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Attending University Abroad: How & Why

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The university or college experience is life changing for many, and with more and more opportunities available for young adults to study abroad, as part of, or in addition to their Gap Year, having an affordable and memorable post secondary education in a country other than your own is easier than ever. Over 313 000 students studied abroad in 2014/15 alone, with 63% of these students studying abroad for up to three weeks, and 3% studying there long term, for a full academic or calendar year. But besides the benefits of simply living in a different country, how is studying abroad more beneficial than simply studying in your home country?

Why Study Abroad?

Cost

The biggest myth surrounding study abroad programs is that they are over expensive and catered to the upper class. This is 100% myth. Many countries, including Germany, France, Norway, and Iceland, offer free tuition to all students (excluding low administrative fees), with many courses and programs specifically to foreign students.

Language Opportunities

One of the biggest benefits of studying in a foreign country is the opportunity to learn a new language. In today’s globalized economy, the ability to communicate effectively is one of many key skills needed to succeed in your job. A recent survey completed by an LA-based business found that nearly 9 out of 10 employers in Europe, Latin America, and Asia believe that being bilingual is crucial for success in the business field. Not only does the ability to communicate in another language give you an advantage, it also allows you to understand more about the country and culture the language is from.

Education

Each country’s educational system is unique, meaning that what may be considered “normal” for some, is completely different to the way things are taught in another place. Having the opportunity to experience the educational system of two different countries forces you to adapt and become more flexible in your learning habits and allows you to better understand the country that you are learning in. Whereas the American educational system places more of an emphasis on individual learning and problem solving for example, the Japanese education system may be more focused on group problem solving and the “collective” rather than the individual.

Preparing to Study Abroad

There are countless study abroad programs available to students, however finding the perfect program or university abroad requires research, time and patience. There is no “one fits all” study abroad program for students, so there are a variety of factors that should be considered when considering which foreign program or university you wish to attend.

There are typically two factors which most influence which study abroad program students attend.

Location

Many students choose to pursue to their studies at a certain university due to the country or location it is in. This could be due to simply already having a connection or personal history to the place or already knowing the language. Other factors which can go into choosing a program based on location is the affordability of the city as well as “employer activity” within the city. QS Top Universities has an in depth list of the best student cities in the world, as well as universities rankings by region

University Ranking

Another method to determine which study abroad to attend is to simply research the top universities for your major or minor. By then knowing which universities are most accredited for chosen field of study, an informed decision can be made in regards to which top ranked university you wish to study at. QS Top Universities also has World University Rankings based on subject, as well as faculty.

By being aware of the best student cities to live in as well as the top universities for your chosen field, an informed decision can be made which will guarantee you the experience of a lifetime.

Scholarships

While tuition fees for study abroad programs may be cheaper than at home, living costs (as well as airfare back and forth) can add up quickly. Here is a list of organizations that have compiled lists of various scholarships and grants that can ease the financial strain of being a student studying in a foreign country.

There are so many factors to consider when deciding to study abroad, and while staying in your comfort zone can be reassuring, the benefits of studying abroad are infinite. Exposure to a new culture, language, and education system widens your horizons and gives you advantages in the work force. It allows you to better understand the globalized society we now live in and makes you more marketable to future employers and grad schools. It allows you to travel and study at the same time, to work towards your goals while at the same time experience a different culture, place and way of life than back home.

While the decision to study abroad is not one that should be taken lightly, anyone who joins the millions of Americans who have ventured across the globe in their studies will find that studying abroad is an experience like no other.

Gap Year Student Stories: An Internship in Washington D.C.

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Once a month we will highlight student experiences from AGA Accredited Programs. This month we’re pleased to bring you the story of Joe Caplis, who is on a program in Washington DC as an intern, through then American University Gap Program.

Getting Started in the AU Gap Program

As a newcomer to the AU Gap Program this spring, I was a little unclear on what to expect. Sure, I had read all the materials provided and looked at what past students had to say about their experience, but nothing I read could have foreshadowed the excitement that was to come.

The first few days were dedicated to preparing for the Internship Fair where about 50 different organizations would be coming to recruit us bright-eyed and bushy-tailed students. I walked into the internship fair a little nervous, but did my best to fall back on the lessons we were taught leading up to the event. The night after the internship fair, I received a call from the Federalist Society, one of my favorite organizations from the fair, asking if I could meet for an interview the next day.

Learning the Skills to Succeed

Our first day of class with Professor Christian Maisch (who is quite the comedian!) featured Ambassador Barbara Stephenson from the American Foreign Service Association in the morning and then we practiced our interview skills with an expert in the afternoon.

