Healthy Ways To Deal With Homesickness On Your Gap Year

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aloneHomesickness might be a new phenomenon for you if you never did the whole sleep-away camp thing in your younger years, but it’s inevitable. It’ll sneak up on you when you least suspect it: a photo shared online of your friends back home at one of your favorite annual events, a familiar smell of homemade cooking, the softness of a couch. The lack of a couch. Homesickness crops up in all shapes and sizes.

It may be hard to believe (or admit!) but you actually miss your kid brother, you actually miss your mom’s Tuna Surprise, and you actually regret not packing blankie for your trip.

But instead of admitting defeat and giving into temptation to scroll back through your Instagram feed or send whiny “I miss you” texts, you can face your homesickness head on. It is perfectly healthy and normal to feel homesick, just don’t t let it become a crippling part of your Gap Year.

Ways to Combat Homesickness

There are healthier ways to acknowledge, deal with, and move on from these longings.

Get Involved in New Interests, Clubs, or Adventures

Rather than sitting in your room and isolating yourself, venture outside and connect with new people in new ways. Feign confidence, approach that group of teens playing frisbee, and ask to join. Better yet, ask your contacts if they know of any cool clubs or activities to get involved in. Be proactive in seeking these outlets. They’re not only a ton of fun, but they’re usually a good distraction (and means for making new friends); the perfect antidote to homesickness.

Call Friends & Family

If your immediate surroundings offer few releases from your hometown-hankerings, don’t be afraid to dial up your old standby’s for support. Mom and Dad want nothing more than for you to feel happy; after they shake the shock from the late-night phone ringing, they’ll be sure to provide those warm-fuzzy feelings that parents have a way of doing. Friends are fair game too, especially those ones who are unwaveringly on your team.

Get a Taste of Home

What can we say – sometimes you just need a cheeseburger or a coffee from Starbucks. Even something as simple as using a credit card can sometimes make home feel less far. Find a way to revisit any activity or food or experience that reminds you of home and can bring comfort. Be warned, though: sometimes your favorite things “abroad” aren’t close to the real thing back home, which can end up making you feel doubly homesick

Story time: I had an overbearing longing for delicious Mexican food, so I caved and ordered chips and salsa at a local restaurant. I was given potato chips and ketchup. It was hilarious and also horrible and did nothing to solve my temptations.

Self-Awareness Activities

Now’s as good a time as any to start tapping into your inner-self in a mindful way. Practicing yoga, meditation, or self-reflective journaling can provide a healthy outlet for your wistful wanderings. With the internet providing many free resources for classes or guided meditation, the only thing stopping you from enlightenment is wallowing in self-pity or scrolling through your Instagram feed all the way back to your first post.

Physical Fitness

You’ve never been a “runner” before, and you actually think of it as punishment rather than a pleasant release. But all those endorphins can do you good, and Gap Years are for trying new things anyway, right? Lace up and head out for a spritely jog. No one’s telling you to blast your PR with a 5k – start short (5-10 minutes top) and work your way up. It won’t be long til you’re addicted to the “runner’s high” like we are.

Talk to Other Students, or Expats

Relating to individuals who are sharing in your experiences of homesickness will not only make you feel less alone, but will also help you realize you’re not going crazy. Your immediate network can be a positive outlet for discussion and support. Joke about the hilarity of your lives and help remind each other of the big picture: short-term discomfort is such a small price to pay for the wonderful memories, clarity, and experiences you will walk away with.

No matter what, DO NOT escape to the internet every time homesickness strikes

Longing for home is natural while studying abroad, some days will feel incredibly challenging, and it seems the only antidote is escaping into laptop for an old fashioned Netflix binge or Snapchat selfie sesh. However, using your computer or smartphone in these circumstances is actually counterproductive and feeds your feelings of homesickness. Be sure to avoid spending hours on end perusing Facebook or your other favorite social media websites.

Tap into your resilience, pull up your big-kid-pants, and don’t use the internet as a crutch for comfort. We mean it when we say that seeing so many photos of your friends and family can actually exacerbate your homesickness. The internet can be a helpful tool and communication strategy, but it can also detract from your overall experience and ability to be present. You might feel bored or uncomfortable sitting in the living room with your homestay family now, remember: the shared experiences between the fun are what makes relationships concrete. You need to be there, physically AND mentally, to make good on your gap year goals and soak up the experience for all that it is worth.

