The Avodah Blog

Ignition: Lifetime Goals and a Year of Service in Colombia

Leia Grossman is an AVODAH Alum who has worked at UNICEF in the Child Protection Section, earned a Master’s Degree at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, and helped build the Pursue community as a City Team member. She is currently spending a year in Cartagena, Colombia volunteering as a teacher through World Teach. She is blogging about her year at Cartes De Cartagena, but you can also follow along with her at Pursue. This is Leia’s first dispatch (cross-posted from here)!

A little more than a year ago, I did an exercise as instructed by my brother Seth, wherein I listed my life’s goals. The instructions were:

“Get a stopwatch. Write ‘Lifetime Goals’ on the top of one page. List as many as you can in 2 minutes. Then take 2 minutes to refine, combine, and add any you forgot. Then do the same with 5-yr goals: What would you like to do in the next five years? Then 6 month goals: If you knew you had only 6 months to live, what would you want to do? 2 minutes to write, 2 minutes to revise.

Then go through, combine all lists and prioritize. Come up with your top 3 goals, these are your “A” goals. Then for each goal, take 2 minutes and list any actual activity you can think of that moves you closer to achieving that goal. What are the steps? Revise 2 minutes. Do that for all goals until you have a long list of activities. These are your “A” activities. Everyday you should do at least one “A” activity.”

I didn’t have a stopwatch, so my list of goals became rather long. At the top of my list:

  • Quit my job and find one that I take satisfaction in (something creative and social justice-oriented)

The others became consolidated as follows:

  • Be more physically fit and improve my yoga practice
  • Get more focused in my writing
  • Travel more frequently and write about experiences abroad – maybe do a volunteer project in another country
  • Become fluent in Spanish
  • Be more adventurous and take more risks
  • Learn to dance

There were some others, but those aren’t applicable here and now.

So, with my goals in mind, I applied to teach English abroad through a program called World Teach ( and put Colombia as my first-choice country. Just submitting the application felt like a risk, and for Colombia no less.  Colombia: A country ravaged by years of drug violence and marred with a bad reputation for kidnapping and child prostitution. I managed to put Colombia’s negative image aside because my close friend Ana Maria Rodriguez is Colombian and is one of the sweetest and warmest people I know, and if she’s any indication of what the Colombian people are like, well, then, it was a country I wanted to go to. I’d also heard that the Spanish in Colombia is very pure, and therefore possibly easier to learn. With Ana Maria’s words of encouragement, I submitted my application in February 2010.

After many months of anticipation and a frequent visits to Colombian restaurants in Brooklyn and Queens, I was relieved to be accepted in June. I knew at that time that my life would soon change and I felt a huge sense of relief: finally, after seven years at the same job, I would be checking the first “to-do” off my goal list. In the grand scheme of things, seven years isn’t that long, but I spent the majority of my 20s doing practically the same work every day, and after finishing my Masters, I was VERY tired of not being intellectually stimulated, challenged, or fully utilized at my job.

Once I received my acceptance email and before all the new to-dos of moving settled, I was glowing. I was thrilled. I felt my life was already changing. I was going to travel and have an adventure! I was going to learn Spanish and salsa dancing!

I started eating meat again after 14 years as a pescetarian (hello, bacon my old friend), chilled out, had love affairs, and stopped caring so much about work.

It was another six months before I found out that I’d be in Cartagena, my top-choice city. I wanted the Cartagena placement for the following reasons:

  1. I’d be teaching English at a university
  2. I’d be living in an apartment with the other World Teachers
  3. Cartagena was one of the only cities I’d heard of in Colombia (Bogota, Cali and Medellin completed the list)
  4. Cartagena is on the Caribbean coast and I’d never lived on a real coast before (though it is on the water, Brooklyn doesn’t count)
  5. Have you seen the pictures of Cartagena?  It’s crazy beautiful!

I loved the alliteration of Cartagena, Colombia, on the Caribbean.

On the same day that World Teach informed me that I’d be moving to Cartagena, my parents called to tell me that my father had been diagnosed with cancer. Add another C to the alliterative chain. My excitement about finding out my placement was short-lived and what was definitive in my mind quickly became a question: How could I leave for my great adventure when my father was soon going to be leaving for the hospital? I felt selfish wondering, “What does his diagnosis mean for me?” but I couldn’t help it. I ebulliently informed my friends and coworkers about my placement in Cartagena, but very few knew about my father. I just couldn’t juggle leaving Brooklyn, my job, my friends, my apartment, and all the effort I put into making this change happen with my family’s crisis. So, in my two remaining weeks in New York, I indulged in holiday and going-away parties, shopping sprees, meals at my favorite restaurants, final rendezvous, late nights and a lot of denial. I decided that I would deal with the heavy emotional stuff after leaving New York. I kissed my friends and family in New York good-bye, and drove away from New York on Christmas Day in a rented car with my brother Alec, an incredible driving companion.

The snowfall in Durham was beautiful and serene and I was so happy to be home, even if it did mean that my denial was also falling away. My dad hates it when I get all maudlin, so I’ll spare the rest of you details about hospital visits. Worth mentioning though are the wonderful conversations I had with my father while he was trapped in a hospital bed and couldn’t escape my questions (except when he’d beg off and fall asleep) and with my mother in our time alone at home. They both absolved me of the guilt I was feeling about my trip coinciding with his treatment. He told me that it was important to him that I live my life, but that my trip should be a step towards building my career, not just to have fun. On New Year’s Eve, we clinked our plastic champagne flutes and toasted to his good health and being together in 2012. In not too long, I was on a plane to Colombia.

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