After class, I was ready to trek downtown for my internship interview. I walked into the beautiful office building, just a few blocks away from the White House, ready to be put on the grill; but instead was taken to a restaurant where I was relieved to find myself not on the menu! The interview went great!

Working in D.C.

After landing my dream internship with the Federalist Society, I started my career in Washington D.C. as a research associate. Since then, I’ve worked to compile reports on various topics to brief the leadership and have written a short introduction for a well-known Congressman. The work is hard but the hours pass quickly when you’re doing what you love.

After the first week, my co-worker and gap-semester buddy Will and I quickly realized there is only one appropriate way to close out a good week of work. At 5pm, we hop on the Metro toward the Capital and go to D.C.’s best burger joint, Ollie’s Trolley. The only problem so far is the experience is going too quickly—I’m doing my best to savor each fry, one bite at a time.

-Joseph Caplis
AU Gap Student, Spring 2017

Planning your Gap Year Airfare

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Airfare is one of the trickiest elements to building a strong Gap Year. Typically it’s the priciest pieces in the equation of an any Gap Year, and still remains one of the most expensive considerations even on academic study abroads. That being said, there are a lot of ways to save money on your flight. We highly encourage you to start your airfare search early given not only the volatility of the market, but also the constant changes that the airline industries seem to be going through.

There are a lot of elements to consider when scoring a great airfare. Here are a few tips gleaned from years of banging our heads against the proverbial walls of travel:

Know your rights!

The Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division lays out certainties of compensation and expectations for travelers: http://www.dot.gov/airconsumer. If you feel like you’re not getting this, mention it, and if necessary, never hesitate to talk to a supervisor, or threaten to report the airline. Note: this only is required for US airlines.

Sign up for air miles

These little things are priceless and within a few years you’ll typically earn yourself at least one free domestic flight if not a free international one!

Keep track of your boarding passes

It’s unfortunate, but many airlines will “lose” your information and make it more difficult to get your miles awarded.

Visa Check

If you’re traveling to a place that requires a visa, don’t forget to get one! The airline won’t let you board your plane if you don’t have the necessary visa! Find out if you need one by going to the State Department and checking out the entry requirements for your destination. In many cases you can get a visa-on-arrival, but just as often you’ll need to send your passport to a Consulate General’s Office (a foreign embassy) to get a visa stamp for entry.

Those who ask, receive

If your flight is changed, don’t be afraid to ask for free things – hotel vouchers, meal vouchers, etc. Heck, the worst they can say is ‘no.’

Do your research

Find out online what arrival dates should be cheapest. Keep in mind that weekends will be more expensive, and typically the cheapest day to fly is Wednesday. It’s usually cheapest to book your flight approximately 6 weeks out . . . if not more. Roundtrip tickets will help cut the cost, as will flying early in the morning.

Buy local

Book your regional flights through local carriers. When traveling internationally this is particularly important to do and easily can save you hundreds of dollars simply by booking your flight (for example within Southeast Asia) from a Thai travel agent.

Discount companies aren’t always the best bet

Booking your flight through a discount company – like Priceline, or Expedia, often will save some money but disallow the earning of airmiles, and very regularly will route you through some fairly exhausting itineraries. Remember, the times a traveler are most at risk are in transit, so showing up exhausted and not fully present is a recipe that simply compounds your exposure.

Check here

Don’t forget to check the usual suspects: www.kayak.com, www.Cheapflights.com, and www.yapta.com for good deals.

Read the fine print

Be aware of the terms of your travel: change ticket fees, abilities to re-route, change dates, etc.

Keep composure

Changing your flight once you’ve started can sometimes be simple and sometimes complicated. But remember that when you’re traveling in a foreign country it never helps to lose patience. Be polite, ask for a supervisor if needed, and be patient but assertive.

Student deals

Take advantage of student airfares if you’re currently a student. www.statravel.com.

Do you have any additional tips for keeping airfare low? Help keep us updated!

Volunteering During your Gap Year: The Refugee Crisis

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Over one million people were forced to flee to Europe in 2015, according to a report from the United Nations Refugee Agency. Ongoing conflict and violence in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the world is causing many to risk the perilous journey over the Mediterranean to Europe in their attempts to reach safety. The European Union has struggled to cope with the crisis since April 2015, when the number of deaths at sea rose to record levels and asylum applications increased by more than 80% from the previous year.

Fear and insufficient resources have caused many European countries to greatly restrict the number of refugees and migrants from settling in the continent, with more and more people dying everyday in their attempts to reach safety. As Melissa Fleming from the United Nations Refugee Agency puts it, “The simple truth is that refugees would not risk their lives on a journey so dangerous if they could thrive where they are.”