Tell Those Voices to Shut Up!

There are a number of ways to quiet down the loud voices in your head reminding you just how far away from home you actually are. Some ways are easier than others (it doesn’t help when they’re in your back-pocket or always less than 3 ft away from you). But just because it is an easier strategy doesn’t mean it is helpful OR healthy #realtalk. Stick to the productive strategies above, and your homesickness will soon transform from a hindrance to yet another amazing Gap Year experience that lead to increased self-awareness.

Photo Credit: lee Scott

Article contributed by: Megan Lee

How to Identify Your Gap Year Goals

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This probably isn’t the first time someone has asked you to identify your goals for your gap year (and probably won’t be your last either). Grown-ups keep telling you, “You need to know your goals!” And you’re like, “Cool, I get it Dad… but easier said than done!”

Until now.

It’s reflection-time!

Not to sound too much like that great tune from Mulan, but you need to buckle down and do some serious reflection before your Gap Year. Ask yourself these questions and write out your answers. Yes, physically write them out. On paper. With a pen (don’t worry, we won’t judge your excuse-for-cursive).

  1. What school subjects do I like the most?
  2. Do these school subjects come naturally to me? Does it matter?
  3. What school subjects do I dislike the most?
  4. Do these school subjects come naturally to me? Does it matter?
  5. What type of work can I see myself doing for the majority of my waking hours?
  6. Besides money, what reasons do I want to go into this field?
  7. Does this type of work translate directly into a field of study or major?
  8. Where can I find out more information about this major? Do I know enough about this major?
  9. Is this the right – and only – major for my career path?
  10. If money were no object, what would I do for free, forever?

This may be a handy exercise if/when you go to college, too. But for now, use these answers to guide your decisions for activities and locations to explore on your gap year. Decide if you want to focus on an area of study you are already attracted to, if you want to use the time to explore something entirely new and different and weird, or if you want to find some happy-medium of either.

Categorize Your Goals Into 5 Buckets

Your Gap Year goals should fall in a few different buckets.

Your first bucket will be passion related – perfect for activities you are psyched about or want to get to know better.

Your second bucket will be for developing soft skills – the perfect framework for improving your communication skills, conflict resolution, empathy, etc.

Your third bucket should be for adventures – your “must-do” activities for your gap year.

Your fourth bucket should be for pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Decide to consciously incorporate situations that will challenge you.

Your fifth and final bucket will be career oriented. While souvenirs are cool, it’s much more fun to come home with some serious skills that contribute to your employability, like a foreign language.

Resolve to Find a Good Program Fit

It’s important to remember that behind every successful Gap Year student is a successful organization that has held him/her accountable or helped he/she stay on track. Choosing your Gap Year program will be crucial to your overall ability to accomplish the goals you set out for yourself.

Do Your Research

You have a LOT of options when it comes to your Gap Year (and we’re not just talking about the 200-some countries to choose between). There are a number of different activities, focuses, and programs for you to peruse. But the information isn’t going to just jump out at you. You’ll have to put in a little leg work and start exercising those research muscles of yours.

Start by looking at different established programs to get a feel for what types of options are out there. You can look at their individual websites, social media channels, reviews. All of this information can be slightly overwhelming at first, so make a commitment to review your findings a couple different times in a few different settings.

Take notes (your future self will thank you). Pay close attention to the different “vibes” you get as you read. Which ones light your travel fire?

Choose a Program

Remember: if you want to improve your Spanish skills, don’t decide to do a program that doesn’t involve Spanish classes. If you want to step away from your marijuana habits, choose a program that adamantly prohibits the use of drugs. If you’re keen to become more independent, find a program that balances group support with individual placements.

Communicate Your Goals & Make an Action Plan

A tried and true strategy for accomplishing goals is to get more people invited to the party. Tell your program leaders what your ambitions are for year Gap Year. Brainstorm ways (together) that they can help support you on your mission.

Rather than keeping your goals flowery and lofty, such as “get better at receiving critical feedback,” cite specific details that can help you inch towards your goal (for example: “Seek critical feedback every other week from my program leaders and track my emotional and outward responses in my journal”).

Goals don’t have to be scary or far-fetched. They can provide meaning and depth to your Gap Year, as well as a framework for you to get the most out of it. Be intentional with your time traveling with the help of the goals you’ve identified. Go get ‘em!

