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Former NWCPHP Research Assistant Returns from Bonderman Fellowship Travels

Former NWCPHP Research Assistant, Heather (Burkland) Buessler shares photos from her adventures funded by a Bonderman Travel Fellowship.

Former NWCPHP Research Assistant, Heather (Burkland) Buessler shares photos from her adventures funded by a Bonderman Travel Fellowship.

July 26, 2011

A year ago, NWCPHP was proud to announce that one of its Research Assistants, Heather (Burkland) Buesseler, was awarded a Bonderman Travel Fellowship—a $20,000 award that up to seven graduate and seven undergraduate students from the University of Washington receive each year to engage in solo international travel.

Buesseler completed her Master of Public Health degree at the University of Washington in August 2010, and departed for her travels in late September. Eight months, 13 countries, and six newly attempted languages later, she landed in her native Minnesota.

Buesseler began her travels in Ulithi, an atoll in the Federated States of Micronesia where her grandfather served in the US Coast Guard 50 years ago. She then continued on to Laos, India, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Morocco, and Argentina. “I went to exactly 50 percent of the destinations on my original itinerary,” she laughs, “But that’s how Bonderman is supposed to work—following your heart and the path that unfolds before you, instead of inflexibly sticking to a predetermined schedule in order to finish that project or accomplish a specific goal.”

In order to foster independence, the Bonderman Fellowship stipulates that students must not work, study, or participate in any programs. But Buesseler remarks the eight months were not the blissful, checked-out vacation of a lifetime people surmise it to be. “Since returning, many people have been asking, ‘How was it?’ I’m not quite sure how to answer that question.” She endured periods of intense homesickness and often struggled with wanting to be more than a tourist but not being able to stay long enough in any given place to really get inside people’s lives or integrate into a community.

Nevertheless, Buesseler’s eyes light up as she talks about living with Buddhist nuns in Laos, spending a week on a small tobacco farm in rural Zimbabwe, learning to cook tagines with a Moroccan family that took her in, and eating Sunday afternoon asado with a friend’s family in Buenos Aires. “I set out with the idea to explore the everyday life of people around the world. I think I managed to experience at least small slices of it everywhere I went.”

Now that Buesseler has returned, she continues to embrace the Bonderman spirit as she recommences her life in the US. Instead of looking for a steady 9 to 5 job, she is looking to establish herself as a consultant, intrigued by the diversity of people and experiences it will bring. In addition, she looks forward to the flexibility it offers, allowing her to spend more time pursuing writing and photography—and to be able to hop on a plane whenever the travel itch hits again.

Any grand takeaways? “I’m still processing it all,” she says. “But having traveled to so many different places, I feel like I learned that there is more that unites us in humanity across cultures and political boundaries than divides us. That family is one of the most important things in life, and that our relationships are what make us who we are. I also learned the depth of my inner strength, and feel I have emerged a more confident, compassionate person.”

Buesseler is currently writing a book about her adventures with two other Bonderman Fellows who also recently completed their travels. Until it is published, you can connect to her blog, Everyday Nomad, for stories and additional photos.


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Host father grilling the day's catch, Ulithi


Tropical paradise, Ulithi


Riverboat trip up the Nam Ou, Laos (Heather Buesseler pictured)


Buddhist shrine, Laos


Preparing sticky rice, Wat Phoun Phao, Laos


Nong Khiaw, Laos


Haridwar, India


Humayun's Tomb, New Delhi, India


Street vendor, Rishikesh, India


Breakfast at Huruma Orphanage, Usa River, Tanzania


Preparing lunch, Domboshawa, Zimbabwe


Tobacco harvest, Maumbe, Zimbabwe


Traditional mbira, Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe


Hassan II mosque, Casablanca, Morocco


Djmaa el Fna, Marrakesh, Morocco


Autumn vineyards, Mendoza, Argentina


Buddhist nunnery, Wat Phoun Phao, Laos


Los Andes, Argentina (Heather Buesseler pictured)

All photos courtesy of Heather Buesseler.


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