Living in a world so globalized and connected makes it hard to be unaware of the of the plight and suffering many refugees are currently facing. And while being informed is of utmost importance, there has been little information on what individuals at home, or as Gap Year students traveling, can do.

Become Informed

In order to become involved with, and have a positive impact within the refugee crisis, you first have to understand it. That means more than memorizing a bunch of numbers and dates – it means understanding how you can be involved, and how to create a positive, lasting impact.

The point of any kind of volunteer work – related to the refugee crisis or not, is NOT to soothe our conscience. It is NOT to make us fall asleep better at night, knowing that we “changed a life.”

The point of volunteering; whether it be volunteering your time, money or voice, is to create lasting, positive change. While your heart may be in the right place, positive change cannot be made by paying $75 to be driven out to a refugee camp where you can hand out food and supplies to the poor family of your choice. As Daniela Papi states in her article for the Huffington Post, “It’s like buying food pellets at the zoo to feed the goats. Except these are people. Not goats.”

As Papi suggests, consider instead donating money to organizations like the United Nations Refugee Agency, that can distribute these supplies through local power structures to ensure that high needs are prioritized.

That being said, every little bit counts. The key is asking questions first and taking action second. It’s about understanding how to make a lasting impact that isn’t simply about taking action, regardless of what that action may be. It’s about taking action in the best way possible to ensure that lasting change is made and that you are not simply participating in a “voluntourist” agenda.

Make a Donation

United Nations Refugee Agency – provides items like tents, blankets, cooking sets and other life-saving needs.

American Red Cross – ensures distribution of food, water, hygiene kits, baby supplies across countries all over Europe.

Bootvluchteling (Boat Refugee Founation) – assists the Italian government in ensuring safe crossing of refugees in the waters between Italy and Libya.

Volunteer Your Time

There are numerous way someone can become involved in the refugee crisis, including volunteering your time through an organization or directly through your community. Keep in mind that it’s important to use any specialized skills or experience you may already possess when volunteering.

For example, if you are a writer, you could write a piece on the effects of the refugee crisis you have noticed while traveling. If you are a nurse or have a background in healthcare, you might consider doing hands on work for one of the organizations listed below. If you find an opportunity to volunteer, do something that you know, that you’re qualified at and that you’re passionate about.

Bootvluvhteling (Boat Refugee Foundation) – volunteers needed for Lesbos and Samos, minimum age 21 and availability of at least 14 days.

Mercy Corps – volunteer positions available at headquarters in Portland, OR with the next orientation (required for volunteering) occurring February 27. Please note that volunteering overseas is not an option.

Support Refugees – this organization has compiled a list on countless volunteer opportunities throughout Europe. Also features much “need to know” information about volunteering that is very useful and important to consider.

Becoming involved with the refugee crisis does not require the affiliation of an organization – look for like minded people in your own community that are also interested in doing something positive for the issue. Discuss ways you can directly impact your own community, thinking on a local scale rather than a national or international scale.

In the fall of 2016 I had the opportunity to live in Germany on my Gap Year and get to know more about the refugee crisis firsthand. I got to know individuals personally that had recently immigrated to Germany from places like Syria and Iraq. I was able to see how individuals had used their time and resources to create change for newcomers to Germany. My own Oma (grandmother) had a group of eight Syrian men over for a traditional German Christmas dinner this past holiday season to welcome them to Germany. An anarchist squat I visited in Berlin called “Rauchhaus” converted old hospital dormitories into classrooms in the building they occupied to teach English to new refugees.

There are so many ways to become directly involved with the current refugee crisis – whether abroad or at home. You can write about the people you have met that have been directly impacted by the refugee crisis, or encourage your friends and family back home to raise money for organizations like the United Nations Refugee Agency. As individuals traveling, Gap Year students are in a unique position to use their experiences and opportunities to raise awareness for, and to directly support, the refugee crisis.

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Image credit: Author: A picture taken along the River Spree in Berlin, Mitte this past fall. One of many pieces of graffiti and art that have become a part of the urban landscape that is Berlin. Notice the partially hidden lettering above the “Refugees Welcome!!!” which states “WE ARE PEOPLE.”

Gap Year Travel Safety

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Traveling safely is no joke. In all honesty, half of our lists here have been learned the hard way – so please take our word from it that if the fire is hot, there’s no need to burn yourself to be sure.

International & Domestic

Check the medical situation

Does the region you’re visiting recommend certain vaccinations or medical supplies be on hand before you arrive? Do you have any personal medical concerns that need to be addressed before you travel? Keep in mind some medications (like malaria pills) will need to be taken weeks and sometimes months in advance.

Know where you’ll be staying

Especially for the first few nights. Youth Hosteling Association (YHA), or Hosteling International (HI) are great resources to find yourself in safe living situations. They have high standards and safety is paramount for their good name.

