While riding the bus home the other day, I heard a student talking about her plans to study abroad in India. Judging solely by the high timbre of her voice and her valley girl inflection, my first thought was, “Oh, that one will have an interesting time of it.” I’m sure she imagines India as a very “ethnic” experience, full of bright colors, spicy food, and picturesquely poor people.

Of course I am stereotyping in the worst way, but I think it’s safe to say that most people cannot comprehend the reality of India before they travel there. (Having traveled there for six months when I was all of two years old, I can hardly be considered an expert on the subject myself.) And for a young girl in college, well, let’s just say that I know it would’ve been a shock to me. I could barely handle living in France for three months.

My second thought was that if she wants to experience a shockingly different reality, she doesn’t have to go all the way to India. There are places in California and all over the country that are just as far removed from living in Santa Cruz, places that need smart, idealistic kids to visit and learn about their world. It’s kind of like adopting kids from exotic countries when there are thousands of children right here who need good homes — the motivation is good, but you just don’t need to look that far.

I discovered this fact anew yesterday afternoon. Along with some coworkers, I traveled up to Oakland to visit a program that assists foster kids to transition out of the system when they reach eighteen. I left my office in the redwoods, drove for an hour and a half, and emerged from the company car into an entirely different world. As the crow flies, we were less than twenty miles away from the affluent suburb where my in-laws live. In reality, the two could not be more different.

These kids (adults, really, two having only just turned eighteen a few days before) have been through more kinds of hell than most people would ever want to imagine. You don’t need to hear their stories to know that fact. Their eyes bear witness to the life they’ve lived, as do their faces, which in a few cases bore deep scars.

At first, all I could see were our differences. From the moment we walked in to the tightly-run ship of this organization, I was transported back to being a gangly, overweight teenager, unsure of what to say or where to put my hands. I was an outsider, my clothes too professional and my wedding ring too prominent, all screaming that I was different from the proud, defiant children all around me. My hereditary privilege suddenly became a burden, a physical and emotional boundary between us, when all I wanted was for them to like me.

Then we started talking. I’m not sure if it was a testament to the institution where we met or to the kids themselves, but they were incredibly candid, self-confident, and totally willing to open up to a spoiled white girl like myself.

Once we got to talking, it turned out that we did have something vital in common: our relentless drive to learn. By some roll of the dice, I was lucky enough to get parents that prioritized education, who did everything within their power to get me as far as I could go — and then some. From them I gained an innate love of knowledge, and the pursuit of it has been my guiding light throughout most of my life.

These kids may have walked a very different path from me, but they have ended up in more or less the same place. Sure, they’ve been through some tough times, but now they are going to college, dammit, and nothing is going to stop them. Too many things have already gotten in the way of a good life, and they are determined to minimize the remaining obstacles by getting a college education.

So our differences melted away in the shared language of our dreams, and I saw in them the next generation of dedicated doctors, artists, athletes, and social workers. Quite simply, these kids are amazing, and I would have never met them if I didn’t venture outside of my happy little suburban life for a while.

What’s more, I didn’t have to go all the way to India to have a life-changing experience — all I had to do was drive to Oakland.