I grew up in rural Northwest Ohio and although my family has lived here for several generations, I’ve always felt like an outsider. I struggled with my feelings towards religion throughout my childhood and frequently dreamed of moving far away.
A Year Abroad Defined My Values
When I was 16, I was given an amazing opportunity to study abroad. I spent one life-changing year in Denmark. When I say life-changing, I really mean it. I’m now 37 and my experiences in Denmark still affect me today. It shaped my values – how I feel about parenting, working, politics, social issues, human rights, and just about everything else.
In Denmark, I met people who were openly atheist for the first time. That had a huge impact on me a few years down the road. I had never met anyone who wasn’t Christian let alone an atheist.
Even though Danes are often known as quiet, I came back to Ohio pretty outspoken. Just knowing there’s a whole big world outside of Ohio gave me confidence. I was counting down the days until I could leave.
My Exchange Year Had Lasting Effects
I had one more painstaking year of high school left when I came back from Denmark. It was the longest year ever. I was constantly protesting at our absurdly conservative “public” school. I even got a detention for walking out during the prayer at one of our football games. I was pretty proud of it. (Still am, actually.)
When I was in my early twenties and finally called myself an atheist, I thought about my experience in Denmark and I knew what I was doing was okay. I knew that there were lots of good people who were atheists – almost a whole country full actually. Just because I don’t fit in at home doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
Now that I’m a mother, I’m really hoping my daughter will get a similar opportunity one day. It would be hard to send her away just like it was for my dad, but I feel it’s an extremely important experience that can potentially shape a person’s future. I just hope we will have the resources at that time to make it happen.
Life Back in Ohio
Today I’m pretty shy. I tend to avoid social situations. I would love to be fearless again like I was as a teenager.
I did leave Ohio but only to return a couple of years later. Now I absolutely love living in Toledo. I have all the opportunities and conveniences of a city but I’m still close to my family in the outlying area. Plus, Toledo’s just a neat place. The city just has this spirit or attitude about it that’s hard to describe – gritty yet hopeful, maybe? We’re in the rustbelt but still kicking.
Sometimes I still feel like an outsider in Ohio, but you know what? This is my home, too, damn it.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
― Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad / Roughing It