Communication

If you’re traveling alone, get a cell phone and know your emergency phone numbers. As well, check for relevant apps such as the State Department one that lists embassy phone numbers and addresses. Have regular check-in times with family. Partially so that they can live vicariously through you and your experiences, but also as a safety measure to make sure in case something happens they’ll know ASAP.

Take care of yourself

If you’re sick, don’t waste time wondering how bad it is. For many Gap Year students health takes on a secondary-import because they’re used to having a parent there to tell them when something is bad and when it’s just healing normally. If you’re not sure, call home or go to a doctor!

Driving

If you’re going to drive, make sure you have proper insurance and know the rules of the road. Stay off of motorcycles. We know it’s tempting, but in the Peace Corps they’ll send you home even if they suspect you rode one… they’re that dangerous! Also, in EVERY case, the time you’re most at risk is in a motor vehicle. Make sure you at least have a short conversation with every driver to make sure they’re awake and sober: and wear a seat belt (if there is one).

Keep up with your street smarts

Before you go out, ask the locals what areas are safe and which aren’t. Even in New York city, there’s areas you just don’t go at night alone!

Look before you leap

If there’s a crowd of people, don’t let curiosity get the best of you . . . stay away until you REALLY understand what’s going on.

Let it go

Nothing in life is certain, but, if you’re mugged, the best thing to do is usually just give up what you have. Whether it’s drugs they’re after, cash, or your passport, all are easily enough replaced and in every case will be cheaper than a hospital bill if you resist. But, the one thing that we can assure you of is that an ounce of prevention is worth a ton in gratitude: pay attention; if you feel uncomfortable, go somewhere safe; and reserve a little skepticism about everyone and their intentions.

Prepare for everything

It never hurts to get certified in wilderness medicine through WMI, WMA, or SOLO. These are some of the most reliable ways to make sure that you can take care of yourself in an emergency.

Alcohol and drugs are dangerous

In cases of rape while traveling, there’s almost a 90% correlation with alcohol. Even marijuana, in some countries can carry a death sentence. The bottom line is that if your goal in your Gap Year is to party, then you’re not taking a “Gap Year.”

International Only

1. Know your Embassy’s phone numbers.

2. Visit the State Department website for any travel warnings, and WATCH THE NEWS.

3. Visit the State Department website to see what areas you need a visa for and which ones you can get ‘on arrival.’ Every country you travel to will have an immigration department, and without adequate preparation you may not even be able to enter the country!

4. Register with the State Department’s Smart Travelers Enrollment Program.

5. In questionable situations, if you can’t boil it, cook it, or peel it, don’t eat it.

6. Scan your passport and email a copy to yourself. This is just in case yours gets lost, stolen, or a tiger eats it… in this way you have a digital copy so that you can more easily prove you are who you say you are to the embassy when you’re trying to get a new one.

7. If you lose your passport, contact the embassy immediately – delaying this call will only mean a delay in getting a new one as they now have to check to see if your passport has been used illegally and thus taking more time for them… oh yeah, and more time for you!

Let us know if you have any other essential travel safety tips to know before you go!

What to Do When Your Student Comes Home a Different Person

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The countdown has dwindled (to your great joy, to your kid’s great despair) and the end of the Gap Year is now upon us! You look up from the kitchen table to see your child on the couch and it’s like a year hasn’t passed. But it did, and while your child might look the same more or less (save for that new tattoo?!), their mind and soul might be a little different.

Getting to know that new person takes time. We know you love them, but how do you set both guardians and child up for success when they come back and they aren’t quite like you remember.

Before They Come Home

Establish open lines of communication. Before the Gap Year, during, and especially after; it’s important that you’re able to “talk it out” with your kid. If you have expectations for their participation in, or attendance to, certain family affairs, let them know in advance. Invite them to help plan meet up’s or other obligations – your kid will appreciate that you value their input. Ask them, as well, what they’d like to do in their first few weeks home. Discussing what these first few weeks will look like can help mitigate any misunderstandings.

Discuss curfew, chores, and house rules. Your kid just experienced a whirlwind of independence – anywhere from choosing their own meals (and meal times) to deciding when they want to leave the house and when they don’t. That degree of independence can be liberating, but you must discuss with your child if self-government holds up in your household.

  • Can significant others stay the night?
  • Is drinking permitted?
  • Should curfews be abided by?

Instead of deciding top-down how their life back home after their Gap Year is going to look, have a dialogue about what would be best for both parties.

Remind them you love them. When you come back to a life that feels entirely different, with a new sense of self and new life goals, insecurities can be quick to bubble up.

