Question 9 of 20: How to Vet a Gap Year Organization

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These questions were developed out of the understanding that having the full 54 pages of AGA Standards in front of most people would be utterly useless. See them here to understand their complexity: www.americangap.org/2013_AGA_Standards.pdf.  So, we created these 20 Questions as a way to help the individual navigate their own program.  These may be for the more intrepid and independent traveler – someone who’s already done their fair share of traveling: a veteran sojourner.  Or, perhaps these might be appropriate for someone who’s truly on a budget and the scholarships and financial aid available to them through another program isn’t sufficient.  Obviously, the full 54 pages of Standards make great sense for an AGA organization to run through – ensuring the best quality and safety in an organized program.  But not every student will want to do one of our accredited programs.  http://www.americangap.org/assets/20_Questions.pdf

Q9: What happens during an average day?

This is probably one of the most common questions I get. And to be honest, it’s frankly one of my favorite. Ultimately people find a great deal of reason to be concerned in the security, the admissions, the finances, etc., … but at the end of the day it’s the “what” of every day that’s going to determine whether you’re going to have a good experience.  And, if the fit is so paramount then this question about the day-to-day activities MUST be asked.  Much of this is to say that the most common reason why a student fails a program, or the program fails its student, is largely because of expectations the students have.  Whether their expectations are realistic or too dreamy … you know what I mean.

So let’s say that you’re about to embark on a program that is volunteer-focused. First of all, let’s get rid of the word “volunteer” because it implies an effort to lift the host community out of poverty or generally to “help them”.  Let’s choose our terminology more consciously to be “service-learning”, or even the latest craze: Fair Trade Service-Learning. So now that that’s out of the way, the big question remains: What are you actually doing each day? How many hours of a 24-hour day are you doing the service-learning? How many hours of a 24 hour day are you getting to the site from home, back to the site, where is lunch, who prepares lunch?  All of these are great questions, and I guarantee you that the organization you’re asking will have the answers to these.  But also bear in mind that much of this is going to be a “typical day” and there’s always a bit of learning to “flow” with events – especially if you’re in the developing world.

Another version of this question to include is: where will I be staying? I put these two together because obviously what you’ll be doing does include where you’ll be sleeping.  And as such, will you be staying in a homestay? How much of your program will be in a homestay? Would you be staying in hostels ever? Will you be camping? How much of your program will be dedicated to each one of these? And, will you be able to actually have your own room or will you have to share your room with another participant?  Now I certainly don’t mean to say that one or any of these versions is better than another. Really though, these have to do with your level of comfort and again, that central question of “fit” … is it what you want and how you want to challenge yourself?

I think another element for this is what level of independence you have. I mean, will you be seeing your peers every day? Is there a staff person you’ll see every day? What level of of support does that mean that you’ll have on your program? And whether that means you’ll have a lot of free time is again a critical element.

Parents have often said that nothing good happens past midnight. And, if you want your Gap Year to have a bit of a party scene from time to time, then that’s a good thing to be clear about going-in. Many students have been expelled from programs because they didn’t read the information clearly enough and as such found that when they did go out to party, even if it was just once for the entire program, that was enough to get them kicked off.

 

True story:

I had a student who went to Southeast Asia on a program. She had read in the program information that there would be some service learning opportunities with sexually trafficked girls and took it upon herself to read into that as she would be able to listen to their stories, counsel them through their problems, and help get them trained in an alternative form of income and employment. And, while that was the mission for the partner nonprofit organization (an NGO as it’s called overseas) she clearly did not read enough of the information to understand that the actual day-to-day of the service learning experience would involve teaching, and small painting/construction projects. She was locked into the belief that she as a 20-year-old would have the language ability, the professional training, and the timeline to truly build that relationship.

And while it ultimately I believe falls on the shoulders of the student and their family to ask these questions, as well as to read the information, what it also prompted for the organization at that time was a greater effort on making sure that students are fully understanding information and thus the admissions process was changed to have a standard question about this that would uncover the student’s level of understanding and then if needed, to take a more direct approach in communicating what they can expect and what’s just not realistic.

