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.
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.