  • “What if they don’t like me now?”
  • “What if I don’t fit in anymore?”
  • “How am I going to end that relationship?”

These questions can lead to much vulnerability. Tell your kid, time and again, that you love them for who they are, who they are becoming, and for who they were. Prepare a soft landing for them in this tumultuous period of their lives.

The First Weeks Home

Transition your “role” as parent – not as a lawmaker, but as an adviser. Your kid will be navigating a LOT of emotions as they return home, not least of which is their newfound self-sufficiency and relative “adulthood.” As a parent, it’s critical that you offer support during this period and a backboard of advice. You can talk about the gambit – their life abroad, their next life plans, college, grades, relationships, friendships. But ask out of genuine curiosity and with a willingness to offer objectivity or new perspectives, not to mine for reasons to chastise or punish your kid. This will help establish healthy boundaries as your wee one is growing up.

Remember: you might be different, too.

Just as your kid coming back might not feel like the same ol’ Timmy or Susie, you might feel different to them, too. Maybe having an empty-nest shed new insights on your personal life, maybe you’ve offered forgiveness to someone you swore you never would, maybe you love Pilates or the Pittsburgh Pirates now. Whatever it is, keep in mind that you’re also a dynamic individual and your kid might have a hard time adjusting to your “new you.”

Don’t Pressure Your Kid to Maintain Old Habits

If your child comes back a vegetarian, don’t make their favorite ribs for a “Welcome home!” meal. Maybe your child has expressed concerns about their lethargy, their apathy, or their inability to focus on getting important things taken care of. Rather than tempt them to join you for a last-minute movie spree, encourage them to maintain and actively pursue their goals.

Remind them you love them! This is just good advice all-around, and worth mentioning again.

When your child returns from abroad, they’ll be experiencing a heavy dose of reverse culture shock. While it’s a difficult psychological experience for your kid, it can also do a number on Mom and Dad (or other guardians). Be patient with your child as they figure out what their life back home looks like after all of their time away. Their new self will be your favorite version of themselves before you know it!

What Matters More Than Talent: Meta-Learning

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I once led a six-week leadership retreat for five young people taking self-directed Gap Years. I rented them their own apartment in the bustling town of Ashland, Oregon, and challenged them to devise a clear set of independent learning goals, which they would pursue with daily mentorship from me and my co-leader.

One student wanted to learn about biology and Kendo; another wanted to improve her photography and web design skills. So I sent them away to interview biologists, martial arts instructors, photographers, and designers. My students boldly introduced themselves to complete strangers, pushed themselves to learn both online and offline, and blogged about their successes and failures, over and over again.

Those were just the weekdays. On the weekends, I sent them on wild adventures to build their self-directed resolve in some rather unusual ways.

For “hobo weekend,” they hiked on train tracks (on which trains weren’t actually running) to a local reservoir and camped out under tarps and thin blankets, a lesson in the importance of maintaining one’s attitude in a difficult situation: like not having a home to return to at night.

For “travel weekend,” I challenged teams of students to get as far away from our home base as possible, and back, in 48 hours with only $50. I showed them how to use Craigslist (to find cheap rideshares) and Couchsurfing (to find free housing), gave them some safety protocols, and then sent them on their way. One team made it as far as San Francisco, a 700-mile round-trip.

For “entrepreneur weekend,” the students attempted to earn as much money as possible using only $5 seed capital. For “paperclip weekend,” they traded up a worthless starting object (a paperclip) into a more valuable one (a set of golf clubs) using only their wits.

For the final weekend, I gave them surprise one-way tickets on a Portland-bound Amtrak train, a to-do list with tasks drawn from previous retreat activities, and the challenge to eat, sleep, and get themselves back four days later, with a budget of only $80 each. (My co-leader also boarded the train, trailing the group undetected with a fake moustache, as an extra safety measure.) Spoiler alert: they made it.

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What Matters More Than Talent

When the program ended, everyone went home happy—and I spent a long time asking myself why I ran it.

The leadership retreat combined some of the most fun and interesting activities I’d picked up over my years of hanging around innovative summer camps, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, world travelers, and outdoor educators. I hadn’t thought about how they fit together before I ran the program, but there had to be a common thread. What was it?

An excerpt from a blog post by the author Seth Godin finally nailed the answer for me:

“An organization filled with honest, motivated, connected, eager, learning, experimenting, ethical and driven people will always defeat the one that merely has talent. Every time.”

The world is full of places that try to teach “talent,” school and college being the preeminent two. But the world has far fewer places that attempt to teach honesty, motivation, ethics, and the other traits Godin described.

Yet for many businesses and other enterprises, these traits ultimately matter more than talent. People get hired for professional skills and fired for personal skills.