All of this is to say that perhaps the most important thing in a student’s overall success or failure on a program has entirely to do with the expectations they have going into it. A good program will put a lot of energy into clarifying what kinds of expectations are realistic, and what kinds of expectations are simply not going to be met.

Question 8 of 20: How to Vet a Gap Year Organization

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These questions were developed out of the understanding that having the full 54 pages of AGA Standards in front of most people would be utterly useless. See them here to understand their complexity: www.americangap.org/2013_AGA_Standards.pdf.  So, we created these 20 Questions as a way to help the individual navigate their own program.  These may be for the more intrepid and independent traveler – someone who’s already done their fair share of traveling: a veteran sojourner.  Or, perhaps these might be appropriate for someone who’s truly on a budget and the scholarships and financial aid available to them through another program isn’t sufficient.  Obviously, the full 54 pages of Standards make great sense for an AGA organization to run through – ensuring the best quality and safety in an organized program.  But not every student will want to do one of our accredited programs.  http://www.americangap.org/assets/20_Questions.pdf


 

Q8: What are the organization’s policies regarding student conduct?

RULES!   … now, I know that this is probably the most boring subject you could possibly imagine, but if you think about it, these are the rules that will govern your life while you’re on your Gap Year.  Some organizations have fairly cumbersome rules, others are frankly largely absent and I’ll encourage you to explore the policies because they’re a hidden way to understand how much structure vs. independence you’ll have. … as well as your ‘risk tolerance’ from a safety perspective.  Some programs have rules that are several pages long.  Some will govern curfews, some will have rules on alcohol and drugs, still others have group-dynamics & general conduct rules (call these “ambassador rules”).  On the other side of that coin are organizations that have pretty much no rules. These are obviously going to be more party-oriented organized programs where fun is the operative word.

I encourage you to think about the policies like this: depending on what level of comfort you have in the developing world, the developed world, or even in the US, if you’re doing your Gap Year there, these are the rules that will determine how much structure your program has. When you’re looking at the program or contact’s web page or talking with them on the phone, it can be very hard to read between the lines and REALLY understand exactly how much supervision, accountability, independence, curfews, etc. your program will hold you to.  That, and not knowing these can result in an early dismissal from the program that you might not inherently understand unless you ask the reasoning for a rule… and trust me, EVERY POLICY IS THERE FOR A REASON. These rules, or policies, or however they talk about them, are very clearly going to be the quickest insight into what level of program supervision you’ll be subject to.  One cautionary tale I’ll offer, is that even the PeaceCorps has rules.  For instance in the Peace Corps, they will expel you from the program if they think that you’ve ridden a motorcycle.  They learned that motorcycles are so dangerous in the places where they operate, that they were I believe the highest fatality-causing event. Thus, even if you’re a week away from completing your service and they find that you’ve ridden a motorcycle, as a passenger or as a pilot, they will expel you no questions asked.

The other intention behind an organization’s rules is that they certainly plan an element in the governance of your peer/group/community structure. If you’re living with others, it’s very nice to know that you can either go to another supervisor, or program manager, to help deal with difficult participants/community members. Or, if you’re on an independent program or volunteer opportunity, those nuances may need to be done entirely by yourself – solo.  When you’re on your Gap Year you’re going to encounter a variety of different people, Americans from all over the states, the South, the Northwest, the East, the Midwest, will represent a wide array of cultures all with their own lenses … perhaps even moreso internationally.  Knowing how to work with them and having a mentor/volunteer coordinator who understands your perspective can sometimes be very valuable, and largely the safety as well as this group dynamic element are the two biggest reasons why organizations have such rules.

