Caitlin Essig, a fourth-year in journalism, sits at the Grand Canyon this summer. Credit: Courtesy of Caitlin Essig

Caitlin Essig, a fourth-year in journalism, sits at the Grand Canyon this summer.
Credit: Courtesy of Caitlin Essig

I said “yes” to accept an offer for a fellowship this summer nearly 2,000 miles away in Phoenix because there was no other answer to that question. At least there wasn’t for me. 

At 21, the furthest west I’d been was Wisconsin. And that was mostly because the opportunity to travel never presented itself — I grew up in Ohio where there are great universities like Ohio State, and there’s no reason to pay out-of-state tuition. My family always vacationed on the East Coast, and my extended family dots the map in either Ohio or southern states. Growing up, the West never beckoned to my family, nor did it seem accessible to me. 

Needless to say, moving to Arizona for 10 weeks was a completely new adventure. When I look back on my experience there, the people I met, the places I visited and adventures I took, the things I learned about the world around me as well as myself, it’s hard to sum up exactly how much it meant to me. To put it as simply as I can, I am a different person than I was when I left, and I can happily thank the decision to try something new for that.  

Here are some lessons I learned from my summer 2,000 miles away from my comfort zone. 

1. There are good people everywhere. 

This is one of the most important things I learned this summer. It wasn’t so much a new lesson, but more of what I’ve seen through high school and college, and it was fantastic that it held true in a place where I knew no one. 

My summer would’ve been pretty dull if I didn’t take advantage of getting to know the other students and recent graduates in my program at The Arizona Republic. There were 15 of us, and by working on the same desk, living in the same apartment and taking day trips together on the weekends, I grew close with many of them. It’s a rare opportunity to get to know a new group of people so closely in such a short period of time, and I can’t stress enough how valuable it was to spend as much time with those people as possible. 

If you take an internship where there are other interns in the company, I definitely recommend living with them or at least hanging out together. Especially in a foreign part of the country, this was crucial to making sure I was having fun on my days off and not wasting a single second of my limited time to explore the Southwest. 

2. Taking adventures is the best way to learn. 

Before interning in Phoenix, I admit that I paid little attention to the news coming from that side of the country. I knew next to nothing about immigration or the mass amount of unaccompanied minors crossing the border into Texas and other border states. I didn’t know much about the scandal at the VA, beyond knowing VA stood for Veterans Affairs. On a less serious note, I didn’t know about Western restaurants that feature gun-toting waitresses and handgun safety classes.

Working in news, especially as a copy editor, where much of my job was to read news stories all day, I became educated about a whole new part of the country. It’s easy to become immersed in the culture of your own town, state or geographic region, but taking an opportunity to learn beyond those borders truly widens your understanding of the world.

3. Sometimes internships are best at showing you what you don’t want to do, and that’s OK.

So many of us go through college stressing out about the choices we’re making, including what major to choose, which classes to take and what organizations to join. We think when we finally nail down what we’re interested in, that’s the be-all, end-all. That’s what journalism was for me. But this summer did a healthy job of testing my passion for journalism. 

Working in a real newsroom for a real newspaper was my first peek at what I’d spent so much time thinking was going to be my future career. I found myself changing my mind about what I want to do with my life just about every day this summer. But that’s OK — internships are a great way to get your feet wet and see what real work would be like. I never gave much thought to any newsroom job other than reporting, but I truly enjoyed my work as a copy editor. I also learned more about jobs I didn’t even know existed, jobs that all help the newsroom run efficiently. 

I might have left more confused than ever about my future, but being exposed to so many types of journalism jobs was invaluable to helping me see what I might be interested in and capable of, and what I might want to steer away from. 

4. Being restless is a good thing.

Along with getting to know the people I worked with, we took the opportunity to get to know the area we were in — from San Diego, to the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, Ariz., Tucson, Ariz., Las Vegas … there was just so much to see. We climbed mountains, went tubing down a calm river on a perfect day, I rafted through the Grand Canyon and we visited the beach and the beautiful red rocks of Sedona, Ariz. 

Ohio has sprawling acres of forest, field, cityscape and farms. It’s always comfortable to return to, but it’s the same thing I’ve always known. Being in a city with mountains as a backdrop was new and wonderful. The Grand Canyon’s beauty took my breath away. I don’t understand the decision to stay in one place, no matter how comfortable it is. It’s important to be restless — that’s how you find the best views.

5. Saying goodbye is always hard, but that’s just one of life’s consistencies. 

It was really, really hard to say goodbye to Arizona and the relationships I built with people there. Nostalgia set in toward the end, and while I hadn’t known any of my friends there for even three months, it felt like much longer. I went through denial about leaving, and I had the most stereotypical tearful airport goodbye with one of the amazing people I was lucky enough to get to know. 

Saying goodbye to a place you fall in love with, the culmination of its scenery, its intricacies and its friendly faces, is hard. That’s just it, it’s hard. But this particular goodbye taught me about how our time in places and with people can be fleeting, and I’m so glad I spent my time exploring just about everything Arizona has to offer, leaving without any regrets. Goodbyes happen, and it is what it is. 

Besides, this goodbye was great practice as I segue into senior year, right?