Study Abroad: Kelli Stansell’s Path to ISAS Director
Kelli Stansell, Summit Adventure’s Immersion Service and Adventure Semester (ISAS) Director, knows a thing or two about the transformational effect of Summit’s work. Kelli, as noted in a recent article in the Sierra Star, first encountered Summit Adventure as an ISAS student back in 2009. Her experience had such a profound impact on her that she decided to come back to Summit after college as an Instructor, eventually moving up to the position of Director of the ISAS program. Since the Sierra Star article only scratches the surface of Kelli’s story, we decided to interview her about her experience as an ISAS student and how that led to her current role.
Q: In what ways did the ISAS program push you?
Kelli: In every way. I was challenged through the academics, expeditions, cross-cultural living, small community living, I could go on. The challenges I faced throughout the semester were physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.
Specifically during my time in Ecuador (we spent 6 weeks there as a part of the semester) I faced unexpected challenges because I didn’t know what to expect. Living with Ecuadorian families presents many stumbling blocks when you speak little Spanish and are overwhelmed by being away from “normal” life of familiar friends and family. At that point in the semester, I reached the mark of longest stint of time away from my friends & family in Georgia. All the while, trying to figure out what God was teaching me through these emotionally draining experiences, we were climbing 15,000 – 18,000ft peaks. Talk about a physical challenge! No rock was left unturned in my ISAS experience.
Q: Even though it was hard, did you ever feel unprepared?
Kelli: The only way that I felt unprepared was in regards to what God was going to do in my life during those 4 months. I had no idea how life changing the experience was going to be.
The Summit staff provided an incredibly safe environment, both physically and emotionally. Never did I question my emotional safety when I was asked hard questions, or question my physical safety when I was asked to embark on an adventure. I full heartedly believe that at Summit, staff are genuinely interested in the healthy growth of their students, and that was a sticking point for me. I saw how I was being invested in and I desired to do that for others. Eventually, that would be one of the reasons why I wanted to return to Summit as a staff member.
Q: What was the most rewarding part?
Kelli: The most rewarding part of the semester was immediately following one of the most difficult parts of the semester. I was staying with my second host family in Ecuador, when I found myself completely lost for words or comprehension. The afternoons would drag on with uncertainty about what was going on or how I was to become a member of the family when we really weren’t connecting at all. Our lives were so different, our languages seemed so impenetrable, and my willingness to try was diminishing.
One day I decided to pick up a chair from the table and move it into the kitchen. Maria, my host mother, was surprised by this and I believe she was also embarrassed. She had purposefully kept me in the living room, rather than the kitchen, while she was cooking. But I couldn’t take it anymore. I needed to know her. I assured her in my best Spanish (practiced over and over in the living room minutes before) that I didn’t care what the kitchen looked like; I wanted to know her and learn from her. It all started with learning how to cook rice. If you’ve ever tried cooking rice at 9,000ft, you would know why I needed her to teach me. From there, she was eager to open up her life to me. Somehow my comprehension went through the roof. I understood about her childhood, her journey to Argelia Alta, her life with her husband through raising a family and finding God somewhere along the way. I know God opened my ears to hear the story of Maria.
The only way I can recount that story now and not want to cry my eyes out, is because I’ve seen them since then. I’ve eaten meals with Maria and Pedro in their new living room, just a few streets down from their old house. I’ve hugged Maria and relived the scene in the kitchen from that first time I stayed with them. I’m thankful to have returned to Ecuador to continue that relationship.
Q: How did your experience prepare you for life?
Kelli: I’ve realized that God is continually growing us. Never are we going to be complete while we still live on this earth and that means life is going to be a process of learning and growing. During my ISAS experience, I went through a cycle of being completely broken down by the revealing of my innermost self, followed by carefully being built into more of the person that God desired for me to be. Brokenness hurts, but when you’re surrounded by people that love you and care for you immensely, it’s much easier to allow yourself to be broken and to seek really hard after God to put the pieces back together in a better way. This process has happened since then multiple times, but not nearly as holistically. I’m now more prepared to allow myself to be broken and vulnerable with people I trust in order for God to make me more whole.
Q: Why should college students participate in Summit’s Immersion Service and Adventure Semester (ISAS)?
Kelli: The ISAS program exists to bring students into a place where they can safely and healthily grow into more of the person that God desires for them to be. This rings true through the academics, through the interpersonal experiences, as well as through the service and adventure. This semester is perfect for any student willing to learn, grow, adventure, and be amazed! I desire for other students to embark in this experience because I walked out of it so fulfilled. There’s no way you could live 4 months going through this program and not leave with a better understanding of yourself, of your relationships with others & God, and of the world around you. It’s remarkable.
You can read more about Summit’s ISAS program here: http://www.summitadventure.com/college-semester