Chances are that if you’ve seen me at all in the past two years, you’ve heard me mention HOBY. And it’s likely been more than once, possibly even to the point where it’s annoying.
People often ask me what exactly this "HOBY thing" is, and I can’t tell you how often I’m at a total loss for words. “It’s a leadership seminar,” I’ll eventually stammer, getting a polite smile and nod in response before the subject is changed.
But that’s not quite it. Not even close. Just a scratch at the surface, really.
But for these people, I keep it simple, hoping that I can somehow communicate to them in the way I get excited about this thing and the way that my eyes light up that THIS is the place where I found my tribe. That this is the place that has moved my voice closer to my lips.
It’s impossible to describe HOBY for a multitude of reasons, one of which being the detail and depth I’d have to go into to even begin to try to explain is far too great for the small talk it typically makes an appearance in.
Also, we HOBYs kinda like this ambiguous little secret of ours, both frustrated and pleased that we have such a hard time helping others to understand this other family of ours and the place we’ve found that we belong––––this place where you discover the best version of yourself.
Lately I’ve been resorting to calling it a “utopia” but that’s really not it either. That makes it sound too much like a cult, but with the fervor my fellow alums and I speak about it with, one might just start to wonder.
So really the best way I can describe it is by calling it “an ineffable wonder” but by definition, I’m really not describing it at all.
I attended the HOBY New York West seminar at the University of Rochester in May of 2014, where I heard one of the Lost Boys of Sudan speak, cleaned up Mount Hope Cemetery, got poison ivy, wrote, directed and performed a skit all in half an hour, stole bandanas and candy off of neighboring groups’ tables (harboring quite a collection from each by the end of the weekend), and laughed when our table was stolen out of revenge one night during dinner. I had had a nice time, but I wasn’t quite sure what all the fuss was about.
And then I was introduced to the WLC, or World Leadership Congress.
I wasn’t going to go at first, discovering four days after signing up that it was the same week as a summer course I was planning on taking at a local university. But after mulling over my options for several days (and, let’s be honest, crying) I decided on the World Leadership Congress.
Every minute I got closer to departing for Chicago, the more the dread came in and the fear settled in my stomach. I cried the night before, afraid of flying on a plane for the first time in eleven years to a huge city I’d never been to before.
But it was like that the night I left to go back home, too, and it had nothing to do with the plane ride, and everything to do with the fear of leaving this place. This version of me.
And now, I’d give anything to go back. To be traipsing around Chicago with twelve of my favorite people--ones who are unapologetically themselves and incredibly enthusiastic about everything--by my side. Screaming ridiculous cheers at the top of our lungs down the street. Making Canadian jokes. Untangling ourselves from human knots.
The thing about HOBY is that everyone you meet has this genuine love and care for you. It is a place where I instantly felt connected and understood, even though I was meeting these four hundred twenty-five other people for the very first time.
What I loved about my week in Chicago was just how incredibly open and welcoming everyone was. By the end of the week, you really felt like had known the people in your group for years and had experienced some of their hardships with them. I had finally found what my favorite author Marina Keegan calls “the opposite of loneliness.”
HOBY is a place that challenges you and your beliefs for the betterment of both yourself and the world. Bringing together about 430 ambassadors from 16 different countries, it enables ambassadors to learn that we all have much more in common than we ever could have imagined, despite coming from so many different corners of the globe.
People often ask me what you do at this leadership thing, and I never know how to describe it without making it seem dull. Because it wasn't. We listened to speakers and created websites and nonprofits and thought about ways to solve world problems. We explored Chicago and wrote notes and danced and sang crazy cheers and played ridiculous games. We updated our social media pages and took too many pictures and hugged everyone we met. We engaged in service projects and discussions. We slept too little and smiled too much. We laughed so hard we were sore the next day. We cried until our tears ran out. It was exhilarating.
At night, I would crawl in bed, exhausted, but joyfully so. That’s when I would contact my family. But my home life felt so far away and so unreal. It made it hard to think about coming home--leaving this place and saying goodbye to these people. This version of myself. Me, a homebody, couldn’t imagine coming home to her family in just a few days.
It’s no wonder ambassadors talk about “HOBY hangovers” and “withdrawals” and creating an island only for HOBYs to live on social media every once in a while. We celebrate our anniversaries like high school couples and, in our friends’ opinions, gush about it too much.
Getting off the plane and seeing my family again for the first time in eight days, after all of this, was surreal. I felt like a pair of pants that shrank in the wash––––I just didn’t fit anymore. And of course coming home begged the question, “What are you going to do with this?” I didn’t have the answers to that then, and honestly I’m not sure I do now. I was terrified of losing this other side of me, scared that I’d fall back into my normal routine and everything I had gained would be lost. The staff had warned us of this, scheduling a presentation entitled “Life After HOBY” on one of the last days. “You might feel like you don’t quite belong when you get back,” they said, assuring us that this was normal.
I remember going to Wegmans after reuniting with my family and having to resist the urge not to rush up to a person looking at bread and tell them my name and ask them where they were from. It took a lot of effort not to get up, put my hands over my head and start shouting “O-U-T-S-T-A-N-D-I-N-G OUT-OUT-OUTSTANDING” at the top of my lungs whenever someone asked me how my day was or if I liked my pizza. I’m not sure if this is what the staff were talking about, but it was definitely far from normal.
I’ve been on multiple trips and sports teams before and since, and while I’ve enjoyed each and every one of them, I’ve never felt as connected to these people as I have to HOBYs.
Oftentimes the leaders at these events boast that this new experience will be the best one of your life, so when “HOBY Daddy” Russ Tanguay told all 426 of us ambassadors in a conference room at Loyola University of Chicago that “a week from now, you’re going to wish that you were back in this room on July 19th, 2014 at 8:32 pm CT” I was skeptical. But, I can’t even begin to tell you how right he was. It's been two years since that date and I still remember the exact time.
I still post about it on social media and engage in Google Hangouts to catch up and commemorate that day. I volunteer as a Junior Counselor at New York West every year, eager to inspire high school sophomores just as much as my counselors inspired me and keep my HOBY spirit going.
In this day in age, when we are surrounded by violence and hateful acts and a crazy presidential race, it's comforting to know that those of different cultures, religions, views and backgrounds can all come together respectfully and peacefully and learn how to lead together for the betterment of our local and global communities.
HOBY has not only challenged me, but given me confidence, lifelong friends, a love of service, and a place where I belong. Being able to give back to the organization that taught me how to reach my full potential and granted me the opposite of loneliness is one of the most outstanding feelings in the world.