That’s when I realized that what I was teaching at the leadership retreat was what educators call meta-learning: the personal skills that help you learn effectively in complex and unpredictable environments.

Building the Skills That Matter

The leadership retreat wasn’t really about sleeping under a tarp or finding rideshares or learning Kendo: it was about building resourcefulness, creativity, self-regulation, self-motivation, conscientiousness, and focus.

It was about greeting a stranger, learning from a defeat, arguing one’s case, and telling a good story. Meta-learning was the thread that connected all of my own formative educational experiences, and I was trying to pass that thread along.

If you’ve spent the majority of your life on the competitive college-prep track, then you’ve gained a very specific set of meta-learning skills:

The ones that help you succeed in structured and academic-focused learning environments. But if you don’t see yourself becoming an academic or corporate professional—if you want to have a more self-directed life that defies conventional expectations and boundaries—than you’ll need to expand your meta-learning capacities.

Gap Years are Laboratories for Meta-Learning

When you leave the academic bubble to travel, work, and learn in the real world, you’re navigating complex and unpredictable environments. You’re tackling novel, multi-faceted problems each day. You’re developing your heart as much as much as your mind.

No matter if you sign up for a traditional Gap Year program, do a crazy program like mine, or bootstrap a solo gap year, you’re doing a service to your career and your soul. You’re signing up for an experience that doesn’t just pour information into your head; it helps you learn how to learn. The investment will pay for itself over and over again.

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Blake Boles is the author of Better Than College and The Art of Self-Directed Learning. He leads gap year and travel programs through his company Unschool Adventures.

This post was adapted from Chapter 15 (“Learning How to Learn”) of The Art of Self-Directed Learning.

Keeping in Touch With Your Gap Year Friends

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Leaving home to Gap Year for a semester or year is fertile ground for making new friends. Together, you trip and stumble and fall and giggle through the language barriers, conquer unexpected challenges, and actively explore your new sense of freedom. You quickly start to question your lifestyle back home, and get to shed your past and start fresh. You meet people from all different walks of life and challenge your conventional norms. Who wouldn’t want to do this hand in hand with a rad person who totally “GETS IT?”

Your bestie from abroad is a special gal/guy, and it’d be a shame to let your tight bond go to waste just because you’re in separate time zones. Here are some ideas for keeping in touch with your Gap Year BFF!

Share the mundane details of life

Since your Gap Year BFF is probably on the other side of the country, you will be tempted to limit your conversations to memories of your shared lives and adventures back on the other side of the pond. While it’s fun to reminisce, it isn’t a great foundation for the growth of a longterm friendship.

Gap Year BFF’s Jamie and Grey share: “Our joint love for Ghana was the cornerstone of our friendship, but it was important for us to continue building it beyond that.”

When telling stories, use the actual names of your friends and your professors. Talk to him/her about what’s really going on. Avoid generalizing or skipping over things because you’re busy or think he/she doesn’t care. Talk to him/her the same way you would talk to your BFFs at school – about EVERYTHING. He/she deserves to know, and probably wants to, too!

Kick it old school with snail mail and commit to phone dates

Who doesn’t just LOVE getting care packages?! Take the time to put a little lovin’ in a box/envelope and drop it in your local post box for your gal pal across the country.

While it will be tempting to back out every now and then, avoid falling into a habit of breaking your phone or Skype dates. Texting and snapchatting and giving them a little #TBT shout out every now and then is good and all, but is it enough?

Introduce your @home besties & him/her

We have a hunch that your besties in your hometown or at your university would be huge fans of your new friend, too. Take the time to get everyone involved in the lovefest!

For instance, Jamie’s other friend Meredith was pumped when BFF Grey posted a funny photo on him/her Facebook wall.

This step can look as simple as friending one another on social media or following each other on Instagram. Having the groundwork laid pre-tip #4 will only enrich him/her experience being welcomed into your home communities.

Invite your Gap Year BFF for a visit!

Step 1: Think about how AWESOME would it be to show your life back home to your Gap Year bestie?!

Step 2: Invite them over.

Step 3: Nag them until they buy their plane ticket!

Introducing your BFF to your life at school or your life back home will strengthen your relationship. Now, she’ll be able to put a face to all those names, totally “get” why you couldn’t get over that guy, and better understand why you called the gelato in Italy second-best to your favorite diner ice cream in your hometown.

Gap Year BFFs Madeline and Marley can’t wait to reunite in Seattle later this year. “We met while studying abroad and just clicked!” said Madeline,

Marley joked, “It’s hard to tell if me or my mom are more excited for him/her visit this summer! ….And I secretly want to set her up with my brother.”

Plan your next joint adventure abroad!

