Question 11 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

 


Q11: What Is The Local Transportation Like?

Having a basic understanding about the local transportation in the area where you’ll be living is a very important way to help prepare you for a successful journey. It happens quite often that students (you) who are traveling to a new site for your Gap Year may have never actually even taken the local transportation of your own hometown. So, whether that’s converted minivans called Matatus in Tanzania (that hold up to 35 people at a time and function as their buses), or if it’s the highly organized subway system of London, or even the public transit system here in Portland Oregon or in Boston, all of these carry different levels of challenge and risk, and each of them will be new!  As always: AUTOMOBILE TRANSPORTATION IS THE HIGHEST RISK.

Now, I’m a big believer that most students can accomplish things far beyond what they think they’re capable of. Granted having signs in English or being able to ask someone in your native tongue what to do for routing is a much easier way to use a public transit system, but it’s important to recognize that most strangers in my experience are kinder than we think.  Very often we are taught to fear strangers, in fact that’s a very common rule to tell a kid: “don’t talk to strangers” that somehow ends up as a guiding cultural norm. And granted there’s no absolute to this – as a single blond woman traveling to parts of East Africa I might phrase this differently – but in general strangers tend to be quite kind and part of what my Gap Year did for me was reinvigorate my faith in humanity by the ability to count on and trust in more strangers than I would’ve previously thought possible.

The other reason why transportation is so important to know, is that you’ll be using a lot of it. Whether it’s bikes, buses, public taxis, or the tube, you should get short orientation for them before having to rely on them daily.  Whether this means a full course, or the courage and knowhow of asking strangers. Especially so on the airport arrival date.  It’s often true that the times when you’re in transition are the times when you’re most exposed. So, if you’re going to be exposed it’s far better to know how to navigate through these heightened areas of exposure, as well as to learn what situations you can rely on which strangers in?

I remember quite distinctly taking my first Matatu in Tanzania. I had no clue what the right amount to pay was because there’s no posted fares, and it’s not like I would’ve been able to read them anyway. So I did what I encourage you to do… Ask the person next to you how much you should pay. They have no vested interest in scamming you, and certainly the guy who’s taking your money does have an interest in scamming you. As well, observe! Look at what other people are paying. Did they get on the bus at the same time as you did? Are they getting off at the same time? Finally, having change in the right denomination makes a big difference especially when you’re working in foreign currencies. In London they have the fantastic oyster card that will cover you as a prepaid and reloadable card. And Tanzania if you show up with the wrong denomination, they’ll either kindly chuckle at you, (which is certainly a wonderful and human experience), or you’ll give them a rather large bill and the ‘cashier’ will say, “we can’t break it here’s a pittance of change”, or you’ll end up overpaying because they’ll recognize that a high denomination is code for “I’m a foreigner and I don’t know what I’m doing.”

As a guest in a foreign country especially, I’ve always found such interactions to be humbling as long as I’m not taking myself too seriously.  However, from a parents’ perspective, I’ve also had my fair share of stories of taking the wrong kind of taxi or hearing the horror stories of a bus accident that happened because the driver and vehicle were unlicensed and poorly regulated.  So take the time to see what advice your organization has regarding transportation – hopefully they can give you a few pointers that will keep a crazy new experience as one that you emerge from with a smile on your face.  Again, transportation (transition) is when you’re most going to be in danger, so do your best to prepare yourself so that the “I can’t believe that just happened” photo is a fun one!

Question 10 of 20 – How To Vet A Gap Year Organizaiton

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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

Q10: Will There Be an On-Site Orientation?

This is probably one of the most important questions, but also one that is most frequently forgotten.

Many organizations will try and offer a predeparture orientation. And while these are fantastic and very important, unfortunately the science is pretty clear that learning such things as food safety, physical safety, and water safety are all things best learned when there is a sense of immediacy to the situation. So, for instance, if you and I are to have a conversation about what drinkable water is like in Mongolia, you might have a lot of expectations about what that’s going to look like. But, even if I tell you that we’re traveling there in a month, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll actually put together all of the nuances and remember the details given that it’s so far away … and there’s so many other things vying for your attention.

So that’s why it’s one of the most commonly missed standards from the American Gap Association’s interested organization: an on-site orientation. In many ways it’s also probably the most difficult thing to ensure happens in a quality fashion given that it’s usually overseas and oftentimes in the hands of the staff or program partners to deliver. It’s very easy to monitor and administer things when you have direct control over them from the programmatic perspective, but when you send a student out to, say a program partner or nonprofit organization overseas, the likelihood that they’ll cover all of the items on an orientation is pretty small. That’s why it’s AGA’s stand that the best practice is to give a pre-departure orientation, as well as to facilitate an on-site orientation, and perhaps most importantly, is to give the orientation notes that are expected to be covered to the student directly. Ultimately, one of the most important assumptions that isn’t often talked about is that the student is their own best recourse for safeguarding their well-being. Too often we are taught that our safety belongs in the hands of some local authorities; think of the police, the fire department etc. but at the end of the day, a student is going to be the one in charge of whether they put themselves into a dangerous situation, whether they eat the wrong food, or whether they run afoul of their boss for lack of understanding. All of these are the reasons for why an on-site orientation is so important and especially so that the checklist or notes are given to them – at least in that way they’re able to advocate for themselves!

Orientation is also about grounding and setting expectations. For instance, it’s very common that the student will assume that the headquarters mentioning of a particular policy doesn’t apply when they’re on program.  Frankly, that’s the way they’ve been trained.  It’s like playing mom against dad. It goes like this, during my admissions interview I was told by the admissions staff that the policy is no alcohol and no drugs. What’s SUPPOSED to happen is that that policy is readdressed on the ground to show a continuity of agreement between admissions, policy, and of course consequences. If that’s not covered on the ground, then the average student will likely assume that the policy as stated in the admissions from headquarters side is different than the one in reality. And this certainly plays into a lot of issues that are inevitable on especially international programming.

Click here to watch a great video that will contextualize some of the concerns that affect us and thus a reason for an on-site orientation … not the stark contrast here!  “1st world problems”

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