Have you ever had an experience that was overwhelmingly beautiful and sad at the same time? I just returned from such an experience. I had the wonderful opportunity to spend three weeks on the continent of Africa in the country of Malawi.

Malawi is one of the poorest nations in Africa, and life expectancy is only about 50 years (less than a decade ago, it was barely over 40). The country’s slogan is “the warm heart of Africa,” and I couldn’t agree more with this description. As a counselor, I have worked in some of the poorest areas in the deep South, but I have never in my life encountered such poverty as I saw on my visit to Malawi. At the same time, I have never witnessed such caring and such giving of the little they do have. I experienced this firsthand by the way they gave to me, a complete stranger from the United States.

It is natural for people to be curious when they meet someone different from themselves. In this case, I think it was more of a shock for them to see me than to see the “white” people from the United States. Upon seeing me, they expected me to be Malawian and to speak the native language of Chichewa. When I opened my mouth to speak, they were taken aback, and for a second, they were confused about who I was and what language I was speaking.

I’ll share a funny story that happened when I visited one of the orphan care centers in a very rural village about 15 kilometers from any road. The village chiefs who were there to greet us wanted a private audience with me to verify that I was not Malawian and that I could not speak the language. Once again, when I opened my mouth, it removed all doubt that I might be from their country. As represents the true spirit of the Malawian people, I was immediately invited to return to the village to spend at least five years so they could teach me the language. I laughed, thinking to myself that they must consider me a really slow learner! But in that exchange, they also asked me not to forget about them. As I looked into their eyes, I was moved to tears. There is no way I will forget this experience as long as I have breath in my body.

To see the resiliency of people and to witness how children learned, even in classes of 200 or more, was truly amazing. The students were sitting bunched together on concrete floors, with little or no learning supplies. How could learning possibly occur in such conditions? Yet, somehow, it did. The purpose of my visit was to work with the native educators to develop textbooks and guided supplementary materials for literacy development through a USAID grant, but I walked away forever changed in regard to how I view learning and material wealth.

This month’s Counseling Today cover story focuses on group work. When I first heard the topic, it reminded me of a book I read many years ago called “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Tatum. Just the title alone reminds me of how we can gravitate toward the familiar and have a tendency to separate ourselves from one another. How often do we take the time to explore outside of our comfort areas? As counselors, we ask our clients and students to expand beyond their comfort groups, but do we actively engage in this type of practice ourselves? Even within our own organizational structure, we could be at risk of perpetuating this separateness if we were to practice “divisiveness” among our divisions and regions.

Thankfully, this couldn’t be further from our goal. In fact, the 2010 American Counseling Association Institute for Leadership Training, which took place in July, embodied collaboration at its best. This is fitting because of the ACA leadership’s emphasis on the importance of working together. In another example, while in Africa, I was able to connect with some of our counseling colleagues in Malawi to discuss ways we might be able to facilitate their growth organizationally. This connection was made possible because of a great collaboration with the National Board for Certified Counselors.

I know how comfortable it can be to connect with “like” people or organizations. That is how we all became a part of this great organization. But we cannot stop there. Professionally, it is our responsibility to explore and expand our worldviews through our active participation with “differentness.”