Before even leaving the hills of New Zealand, Gap Year BFF’s Karinne and Olivia were already scheming ways to return together. A few weeks later they had a full fledged plan to get jobs, save up money, attend community college, and then come back the following spring.

Having a common goal to work towards together and a loving buddy who can hold you accountable to your commitments is a surefire way to keep the travel stoke AND the BFF stoke alive.

Jamie agrees: “Grey and I couldn’t wait to get back to Ghana. We did some independent research, contacted a local NGO outside of Accra, booked our plane tickets and returned the following summer. It was amazing, especially to be able to do it with someone who ‘gets’ me.”

Did you hit the jackpot or WHAT? Not only did you get to travel abroad and check out life in amazing foreign countries, you also got to share your experience with a new BFF. You lucky thing, you!

Bridging Culture Gaps

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You don’t have to go overseas to experience a different culture – there are a variety of deep and wonderful cultures anywhere. Thus, the most important thing is the way in which you approach any different culture. For instance, traveling from North Carolina to Los Angeles is no doubt going to be a different experience and there’s often little need to go to the other side of the globe to push your comfort zone.

That being said, in the words of Holly Bull from the Center for Interim Programs, “Perhaps the most important aspect of a Gap Year is the student making their own decision.” In other words, whether you feel called to be in Hawaii working with dolphins, in Louisiana engaging in service-learning about environmental issues, or in India living in a yoga ashram, the fact that you as the student are making your own decision is the largest predictor of a “successful” Gap Year.

Here are a few tips that are important to remember when you’re thinking about visiting a foreign culture:

The bottom line

There are no excuses for “inappropriate.” No matter what, if you feel unsafe, threatened, of if you generally feel a bit off about what’s going on, then no amount of cultural norms make it okay. If, particularly as a woman, a man is touching your leg or neck, in almost every culture such behavior is unacceptable unless you’re at the least dating . . . no matter what the man may say. Please, for your and every other traveler’s sake, tell the man “no” firmly and leave.

Ease in

If you’re traveling for three months, spend the first months simply engaging and observing: try to see things from the local perspective and then, when you feel comfortable, venture into sharing some of your own opinions and cultural norms. This extends to simple things like taking pictures, or constantly asking “how much is that” . . . these are things that leave a big and stereotypical footprint that inevitably put you in a box and limits your experience as much as it shows your ignorance of the local cultures.

Remember to travel lightly

This is in reference to the environment as much as it’s in reference to the culture. But in general, traveling with an open mind rather than insisting on reinforcing your own opinions is the best way to make friends and experience the local cultures authentically. For instance, when traveling in a Muslim country, learning about Islam, cultural values as they are represented on the ground, and the state of the average family is going to be far more educational than watching the news about radical Islam. The reality is that the differences that divide us as a species are far less numerous than the similarities.

Be a good guest

It’s often said in other parts of the world that the “guest is god.” It’s a way of saying that when a guest comes in, that you’ll be treated as if you were royalty with all things shared and all invitations made. Oftentimes, in a more impoverished setting, the family may give you (a single person), the only bedroom while the entire family sleeps in the living room (where some of the rest of the family would sleep on any other night). Even though this may be uncomfortable, it’s probably rude in these circumstances to refuse.

However, Americans consume enough as it is . . . so don’t simply take everything without consideration for the rest of the family nor for the power of cross cultural communication.

Give back

One night, offer to cook your host family or friends or coworkers a traditional meal from your home as a thanks for their hospitality and to reduce their work for the evening. In the author’s experience, there was a time the family was making hot water so he could take a shower. They had gone out in the woods, cut down wood to burn simply so he could take a hot shower. He didn’t know about this, and so consumed three-quarters of the water from the bucket in a ‘new and exciting bucket-shower’ as the locals do. However, unknowingly, the entire family was now relegated to using only the final quarter of the bucket for their shower.

Dealing with food specialties

In most cases, it’s better to make excuses rather than refusals. It’s one of those understood issues of living culturally that if you don’t like a particular food, or if you’re a vegetarian for instance, then rather than saying that you “don’t eat meat,” say that you’re “allergic to meat,” or a vegetarian. Of course this is perhaps a bit misleading. However, it’s an understood way out from cultural expectations and half-truths are often understood culturally better in different countries than here in the States.

Traveling with expectations is overrated

It’s impossible to walk into an experience without expectations – they are usually subconscious and fed by media, friends, or your own American culture. However, being a good student in life means being open to being wrong. Walking in as an anthropologist in lieu of an “American” – inasmuch is possible – is invaluable. Keep your mind (and your eyes) open.