Photo Credit: Startup Stock Photos

Article contributed by: Megan Lee

What Does AGA Accreditation Mean?

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One of the roles of AGA is in accrediting Gap Year service providers. We are striving to raise the standards within programs for the benefit of students everywhere. If the organization you’re considering isn’t on our list of accredited organizations, you should ask a lot of questions and exercise due diligence in evaluating your options. For those of you planning your own Gap Year, we’ve developed a list of 20 Questions to help you make sure the organization you’re interested in is doing things responsibly – with respect to your safety, host relationships, and to maximize your learning.  Download a copy HERE.

What Are the Standards?

The American Gap Association holds the official Standards for Gap Year organizations in the United States as recognized by the US Department of Justice and the US Federal Trade Commission. In order to maintain this certification we have agreed to treat the Standards as a “living document” in representation of the variety of different ways organizations and experts will contribute to its development. Finally, we have invited a wide variety of experts in the field of Gap Years to share in developing the Standards and contribute to the research in the field.

The Standards as developed by the American Gap Association are evaluated assiduously to reflect the changing landscape intrinsic to this type of education. The Standards are meant to be certifications in those specialties where an organization practices – in other words, while an internship placement organization may not be focused on extended backpacking trips at their core, if they nonetheless plan on taking students on a short backcountry trip they will need to be in compliance with the Standards for a backcountry organization or those of a partnership in addition to any others that might be more obviously relevant.

Finally, the Standards are written to be detailed and meaningful. While many organizations espouse to have organizational directives that are more than rubber stamps, the AGA endeavors to have detailed and specific Standards that can help us keep the industry accountable.

The Current Standards Certifications

The Standards categories are constantly under review, however, each applicant organization will need to select which categories they seek to become accredited for. Organizations are only AGA Accredited for those certification categories which they apply to and for which they successfully pass review.

  • Philosophy & Integrity
  • Back Country/Developing Country Safety
  • Service Learning
  • Independent Student Placements
  • Partnerships

Accreditation

The Accreditation process for the American Gap Association is designed to be substantive in its enforcement and verification process. Applicant organizations must fill out a lengthy application for each certification, then undergo a two-part verification process that includes the organization, and student experiences. Where appropriate, and on a case-by-case basis, AGA staff will also seek independent verification of partners (i.e., non-profits, language schools, internships). Once submitted to AGA, the actual application will be evaluated by a team of three people: one from AGA, and two from the Board of Advisors. AGA advisors and staff all sign a non-disclosure agreement in order to protect the great efforts AGA members have gone through in developing their own materials. The average time for accreditation is taking approximately 8 months from the point an application is received. Organizations that are unable to meet our basic standards will be coached through the processes they need for improvement and will be encouraged to reapply. Full re-evaluation will take place every four years.

Organizations, once accredited, will be issued a badge for their websites and marketing materials to show their commitment and proven ability to orchestrate the highest quality programs. Unfortunately, because accrediting each individual program within an organization would be untenable, AGA strives to instead take a sampling of a portion of any organization’s programs and test their ability to meet the Standards.

Which Organizations Are Accredited?

You can find a full list of AGA accredited programs here.

You can download and review the updated 2016 Standards for accreditation with AGA here.

Photo Credit: Benjamin Combs

A Parent’s Guide to All Things Gap Year

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parentsgapYour kid just proposed a (slightly outlandish) idea to you: “I want to take a Gap Year.” Maybe you’re 100% on board (you don’t need lots of convincing to understand its benefits) or maybe you’re still on the fence. It’s okay to worry – after all, you have your child’s best interests in mind, right? Regardless of which side of the support spectrum you fall in, here’s everything a parent needs to know to help their kid rock a Gap Year.

Finances

Ah, yes. Money. The necessary evil (and backbone) to a successful Gap Year. The important thing to keep in mind, as a parent, is that a Gap Year is an investment. There is plenty of data suggesting students that take a Gap Year eventually become successful, happy, productive adults. So, like any typical freshmen year for your kid, look at this year as short term (financial) sacrifice for long term gain.

That doesn’t mean you have to foot the entire bill. Gap Years, at their core, are a time for incredible learning. This can extend to the pocketbook. Invite your kid to play an active role in saving money, budgeting, and fiscally planning for their gap year. In fact, you may be doing yourself (and your kid) a disservice by not including them in the process of financing their Gap Year.