I’ve often found the most mature programs have rules and then they also have student-directed agreements, where it’s your opportunity to weigh in on the overall direction of your program, but they also have some hard-and-fast rules dedicated to keeping you safe.  Ultimately, these hard-and-fast rules are usually safety-oriented because as a first-time visitor to a different culture, the broad reality is that you don’t know what you don’t know.  The biggest mistake you could make is to assume that in the few months (or weeks) you’re in a place that you have the same cultural knowledge of what’s acceptable/legal as you do back home.  Remember, your home culture PRODUCED you and assuming that your cultural understanding is easily translatable in a short timeline is just bound to stymie your efforts to have an authentic and good experience.

If you don’t know how to act around the local culture then you can either learn through trial and error which is usually fine, but sometimes also quite embarrassing or even dangerous. For instance, if you don’t know, or haven’t been taught that it’s not safe to go out past dark in certain neighborhoods, then it’s very common for students to look around and say: “well, the locals are doing it, therefore it must be safe.”   As well, while traveling I’ve experienced that the rules around alcohol vary wildly, the rules around drugs are pretty commonly zero-tolerance. And if you don’t think about it, like if you’re from Washington or Colorado where marijuana is legal, you might not necessarily think to look up what the rules are around drugs in a country like Malaysia, or the Philippines, or even Guatemala. In Malaysia, marijuana can carry a death penalty. In most developing countries marijuana laws are tantamount to those of cocaine, and thus will lend you in prison for a very long haul. In some countries around Western Europe obviously these laws are a little bit more relaxed (eg, Amsterdam), but the mere fact that you don’t know what is considered “safe”, should be warning enough to stay away from it.

 

TRUE STORY

I had a group of students once in India. India tends to have a bit of a mixed message around marijuana use. Marijuana during sometimes of the year such as the Maha Kumbha Mela festival, is even sanctioned by the government for Sadhus.  During other times of the year marijuana is considered highly illegal and will land you in jail.  Once you’re in jail in a country like India or most of the developing world, there is really nothing that you, your parents, or even the State Department can do to save you. Literally, it would take a phone call from Obama himself, at which point you might, emphasize MIGHT, be released. The real question is what can the State Department do and many of us are mistaken to believe that the State Department will actually be able to do anything of real benefit in such a circumstance. In reality the State Department can only call a lawyer from that host country, potentially meet with you and give you cigarettes or magazines, but that’s the extent that they’re able to help you.

With my students in India, we happened to be staying next to a man from Breckenridge, Colorado. He actually owned his own head shop and not two years earlier had been in Thailand and caught with marijuana by the local police. The police shook him down, and had he, in his own words, not had $1500 in cash on his person would’ve been in jail. These types of events are not uncommon, and largely Gap Year organizations have such a zero tolerance policy around marijuana specifically because a bribe may work, it may not work, but in both cases you’re flirting with a lifetime of regret and at least many years of heartache and challenge.  I’ll also encourage you to reflect on whom else would be affected by such an arrest: does the program continue even though one of your own is stuck in jail?  What about your parents?  Imagine explaining at Thanksgiving where your son/daughter is and why they can’t join the entire family.  And good luck getting that coveted job now!

Again, and I’ll caution you, it’s really not uncommon to see locals smoking pot, but what they have is that they’re a product of their own culture and often times those are the very same people entrapping you into an arrest so they can get some sort of potential kick-back.  They know who to pay attention to, and they know where safe is and safe is not.

The sad truth is that you’ll always be a foreigner in a strange community unless you’re living there for years … months just doesn’t cut it, and certainly not weeks.  An organization’s policies are their way of drawing hard-lines around what they think are the elements that are going to keep you safe, but also a great way to determine the level of supervision and independence that you’ll be living with – so do your research and ask the questions… again, every policy is there for a reason and though you might not immediately understand why, … ASK!

