When Tess Wilson was homeless, she remembers walking around the University District and watching the students, wishing with all her heart to be one of them. “I wanted better for myself, and I was willing to do anything it took to get there,” she says.

Wilson’s road to school started with a job as a massage therapist. Then she enrolled in community college, transferring to the University of Washington to earn a bachelor’s degree in environmental health and occupational health science, graduating cum laude. Her next step? Pursuing a doctorate in physical therapy — and receiving the Bonderman Travel Fellowship.

Created in 1995 by UW alumnus David Bonderman, the fellowship offers students the opportunity to travel the globe, solo, for eight months, observing and learning about other cultures and places. Wilson documented her travels to Ecuador, Tanzania, Vietnam and other countries in a blog.

Along the way, the inequality and inequity Wilson saw made a deep impression. Although it was difficult to resist the impulse to help — Bonderman fellows are asked to observe and learn about other cultures and places, rather than volunteer — she says the fellowship taught her restraint and forced her to look at the bigger picture. “I think about health systems and how to do things sustainably now — how to promote the best outcomes where you have the stakeholders involved in the process,” she says.

Now back in Seattle, Wilson is finishing her degree, looking forward to applying what she learned during her travels to serving people in the community who are homeless. “I took so much away from this — not just about other cultures, but about myself,” she says. “When you keep your mind open to the possibilities, the world will show you incredible things.”

Photos courtesy of Tess Wilson.

Read More Read more about Tess’ travels.