Dominique Robinson of Pizarts: On Breaking Ground with Dance Gap Years

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One of the great things about the AGA National Conference is the connections we make with new people. Among the bright lights in Boston this year was Dominique Robinson. I noticed her smile first, and her enthusiasm followed closely behind. She’s got a passion for life, a passion for learning and a big idea: to create a Gap Year experience centered around dance and the arts. Based in NYC, she came to the conference hoping to learn and connect.

Please tell us who you are, what you do, and how you got there.

My name is Dominique Robinson, I am a choreographer, dance filmmaker, and the CEO of Pizarts. Growing up I enjoyed sports and being part of a team. I also have a deep passion for travelling so when I transitioned from sports to dance I knew I could pursue dance as a career that would allow me to do what I love which is travel around the world and meet new people.

Why are you so passionate about the concept of Gap Years?

I began my training in college and although it was a good experience the first three years were overwhelmingly tough. I lacked confidence in myself and it was terrifying to share my ideas. One summer I studied dance in Argentina and after the trip I knew that I wanted to collaborate with artists on a global scale. A few years later I moved back to Argentina where I taught, performed and traveled for 18 months. This transformation led me to discover my passion which was education and so I decided to further my studies.

Graduate school was a completely different experience because I knew exactly what I wanted to study, I could express myself with confidence and I can honestly say that it would not have been possible without taking what I consider myself as an independent Gap Year. I am so passionate about Gap Year because I know that I would have retained so much more from my undergraduate program had I come into school with a Gap Year under my belt.

Pizarts may just be the only Gap experience of its kind.

Tell us a bit about what you’re doing with that and your vision for the future.

Yes, I do believe it is one of a kind and that is partly what drove me to pursue it. Dance Gap Year is a program designed for trained dancers where they get to experience the joy of taking a Gap Year without having to neglect the demands of their training. It combines a curriculum inspired by BA (pedagogy and arts management) and BFA (choreography and performance) degree tracks while including projects that impact the social and personal lives of participants and locals.

Students who take our Gap Year immerse themselves in all aspects of a dance career before entering directly into the audition world or entering a program in higher education. We have a short-term summer program for teens 13-17 and in the fall of 2017, we will have our first 7 month Gap Year for ages 18-25 that will include North America, South America and Asia. Through this experiential process dancers will explore things like dance film, theater, site location composition, integrated arts (movement and literacy), curating works on a budget and women’s empowerment through movement.

Our vision for the future is to set up programs that focus on specific techniques. Ballet dancers for example need to train many hours in ballet. By offering a travel program for dancers to explore different techniques such as RAD, Checcetti, Vaganova and Bornenville, I believe, will allow a unique opportunity for participants to expand their horizons.

You’re in the beginning stages of getting Pizarts off the ground

Can you talk a little bit about that process, your biggest struggles, the connections you’ve made and your process from dream to dancing around the world?

While finishing my last semester at NYU, I entered the ‘Entrepreneurs Challenge’ at Stern School of Business. I am the type of person who needs benchmarks or my mind will wonder so this challenge was the beginning of establishing a concrete plan. Since I have a large following in Argentina within the dance community, I felt Gap Year represented what I was looking for in terms of my passion and interest as a start-up.

To learn more, I went to a Gap Tear fair where I met Holly Bull who told me that dance had been an interest of a recent client and that she would put me in touch with people who could provide me with helpful advice on starting a program.

The greatest struggles include finding resources in the area of logistics like contracts, safety measures and how to devise affordable programming. Nevertheless, going to the Gap Year conference really helped me network with trusted groups that otherwise I don’t believe I would have met on my own.

Tell me a success story

A life changed as a result of a your work, or something you were involved in.

In dance, a lot of issues surround the non-compete clause for both teachers and students. The hardest thing I ever experienced as a teacher was watching a student, after 8 months of private training, be given a harsh ultimatum. Stop training with me or leave the studio she performed at. I explained that I would be leaving in a few months but she thought it was an unfair situation, as did I, and decided to stand up for herself.

When nationals came around I told her I would take her to competition. To see her separated from her studio friends was devastating and I could see the hurt in her eyes. I insisted that this would be life changing because she decided to breakout and be the dancer and person she believed in. She won first place at nationals for her solo and her friends were proud of her, I was proud of her and now she has become one of the most sought out teachers in Argentina and works as a Gap Year guest choreographer.

I am not sure I would have had the courage she had but I am so proud to say that this experience has created another educator who believes that knowledge is to be shared and not controlled. For me, this was a proud moment and proof that we are working towards something special, something life changing, something for the greater good.

Willy Oppenheim of Omprakash: On Raising the Bar for Service Learning

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Willy O
One of the presentations I attended at the AGA Annual Conference in Boston was on Service Learning, presented by Willy Oppenheim of Omprakash. His reputation as a powerhouse presenter, a passionate humanitarian and an adventurer extraordinaire preceded him. I was not disappointed.

