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My Story - Ethan Boldt

Ethan shares power of being a "small thinker."  Share your story via the Submit a Story page.


Written by: Ethan Boldt

For the last three years, I have been engaging in an unlikely birthday tradition. You see, for every year that I has passed in school, I’ve chosen to spend my birthday on the road with some truly exceptional people. Now, you might think that spending your special day on a Pay-it-Forward Tour would be a burden. We typically commemorate the passing of another year of life with a celebration, a gathering of those who are closest to us. While I enjoy rich relationships with my family and friends, to me, there is no better way to begin another year of My Story than on a Pay-it-Forward Tour.

My name is Ethan Boldt and I'm a senior at Illinois State University. On my nineteenth birthday I was in the basement of a church in Columbus, Ohio on the opening night of my first tour experience. I didn't know it at the time, but I was beginning a journey that would carry me through my college career. I stumbled upon something that has given me joy, friendship, self-knowledge, and great purpose. The theme word that year was Discover. And, that's exactly what happened. At a time when the future was obfuscated by uncertainty and I was unaware of my own potential, STLF became a shining light in the enveloping darkness.Tour Mode

Now, STLF, and its many forking branches of engagement, are a challenge to describe to outsiders. Other opportunities that I have taken which share a border with the organization's mission of service, relationships, and action have always paled in comparison to the awe-inspiring substance of my STLF adventure. There simply is not much out there like it!  

If I had to make a guess, there is a strong chance that potential future participants and their relatives may choose to read this piece to get a sense of what an STLF program is like and what affect it may have on them. I’m going to break the third wall to speak directly to this part of my audience: I cannot endorse this organization, the people who run it, or the students that make these events possible strongly enough. If you find yourself sitting precariously upon a fence, I urge you to take a leap onto the other side. I can all but promise you that you will be glad you did. It is my hope that this story might influence you to make a positive decision for yourself or someone you care about.

My beginnings in STLF were humble. Prior to my first tour, I had never done anything nearly as bold as taking a service trip across the country with others I did not know. I had always been reticent and serious with no love for icebreakers or “silly” games. I am a student who feels most at home in a classroom. So, my decision to go on my first tour was an expedition out of my comfort zone. Out there in that unexplored space, I found something that is now an integral part of my character.

I returned in 2011 to go out on the first Illinois State Mystery Tour. On my twentieth birthday I remember sitting on the gym floor of a YMCA in Oklahoma City and calling my grandmother. I told her about what we did that day, that we helped to renovate what used to be a crackhouse so that it might become a food pantry that serves the needs of a community. She asked where I was sleeping. I said, “On the floor of a gym.” She paused. Then, she uttered one of the most profound statements I’ve ever heard anyone make. She said in her Czech accent, “I’m proud of you kid, you’re growing up to be tough like me.”

It’s important to understand that my grandmother survived a Nazi work camp and then immigrated to the United States where she found a career at a General Electric factory to provide for her family on a working class salary. When times are hard, I like to remember that I have this woman’s blood in my veins. This was the greatest compliment anyone had ever given me in my entire life. That year’s tour word: Impact.

That next year, I knew what I had to do. I applied to be a College Core Leader and was accepted. For months I planned, labored, and thought about how I might provide a tour like the two that had changed me so much. A week after my twenty-first birthday, I got up in front of forty-five strangers and introduced myself as a member of their bus core. All of the sudden I wasn’t the guy who was struggling to take part in icebreakers, I was leading them. Although this may be the subject of some debate, I like to think that my rendition of “Princess Pat” is a tour de force in STLF spirit… Anyway, the tour went well and it was apparent that many of my participants encountered their first tour much like I had.

I have done many things as a student; I won the highest award at Illinois State, became a published author of a scholarly journal article last summer, and was recently admitted to two highly ranked PhD programs. However, I will always view my time as a bus core as my finest hour. Not only is this because I thought being bus core wasn’t covered by the toolbox of my personality and skills, but also because I’m not sure I could have accomplished what I have without STLF’s presence and unyielding support in my life.

All I wanted to do was to serve the people on my bus and attempt to give them a gift that had been so graciously bestowed to me. You see, I’m what you might call a “small” thinker. I do not believe that I alone have the power to change the world, but I know that I can change someone else’s. And, that’s the best place to start! I take pride in many things I have done but I know that a tour is an investment. I led a tour because somebody led mine. Without my first bus core’s efforts, service projects would have went unfinished and their participants would never have been positively impacted. This is true not just of their bus but of those that have followed because of their example. This is the power of pay-it-forward.

Ethan's BusThe year I led a tour, the thematic word was Empower. This year, four buses from across the country are staffed by leaders who participated on the tour that I helped guide. That’s 180 college students who might feel the residual ripples of my work. I hope that I served the leaders of these students honorably. They have my utmost confidence that they will leave behind a great legacy to be imitated for years to come. They should know that I am here to serve them, always.

Now, we are in the spring of 2013; I’ll be leading my first high school tour in two weeks and college tour season is a month away. I can’t wait to take the ISU Mystery Bus to San Antonio to watch some of my participants take a major step in their personal evolution. Finally, I will be moving beyond STLF this May when I graduate from Illinois State. I am someone who does not struggle with endings; all great stories must come to an end. Some of the most profound experiences of my young life were had in STLF and I’m ready to place the final words in this most unexpected, amazing, tale.

I was asked to reflect this weekend at David Winton Bell Retreat on what this year’s tour word means to me…

Discover. Impact. Empower. Become.

Become is the final step, the grand finale. Become is about evolution, accomplishment, victory, and closure. I wouldn’t have Become the man I am today without this organization, the people who are in it, and the incredible gifts they have given me which can never be repaid.

They can only be…

Paid forward.

I think it very fitting that this year’s tour word is Become.


This essay is dedicated to Thomas Felson an ISU and STLF alumni who took his time to give needed advice and support that saw me through being bus core. Tom, thanks for teaching me everything I needed to know and much more. 



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