people in this world to care for the land that we live in. These days a lot of people claim how they love nature but no one is actually caring about it as much as the Native Americans, and I think that we need to learn from them and follow their policy towards nature and the land we live in. It’s everyone’s obligation to take care of the earth we live in; however, no one really seems to take responsibility for that beside the Native Americans. As one elder said, “We are not inheriting this land; we are borrowing it from future generations” which is just so inspirational, and nonetheless, true. One day we had this elder who came in and talked about youth. He talked about how youth suicide is a problem, and how a lot of youth don’t seem to appreciate themselves. During his speech, he came up to me and said if I ever needed anyone to talk to, I could come up to him, and he assured me that he would listen because he cares; In addition, he kept emphasizing that we are all sacred human beings . That meant so much to me, which forced me to come up to him after he was done, in tears, and just thank him for his kind words and for reassuring me that I am a sacred being. And now, my favorite quote is “We are all sacred beings”.


From this trip, I’ve learned to be humble and appreciate what I have because too much luxury is not directly related to happiness; Rather, it is simplicity in life that makes one happier and more appreciative of what they have.