Activities

Your child can pick from a variety of activities for his or her Gap Year. It’s ultimately up to your kid’s passions and interests that will fully influence their decision. Work, language study, volunteering – all excellent (and oft-chosen) options for students.

Other students may choose to travel fully, to spend their year backpacking and foregoing a specific program. This is a fine option, though there is the added risk of your child not having a reliable safety net, as well as a higher potential for them to not spend their time productively.

Talk to your kid about the bigger picture of their gap year activity decisions and how they can positively (or negatively) affect their next steps in life, be that college, more years of travel, joining the workforce, signing up for the military, etc.

Locations

The beauty of a Gap Year is that it can be done anywhere! Talk with your kid about their goals for their Gap Year. Do they want to get to know one region, such as Latin America or the South Pacific, intimately? Would they rather have a taste of a little bit of everything, something like a gap-year-world-tour-sampler-platter?

Encourage your child to be intentional about their Gap Year destination decisions. Avoid using language that lends itself to being too “touristy,” especially if certain destinations or communities are being harmed by increased foot traffic from international visitors. While you can get excited for Angkor Wat, be sure you more strongly emphasize how cool it will be to get to know Cambodians, contribute to a meaningful volunteer project there, or learn Khmer.

Safety

Safety is probably your #1 concern as a parent – and for good reason. You don’t need to turn on the evening television to know the underbelly of the world at large. Fortunately for you, this is just one small slice of the real picture; many places on the planet are actually quite safe (and wonderful!) to visit.

That being said, you should talk to your kid about street smarts. Make sure they’re prepped with the necessary information to be responsible in times of trouble (passport copies, emergency numbers, etc.). Talk to them about splitting their money into multiple places on their person. Talk to your kid about crowds, political rallies (and how they should be avoided), and the fact that the US government can do little to help you if/when you are arrested abroad.

Many parents ask their kids to seriously consider signing up for a program rather than traveling independently. This added layer of safety, reliability, and general protection and security helps parents have more sound sleep (and your kid to relax more). Instead of worrying about their own well-being, your kid can just worry about all the awesome learning, instead.

Communication

Maybe I’m preaching to the choir, but it’s important that you talk with your child as they are on their Gap Year! You will need to check in to hear how they’re doing, listen to their favorite stories from their adventures, feel closer to your kid while they’re far away. It’s important for both parent AND student to keep the lines of communication open.

However, don’t plan on talking to your kid every. single. day. while they’re traveling. It can be tempting, especially with the proliferation of smartphones and pocket internet, but it can actually detract from your child’s ability to succeed rather than elevate it. It can make your child feel more homesick, less invested in their experiences, and more detached from their life abroad. We know you mean well, but sometimes, saying “No” to the daily text message or Skype call is the way to go.

Make a plan to chat once per week for a good chunk of time (an hour or more); otherwise, minimize communication to the occasional email and intermittent Facebook comment.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Will my kid be “behind?”

Technically, yes. But that doesn’t mean he/she is worse off for it. In fact, as far as maturity and clarity is concerned, your kid will probably be leaps and bounds ahead of their peers. But they might start college a year+ later than your friends’ kids. “Behind” is relative. If you look at it another way, your student will be a whole world ahead of her peers.

2. How can I support my kid on their gap year?

The conversations you have with your child, starting now, should emphasize your kid using their Gap Year to learn as much as possible. Empower your kid to design a gap year that is related to their interests or might introduce them to new ones. Encourage your child to be intentional with their time and prudent with their money. Financial support is important, but not nearly as important as emotional support.

3. “But I’m going to miss them!”

We know it’s hard. No one wants to empty the nest, but it’s important that you separate your personal sadness for the temporary good bye. Don’t let it hinder your child or influence their decision. It’s okay to feel sad (teary airport partings are REAL), but try to keep it together for your kid, too.

4. “Are you SURE I can’t text my kid every day, even just to tell them I love them?”

Don’t do it. This is a time for them to grow, to step into their own, to really embrace the transition from “kid” to (semi-functioning) adult. It’s hard. It’s weird. It feels wrong. But it’s a stage, and you’ll both eventually come out on the other side. The best part? Your kid will come home knowing how to do their own laundry.

Image Credit: João Silas (Stocksnap)

Article contributed by Megan Lee