I walked away from his presentation inspired and grateful that someone was standing up to say the hard things and encourage the community towards a higher standard across the board. Service learning is a sticky subject in the Gap Year world and there are plentiful examples of failures in the field doing more harm than good. It was encouraging to see so many of the organizations in the AGA community present at the table to discuss the potential for growth for the good of volunteers, organizations, and the world.

I came away from that session wanting to know more, about Willy, about Omprakash, and about his zeal for service learning, so I scheduled an interview for a May afternoon and we had a chat.

1. Please tell us who you are, what you do, and how you got here.

Primarily, I identify as an educator, holistically. The Latin root of educate is to Lead Out, and educator works with others in leading out, broadening and expansion. The work that I do through Omprakash, and as an outdoor educator as well, leading expeditions for young people from a variety of backgrounds for a few weeks to a month in the mountains is focused on expansion and education. If I’d been born a hundred years ago, maybe I would have been a minister, instead I’m an educator.

I grew up in Maine with four sisters, in a loving family, surrounded by lots of nature, fishing and hiking with my Dad, which lead me to where I am now. I live in Seattle and have a desk job but also easy access to the mountains and glaciers of the west coast.

I hated school, at the time, because it didn’t feel relevant to the world. Of course as I grew that binary thinking has collapsed and I no longer see schooling as separate from the world. In sixth grade I resolved to not go straight to college but, instead, to take some time off. In high school I became interested in volunteering in India. Naive idealism and romanticism built into that but my intuitions were correct: the best way to experience another place and to learn is not to be part of a group trip, but to just go and immerse and live there and be challenged.

I was not interested in highly chaperoned expensive group trip, but there weren’t a lot of resources for independently minded young people. So, I emailed this school directly, with no middle man, and asked for a teaching job, and got it. That experience was transformative for me and became the catalyst for creating Omprakash later. It shouldn’t be that hard to connect with local, grass roots projects.

2. Why are you so passionate about the concept of Gap Years?

Because it was so transformative for me. Interrupting the conveyor belt is really helpful for everyone. It allows young people to develop parts of their identity that they don’t have to confront when they are on the conveyor belt. Formal education provides you a very very easy framework for self validation, you can get through and manage not know anything about who you are or what you want or where you are going; as long as you get good grades you’re okay.

People go their whole lives and don’t ask these questions, and then one day they find they’re forty five before they ask “What am I doing with my life?” Any disruption to that path is helpful. A trip. A summer job doing blue collar work (as a white collar kid). We have to get young people out of a context where success is defined by extrinsic measures that are provided for you. The value of a gap year on a social, emotional spiritual level is that it removes the extrinsic measures and motivators and forces you to ask the bigger questions.

3. Omprakash takes a very unique approach to “placement” and to volunteering abroad.

Can you talk a little bit about this, why you do things differently and the benefits to both organizations and students?

Omprakash is named after a person, an elderly man in a hospice center in North India; I met him in 2004 while volunteering there. He inspired me because the conditions he lived in were, from my perspective, pretty depressing.

One day he said to me: “I wake up every day and I feel like I’m in paradise because the people here take such good care of me.”

This was a light bulb moment for me because I had suspicions about the paradigm of help=giving stuff away, and this approach as I was observing it didn’t sit well with me, but couldn’t articulate an alternative. Without meaning to, this man showed me that relationships and bringing people together is transformational… relationships are what matters.

The dominant model is volunteering on Gap Years is placements, which means there is a middle man, or organization, arranging a relationship between person and the volunteer organization, for a fee. I believe that that model is disempowering to the individuals and the organizations being served. It short circuits dialog between them, and the middle man has a disincentive to allow dialog.

Why is it disempowering?

Because it’s not too much to ask for an 18 year old to actually apply for a position. They should have to apply for these jobs, to prove their worth and demonstrate their value to the organizations. Additionally, it’s disempowering to organizations seeking volunteers because they should be able to choose someone who is useful and meets a need they actually have, and they should make those determinations, not the middle man.

4. Raising the ethical bar for service learning is something you’re passionate about.

Can you talk a bit about what you see across the industry and how improvements might be made?

Remove the Middle Man

We should be promoting direct contact between people and organizations that are locally led who are posting real positions that they need filling. Connecting with real people on the ground and facilitating real dialog. That’s what Ompraskash does.

Better Preparation & Curriculum

We should be doing a better job of preparing people to be in the field, including serious requirements for Pre Departure, In the Field, and Post Experience reflective learning and curriculum. I worry about the forms of knowledge production implicit in placement model. There is no deliberate pedagogical attempt to produce other forms of knowledge acquisition.

Every student shows up with baggage… colonialism, racism, ethnocentrism. If a provider is not deliberately working with that baggage to create a different understanding and they don’t have a clear curriculum, or pedagogical model, they are perpetuating those damaging narratives without addressing the deeper issues of global inequality and that is unethical.

5. What is the biggest challenge your organization faces and how are you solving it?

The biggest challenge we face is that all of these things I’ve critiqued are so embedded that many people don’t see them as a problem at all. That’s not a unique burden, but in particular, focusing on education piece, there are dozens of people out there selling short term trips with no pre departure curriculum and no need to be critical thinkers. It’s just a matter of signing up to go help poor children for two weeks. This is a model we are trying to deconstruct and that’s a big challenge.

