LACONIA — For a high school girl who had always loved volunteering and music, it seemed to Alana Persson that joining Up With People would be an obvious choice.
But it wasn't. Until Up With People prepared their visit to Laconia by sending a promotional representative in August of 2015, the only thing Persson said was on her mind was applying to colleges, working, and finishing out her senior year at Laconia High School. She had barely heard of the organization.
But when an Up With People promotions representative named Marie stayed with her family, she said she "fell in love with the mission of the program because it coincided so well with my values."
Up With People, according to its Website, travels to nearly 20 countries over three continents over two semesters. It's cast of about 100 young people performs a musical show twice weekly, while each member participates daily in community service projects, immerses him or herself in local cultures, and joins workshops that teach various life skills to participants. This year it is celebrating 50 years of service and performance art.
While speaking from her parents' home this week during her four-week intercession from the program, Persson said that meeting Marie, who is Belgian, and seeing the second of two shows performed at the Laconia Middle School in September of 2014 that made her want to join.
"I said, 'I could see myself doing this,'" adding that she filled out an application and went on a interview with the Up With People team in the green room at the Laconia Middle School. Two weeks later, she learned she had been accepted.
"None of my friends really believed I was going to do it," she said. "I had a high GPA, was president of my class and most thought I would end up going to college."
She held fundraisers to help pay the tuition, worked at The Laconia Daily Sun as an editorial assistant and occasional writer, and plodded toward her financial goal. She left home on June 28 to fly to Denver for five weeks, where the entire team of 110 with mixed language skills had to learn a two-hour show as well as spend nearly every day working for a local human services agency.
She had been away from home before and had done some traveling, but for an 18-year-old girl from central New Hampshire, she said she was terrified.
"I almost threw up in the car on the way to the airport," she said, adding all she could think was "What did I get myself into this time?"
During the past six months, Persson has worked in Colorado and Mexican day care centers, built houses out of adobe, plied a machete to clear walking paths in Georgia, sat by helplessly in Lichtenstein while the recent terrorist attacks in Paris sent the world to its knees, eaten crickets, gotten dysentery, battled strep throat, lived with about 15 different families – some English speaking and some not – sang for Pope Francis and worked with refugees from war-torn Syria, Eritrea and Iraq.
She said she cried herself to sleep from homesickness, went to a Mexican hospital where a doctor kept poking her stomach and asking her in Spanish if it hurt and to which she kept replying "Si, si," and laughed herself silly with her new friends.
Persson's highlights – going to a 1920s cafe in Antwerp, Belgium, and swimming with the whole Up With People crew at Siesta Key Beach in Florida. Her low spots include being sick in Mexico and Lichtenstein, almost being left on her own in Toluca, Mexico, and the Paris attacks which both angered and frightened her.
While she said she was "very lucky" to see so much of the world with Up With People, she also said it was at lot of hard work. During this time, she has applied for and gotten three internships – one for education, one for admissions and one as part of the "news crew" in Denver. She said she hopes to be a promotions representative, like her friend Marie, when she returns in January, meaning she would travel ahead of the cast.
She said she is still the same girl from Laconia and is grateful to the city and its people for all they have given to her. She said she loves being home with her parents, high school friends and friends from her summer at St. Paul School during her junior year.
When asked if and how she is different, she said she is more "mindful" of the rest of the world and far more "culturally sensitive" than she was six months ago. She said she's a little more serious about life and a lot more serious about certain causes – like that of refugees, especially those from Syria.
"I want to do some refugee work and will focus on international affairs and human rights" at American University, where she will go to college in autumn of next year. "All (refugees) want is education and to try and live a normal life," she said. "They got unlucky. They were born in a tough part of the world and they just want a normal life."
She said that she hopes to focus her college and international efforts on process, saying that how refugees currently get treated and resettled is costly and ineffective.
"It's just chaos," she said. "And America isn't taking enough refugees."
Persson rejoins her Up With People crew in mid-January. In 2016, her work and travels will take her back to Denver, where she hopes to see more of the city instead of the suburbs, back to Mexico, where she said she can do without another bout of dysentery, and through the American Midwest. She'll spend two weeks in Bermuda and her last four weeks with Up With People in Europe.