 

Question 7 of 20: How to Vet a Gap Year Organization

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These questions were developed out of the understanding that having the full 54 pages of AGA Standards in front of most people would be utterly useless. See them here to understand their complexity: www.americangap.org/2013_AGA_Standards.pdf.  So, we created these 20 Questions as a way to help the individual navigate their own program.  These may be for the more intrepid and independent traveler – someone who’s already done their fair share of traveling: a veteran sojourner.  Or, perhaps these might be appropriate for someone who’s truly on a budget and the scholarships and financial aid available to them through another program isn’t sufficient.  Obviously, the full 54 pages of Standards make great sense for an AGA organization to run through – ensuring the best quality and safety in an organized program.  But not every student will want to do one of our accredited programs.  http://www.americangap.org/assets/20_Questions.pdf


Q7: Do you have Financial Aid or Scholarships available?

There are a variety of possible ways to get funding for your Gap Year – but probably the best place to start is with the program itself!  Last year, AGA member organizations gave away almost $3 million … certainly enough to warrant inquiry.  So find the one you’re most called to, and ask!

That being said, the majority of funding that’s out there is typically from organizations that are able to offer some form of college credit.  While it’s no surprise most Gap Year programs do not offer college credit, some might actually argue that the opportunity to get college credit is in some ways counter to the very root-intention of a Gap Year: the fundamental exposure to a different form of pedagogy.  There have indeed been some recent developments around accreditation, most notably from Southern New Hampshire University who has been given authorization by the Department of Education to offer college credit not based on the traditional ‘number of contact hours’, but rather based on core competencies. So in this way I anticipate that we’ll see more Gap Year organizations beginning to adopt some form of experiential education with credit, albeit through the lens of a competency driven curriculum.

There are some Gap Year programs however, that do offer college credit and have done a fairly decent job of outlining learning outcomes that don’t deviate too far from the experiential realm. Obviously an experiential pedagogy is critical to a successful Gap Year experience, and thus I think one of the largest reasons why organizations in general have shied away from offering college credit.  Over the next few years I expect that you’ll see more Gap Year organizations offering this type of college credit – and along with it access to federal financial aid dollars – but this will probably be a few years before it becomes the norm. Already we’re seeing fantastic new program offering such as those from Tufts University, Princeton University, UNC, Elon University, and St. Norbert College, but these are more the exception to the rule at present.

Still, there are some scholarships that are out there for Gap Year programs that don’t require college credit. Some of these are found on AGA’s own financial aid website. Many of them tend to be in the $500-$1000 range, which is why for decades in the UK getting financial aid for Gap Years has been largely the responsibility of the student. Many Gap Year programs in the UK actually do not offer financial aid because their price points are a bit lower.  The culture in the UK around Gap Years has been more of the nature that it’s up to the student to fundraise the entirety of their fees. This obviously includes airfare, visas, miscellaneous expenses, not to mention the obvious program fees.

There are still other programs that are just frankly less expensive. These might include WWOOFing, City Year, and a variety of other programs domestically and internationally. Taking a Gap Year does not have to cost a ton of money, and in fact on average AGA anticipates that most Gap Years run around the $5000 mark: certainly within the realm of possibility for one or two summers worth of employment. In the UK, as it is for many US Gap Year students, the need to seek extra funding sources is a certainty: some of those sources might include everything from reaching out to your family, to running a small fundraiser, to reaching out to your local church or synagogue.  You should not be shy in asking for money, and as we’ve alluded to thus far in the Gap Year model for the UK, the very idea that you’re out there searching for your own funding is part-and-parcel to the benefit of a Gap Year – that’s to say that you have more ownership in your own experience.

Now, as I’m writing this I’m sure the students reading it are going to be rolling their eyes, (hopefully the parents will see the intrinsic sense in such a statement) but it’s always advised that the student put some of their own money into their Gap Year. We all know that when we earn something we value it more, and those students who simply rely on mom and dad to write a check for their Gap Year inevitably take on less of a participatory role as compared to those who are active in their own preparation. And, if there’s anything worth learning on a Gap Year, it’s that ownership in your own life starts with you … it can never be abdicated: but those who own it are happier, and generally more fulfilled.