The Amazon River of Bolivia, the Andes Mountains and jungles of Peru, the cobblestone streets of central Mexico. Sound like the travel channel? Not to senior Shannon Rensi, who has spent time living in each of these places.
Though only 21 years old, Rensi has more travel and cultural experience than many twice her age can boast of, yet she tells her story humbly with constant attribution to the one whom all the credit is due: God.
Her life as a traveler will swing full circle this coming summer, as just a few weeks ago, Rensi found out she was chosen to receive the coveted Fulbright-Garcia Robles Grant to study in Guanajuato, Mexico for the next two years.
This particular award is only awarded to up to 18 recipients each year and is very competitive. When Rensi was a sixth grader, she and her mother spent a year living in Guanajuato, and a piece of her heart has been there ever since.
Someone once said that the sweetest part of leaving home is being able to experience the joy of coming back. This is not true for Rensi. She thrives on adventure and has a knack for adapting to different lifestyles and cultures. Each time is harder to leave than the first.
Just get her to start talking about her experiences, and passion and excitement exude from her words and demeanor. Rensi seems wise beyond her years, and believes her time abroad has had a huge impact on not only her worldview but also her character and identity as a child of Christ.
When she returned from Mexico as a young teenager, the transition was tough. Rensi felt like she didn’t know who she was.
“When I came back I felt like I had to decide who I was going to be. Was I an American or a Mexican?” Rensi reflected.
She lived in her hometown of Gold Hill, Ore., for the next few years, but her yearning to travel did not stop there. When she was 16, she felt the Lord calling her to move. She took a semester off and made the journey to the Andes Mountains of Peru to volunteer at a place called Centro de Esperanza, which in Spanish means “Center of Hope.”
The facility is at an altitude of 10,000 feet. She spent her days playing games of soccer with the kids, where they would be out of breath by the time they reached the playing field, singing children’s songs like the “Chickee Chickee Beat,” which Rensi demonstrates.
“Hey there [someone’s name],” Rensi sings while dancing and clapping, “You’re a real cool cat, got a little bit of this and a little bit of that. We all think that you’re really, really neat, so come on down and do the Chickee Chickee beat!”
As she went through college, she began searching for more opportunities to travel.
“I’ve always known I wanted to study abroad,” she said.
She had to go through George Fox University to find what she was looking for, but she found a program in Bolivia, which she participated in the second semester of her junior year. The program fit well with her double major in English and Intercultural Studies, and she already knew the language.
She lived in a home with a host family in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. She reluctantly admitted that the hardest thing to adjust to was living with a poor family. Nothing was ever clean, there was no running water and there was no bathroom or shower until one was installed after she arrived.
The family had big dogs in the yard as a safety precaution in a bad neighborhood, so Rensi needed an escort even when making a simple trip to the bathroom.
“Home is supposed to be a place where you feel safe and comfortable, but for me it was very stressful . . . A person got shot on the corner while we were all at home once,” she said.
The program directors worked diligently with her and the three other students who had chosen to embark on this journey, and she looks back with great gratitude.
“Everyone had a breakdown moment, but they encouraged us a lot,” Rensi said with a smile of relief.
Despite the difficulties, Rensi grew to love her host family. On one of her last days, the family threw her a birthday party, even renting a sound system and inviting the whole church to celebrate.
The night before her departure, her adoptive grandmother thanked her for “living simply.” That compliment sticks with her to this day. It sounds cliché, Rensi says, but in Bolivia she truly learned that “material things don’t make happiness.”
Instead of going back to the United States, Rensi headed straight for her next adventure: Peru. Meeting up with the missionary family she would be living with for the next three months, she spent a month living in the city of Pucallpa teaching fourth grade social studies and writing before heading to a jungle village called Bellavista.
“It is on the Upper Tapiche River,” she explained, “There are a few other places called Bellavista in Peru. It means ‘beautiful view,’ so I guess everyone wants to name their town that!”
Rensi believes God has gifted her with the ability to adapt. She becomes not just an observer but a part of the culture wherever she goes. In all her travels, not once has she felt unaccepted. The people in Peru called her “Little Sister” and taught her everything she needed to know to become one of them. They taught her how to plant a garden, build a canoe, use a machete and cook traditional meals.
Before she left, the people were reflecting with her on these lessons and asked her if she knew how to do anything at all. When she told them she knew how to drive a car, they were amazed. Few of them had ever seen a car, much less driven one. Rensi laughs as she looks back on the care these people took to welcome her into their world, regardless of the cultural barriers.
After these several months abroad, Rensi experienced culture shock coming back to the United States. There had been no communication in the jungle; these people did not even receive mail. One day she was sitting in the village she had come to love, the next she found herself sitting in an international airport drinking a Starbucks coffee.
When asked what these experiences have taught her, she struggles to sum it up with mere words.
“I have learned that God is not limited by culture. The way they saw God was different than how I grew up seeing Him – and it was the same God,” she said.
She has a newfound appreciation for the beauty of the body of Christ. Seeing strong Christians in another culture, where they worship and practice faith in a completely different way, has broadened her perspective.
There is a dark side to the life of adventure Rensi has lived though. Living in so many other cultures has given her a clearer understanding of who she is in Christ, yet a lesser understanding of where she belongs.
“It feels like nowhere is home to me anymore. It’s good to learn not to be complacent, but part of me is always wishing I’m somewhere else,” Rensi said.
As she prepares to head off on her next journey this summer, she is overwhelmed by both excitement and nerves. The unknowns are immeasurable, but that is a lesson she explains God has been working with her on this past year.
“I’m excited for [Mexico] to be a part of my life again,” she said with a smile.
With her love of learning, Rensi hopes to be a scholar. She will be pursuing a master’s in Mexican history and literature at the University of Guanajuato. She is also considering following that with a doctorate in comparative literature.
It is no question Rensi is ambitious, but she is waiting to see where the Lord will guide her in the future, knowing every turn ahead will be met with new lessons, new challenges and new blessings.