Keep a journal

We know . . . this sounds like homework, and who wants to spend countless hours writing in a journal? But perhaps one of the most important aspects of a structured Gap Year is keeping a journal. How often do you know how you really feel until you’ve thought about it a bit? How often do you just remember that really great insight without writing it down? The point of it, above all else, is to keep the reflective element of learning a daily practice rather than simply photographing the local people and ghosting through your experience.

In all, cultural travel at its best consists of two main ingredients: common sense and respect. Respect the local people, local traditions, local food and way of life, local authorities. Also be sure to respect yourself and fellow travelers. Keep an open mind and use a dash of humility and common sense, and you’re sure to have a pleasurable experience no matter where you travel.

How to Talk About Your Gap Year Without Annoying Everyone

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A nugget of wisdom from good ol’ Lorelai Gilmore:

“Hey, don’t you want to see it? Huh? The place where you’ll be living and studying and developing very naïve but pretentious world views that will come crashing down the minute you graduate?”

Whether you like it or not, your newly-enlightened worldview is still in some-ways idealistic. This is not a bad thing. I repeat. This is not a bad thing. But the reality is that even with the insane number of amazing experiences you now have under your belt, you still have a lot to learn, and humility will be your BFF as you navigate your post-Gap Year relationships and conversations.

Here are my best tips for talking about your Gap Year without everyone’s eyes glazing over.

How to NOT sound like an arrogant-annoyance

There’s no quicker movement from “0 to annoyed” than to constantly barrage your family and friends with the amazing stories you had while experiencing a much-cooler life than basically everyone else you know. Want to bypass this intersection?

 

Don’t be the one-upper

You know how you hear stories that instantly trigger memories about your own personal experiences? While it’s great to relate to others and communicate your empathy through sharing them, it can unfortunately devolve into a game of “my experience is more hardXXcore than yours.” Listen and react appropriately to others; don’t just wait for your chance to interject with something that’s all about YOU.

Cool it on the conversation policing, especially in public

Some of your friends and family might make comments that are inappropriate, inaccurate, or insensitive to other cultures. Instead of calling them out in the middle of a group, if you feel strongly about something they’ve said, take them aside independently and have a quick chat about it. Don’t embarrass them in front of others – but don’t let these false comments slide, either.

Integrate your experiences

If you are quick to tell others how much you support access to clean water or education equality in India, don’t let these interests lie solely in memories. Walk the talk and merge your newfound interests with your life back home. People will be more interested in hearing about your intensive Swahili course in Tanzania if you’re currently seeking opportunities in your home community (or heck, online) to continue developing that skill.

 

Mutual Interest is Key

While you were traipsing around the planet bringing new meaning to the word “globetrotter,” your family and friends were also having important experiences. They might have been ordinary or they might have been extraordinary. Regardless, they matter, and you need to let them know that.

Ask them questions, too

It’s called a dialogue, di-alogue, two. There’s not much fun if you’re the only one talking. Like a good ping pong match, toss questions back at them and inquire thoughtfully about their personal experiences while you were away.

Don’t minimize their experiences

Sometimes the things we say come off as a lot more harsher than we intend. For instance, “I could never live in <insert hometown> again” OR “Everyone here is so complacent. My greatest fear is to not really LIVE life and to just do the same thing day-in, day-out.” While you might feel all of these things, there are more sensitive (and less offensive) ways to say them. “I’m thankful for my experiences in <insert hometown>, but I want to try out living in other places” OR “One of my values is diversity of experience and staying active. This will manifest in my life in these ways: x, y, z.”

Tell them you love them and are thankful for them

It can be a little scary to see your best friend or your kid or your sibling jaunt off around the world to experience so much. Wouldn’t you feel a little insecure, too? Remind your closest friends and family that they matter to you, and that while you had a valuable experience striking off on your own, you couldn’t wait to come back to see them, hug them, hear how they’re doing, and start making more memories with them. Ah, love.

 

“How” to share versus “what” to share

We’ve already talked at length about how to answer the inevitable “How was it?” question after your travels. These tips are applicable even when responding to more detailed or specific questions. The secret is to know your audience and adapt your stories based on their expressed interest or their time availability.

The more conversations you have in the days, weeks, and yes – years – after your Gap Year will continuously illuminate new approaches to these discussions. You will stumble. You will annoy people. You will start to realize people avoid eye contact as they’re passing you on their way to class (okay, maybe that is extreme). But without a sincere effort to keep trying and to keep learning – not to mention that humility I alluded to earlier 😉 – you might stagnate.

Be transparent with your friends and family, maybe even going so far as to explain to them that you want to talk about your Gap Year but you don’t want to overwhelm or bore them with stories – asking them to be direct with you when you say something offensive offhand or are beating a dead horse.

Happy chatting and good luck!