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The comfort of discomfort: Student embraces challenges in Haiti

05/23/2018

He stood before the class of about 30 students, the air thick and sweltering, chalk moistening between his fingers, sweat forming on his brow, car horns blaring outside, while he pronounced the names of fruits.

“Strawberry. Apple. Banana.”

Each delectable word reminded him of how uncomfortable he was – how he had abandoned the comforts of home to spend a week in Ouanaminthe, Haiti, teaching English at Institution Univers, a nonprofit-supported school for students from pre-K through grade 13.

Yet, Matt Hlas, a junior chemical engineering major from The University of Akron, would not have it any other way.

“I’ve always tried to put myself into uncomfortable situations,” he says, explaining why he, a naturally diffident young man from nearby Norton, decided to lead eight other UA students on a service and learning trip to Haiti this past December, sponsored by the College of Business Administration’s Institute for Leadership Advancement.

 

Matt-Hlas-conducts-lesson

Matt Hlas in conversation with some of the students he taught during his week in Haiti.

 

“A year ago if you had told me I would be leading a trip to Haiti, I would have thought you were crazy,” he continues.

A few years before that, he might have thought it crazy to go on the trip at all. Yet, Hlas has now been to Haiti three times – each time pushing himself further outside his comfort zone. 

For Hlas, such challenges offer the best opportunities for self-improvement.

Matt in class

Matt Hlas teaching with Joanna Cardarelli, another UA student, in a classroom at Institution Univers.

“When I go outside of my comfort zone, I learn so much from the situations, and those are the moments I always remember,” he says.

In embracing difficulty, Hlas was in many ways inspired by the Haitian students themselves, some of whom would trek several miles through grueling temperatures of more than 100 degrees to crowded classrooms, just to learn English.

“I was amazed by how much they respect education down there,” he says. “They know that education’s important, and I definitely value my education way more than I did before.”

Hlas is now far more comfortable with the previously irksome rigors of academic life.

“When I got back from my first trip, I was taking the hardest class of my life,” he says, “and I realized while studying on Saturday night at 10 o’clock, when I could have been out having a good time, that other people wish they had the education and opportunities I have. So I was more than happy to be studying on a Saturday night.”

Hlas’s experience as a trip leader, as well as his interactions with the Haitians – who he says are the happiest and most sociable people he has ever met – also challenged him to be more confident in social situations. 

Matt and Joe with kids

Matt Hlas, above on the right, joins fellow UA student Joe Paolucci in giving high-fives to some of their students in Haiti.

“I’m more personable,” he says. “I’m definitely trying to have more interactions with random people that I see, trying to start up conversations. I’m definitely more vocal and less afraid to speak my mind. I’ve gained a lot more confidence from these trips.” 

Hlas encourages UA students to take advantage of such opportunities to break out of their comfort zones.

“I would always recommend this trip to others, and my advice to them would be to live completely in the moment and take in as much as you can, and you will be put outside of your comfort zone,” he says. “Do things that make you uncomfortable. You will become comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Hlas, who credits the trips with helping him land an internship with The J.M. Smucker Company, plans to travel to Brazil, Argentina and Peru over the next couple of years – further extending the boundaries of his comfort zone.

For Hlas, the temporary discomfort of a new experience is as nothing compared to the lasting benefits of self-improvement – benefits as comfortable, and sweet, as cold strawberries on a hot day.


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