Waking to the Lions








Elaine Berndes

photo of trip to Africa by elaine berndes 6x6

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From my journal...May 6, 2019 3:00am

I jumped awake to a sudden booming bass so loud that it vibrates down through the earth and up through my limbs as my heart starts pounding. A strange sensation that lasts for maybe three seconds but feels like an hour. The BOOM stopped but the heavy breathing continues outside my tent. They are really close. I secretly love when the lions are having a territory squabble near camp and tonight that spat is a matter of feet from my tent’s zip enclosure. I’m sitting here silently, grinning. I love the African bush. By now I know the language of the wild; everything from the victorious roar of a lioness, the squeal of hyenas calling pals to dinner and the grunt of solo male buffalo that puts me on edge. I’m writing in between deep breaths. Taking it all in. This heavenly place. How did I get here? How did I FINALLY figure it out? Elaine, now is not the time. Get back to sleep, you have meetings in the morning.

Home Sweet Home in Maasai Mara

I remember that evening well. I recall setting my notebook down, falling asleep and waking in the morning with the questions still on my mind.

The path to Africa may have started in French IV during high school when the opportunity to be part of a class trip to Paris came my way. I took home the pamphlets and begged my parents to sign the contract and put down the deposit; completely oblivious to the fact that my parents had never even treated themselves to a trip out of the country. It’s incredible how parents somehow manage to make children’s dreams their own. A month later I found myself at O’Hare airport, with teary parents. I couldn’t get to the Air France gate fast enough.

I returned home from Paris and declared, “I’m going to be a curator at the Louvre”. I had it all figured out.  

Within months I had registered for my pre-requisites and my French classes at UW- Madison and decided anthropology would be my “elective” for the year. I sat in my first anthropology class fascinated. Maybe I would actually be an Egyptologist.  

My parents repeatedly suggested a focus on international business. They assured me it would enable to me to indulge my interests and provide REAL career opportunities. I took one look at the math, accounting and statistics classes required and knew my GPA would tank. Not to mention my social life if I had to spend hours studying all those numbers. No way.

As my parents suspected, my BA in Art History and French yielded exactly 0 job offers. No one was looking for a newbie Art History and French grad to join their museum teams. I spent months temping in museum membership offices and fundraising teams only to discover I didn’t love working in a museum.  

A friend suggested I move to NYC and join the advertising firm he was working for as part of a media team. I had a phone interview, got the job, booked a ticket to New York and headed to pursue my career in advertising. I got to go to fancy parties, meet celebrities and explore the city, but my heart was focused on the volunteering I was doing in my spare time. I loved the tutoring and mentoring that I was doing, and that love led to yet another decision. I was going to become a teacher!

I was accepted to Teach for America and spent three years in the classroom struggling. I was not meant to be a teacher. WHAT NOW? What am I going to do now? How had I decided to become a teacher not realizing how challenging it was, how organized you had to be. My mind just didn’t work that way. I felt like I had failed. The job I thought I had wanted for years was something I just wasn’t good at.  

Fortunately, I had developed some great relationships through Teach for America. I made lots of calls, I had lots of coffees, knowing I still wanted to have an impact in the education sector. I found myself in the leadership development space for the next 12 years. I enjoyed the work, my teams received many accolades, even recognition from a US President, and I felt our work had positive impact on young people’s lives. I was proud though after years of crisscrossing the US, I no longer wanted to squeeze international travel into vacation weeks dictated by the length of my tenure. I needed to explore international work, knowing my soul thrives on learning new cultures and meeting new people. Maybe I could be paid to travel internationally.

Again, I found myself longing for more without a plan. So, when a recruiter called me suggesting I interview for a role heading up an international program for the largest private school network in China, I thought I had hit the jackpot. After months of interviewing and a trip to Beijing, I landed the role and thrived in it for several years, building a strong team and streamlining operations while tripling profits and traveling all over China.

Leadership saw my success building organizational capacity, they felt given my background in teaching and education, I could build out their academic programming. I assured them I was not the right person and they assured me I was. I gave it my best, but it just wasn’t the right role for me. It wasn’t aligned to my skills, nor my interests. Here I was again, longing for something more and not knowing what to do.  

I resigned and vowed I would not find myself in this position again. I booked a dream trip to Kenya for September 24, 2016, with a promise to myself I would use the time away to reflect on my career, figure out where I had been successful, where I had struggled and develop a plan for where I needed to go.  

Kenya felt like home. I took inventory of my experiences and considered my skills and my interests. I developed a plan to volunteer across Africa to become more culturally competent before setting a goal to launch a consulting business. I now partner with organizations in areas of East and West Africa and South America, supporting their endeavors to impact their communities. I am personally and professionally thriving.  

When I was approached about the 6x6 college to career concept, I had no doubt of the impact it could have for college grads. I don’t want anyone to go through the 20 years of fits and starts I did before I found my sweet spot….in the African bush waking to the lions.  

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