In comparison to that we are questioning a volunteer’s motives, requiring up front work, and personal investment. It’s a better way to approach service, but it’s difficult from a marketing perspective.

6. Tell me a success story: a life changed as a result of Omprakash.

Ian Pounds is a guy who’s 50 years old or so.

Through Omprakash he went to work in Afghanistan in 2006 was there six months, subsequently he went back several times. Now lives and works at a university in Bangladesh. He worked for a long time with the organization in Afghanistan raising thousands of dollars for a school in Kabul through taking kids on a speaking tour of USA

Michelle Kincaid, is a current freshman after her Gap Year.

Everything else was too expensive for her, she did a Gap Year through Omprakash. Her host partner in Peru said she was one of the best volunteers they ever had and that EDGE had helped prepare her. Her overall success was due to being immersed in a local organization for six months in Lima. Part of the reason she was able to have that immersive experience was proper pre departure curriculum. She really liked a lot of the content in the curriculum, so much so that she asked if she could use that to facilitate discussion on the ground in Peru with locals about the role of volunteers on the ground.

Uttam Teron, who lives in Assam NE India.

He started a school, with 16$ and a handful of students. Today he has 5-600 kids he attributes the growth to Omprakash. He was able o put the school on the map through Omprakash and the series of volunteers who came helped him with fundraising. Omprakash certainly isn’t responsible, solely, for the growth of the school, but it’s a privileged to have helped!

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

At Omprakash, we are a social enterprise. We are not a charity, and we are not looking for handouts. We have a product we sell. I believe the customer is not always right, he’s almost always wrong because of the embedded fallacies.

I do think it’s worth questioning the market forces that are at play in the production of the Gap Year experience. Ethics are tied to the bottom line not as a guiding principles.

A big part of my message to the AGA members and affiliates is that consortiums like AGA can support each other to grow the pie bigger. But another perspective and important function is to hold each other accountable towards a set of standards and principles that are separate from the market, the bottom line and what people want; otherwise all we will be doing is perpetuating the status quo. I’m not that interested doing that. At the end of the day, having good intentions doesn’t mean a whole lot. There should be a higher level of accountability.

The Importance of Journaling on Your Gap Year

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Journaling: kind of like keeping a diary, but with less entries revolving around unrequited love or that start with “Sorry for not writing, I’ve been really busy…”.

However, a journal isn’t necessarily meant for grown ups, or for grown up things, either. In fact, your journal can be a useful tool on that epic journey towards “adulthood.” While you’re on your Gap Year, it can also be a helpful place for processing, documenting, and occasionally venting, too.

Here’s what you need to know about why your packing list should include a journal and a fancy pen (I recommend G2s!):

Memories Can’t Be Trusted

Memories: while powerful, they don’t always tell the whole story. Documenting your experiences in your travel journal will allow you to better remember all of your surroundings, for better or worse. Help your future self tell more accurate portrayals of your adventures by writing down the details of your daily life in your journal. Memory is a slippery li’l bugger.

The Journal is Yours & Yours Alone

You’re not writing a book here. Don’t write your journal as if the President (or anyone for that matter) is going to read it. It is personal, private, and should be written for you. You can be honest – about everything – in your journal, including your less-than-sweet opinions about places, people, or the experience as a whole.

The Grammar Police Won’t Come Knocking

Who cares if you write incorrectly or if your spelling is atrocious. Your journal is about capturing ideas, observations, and realizations, not about impressing your 5th grade English teacher.

Your Journal is Sacred

Carving out time each day to spend alone, pen to paper, is therapeutic. Being diligent in your daily writings will simultaneously give you an excuse to bow out of the crowd and just do you (extremely necessary for long-term sanity). Your journal is basically a portkey, transporting you to a place where independent processing is valued, building much-needed “alone time” in your day to day.

It Will Become Your Best Souvenir

While blogs are nice, having a tattered notebook, one that you can physically hold onto and flip through, will prove a better keepsake in the coming years than your own URL. Your journal is a time capsule of your Gap Year; having a record of your travels will come in handy when you’re senile and your grandkids want to know about your life abroad.

You Shouldn’t Just Write the Play-by-Play

Who says your journal has to be full of boring stuff or literal explanations of your experiences from start to finish? Use your journal to draw observations, ask questions, make unusual lists, doodle, add coffee rings, make connections. Writing about your experience helps you think through critical issues or tough realizations – excellent fodder for future learning.

It’s a Good Companion For Long Train Rides

If you’ve run out of books to read or you don’t feel like playing Sudoku for the 1000th time, having your notebook handy will allow for instantaneous boredom reduction.

You Can Rant Your Little Heart Out

Travel isn’t always easy; in fact, sometimes it can feel like you’re constantly swimming upstream with no relief. If you’re feeling distressed, your journal can be your salvation (it’s better than bellowing to your new travel buddies). When feelings of travel stress, like homesickness, powerlessness, frustration, or fear take hold, writing in your journal will be a healthy outlet for handling them.

Track Your Inspiration!

Sometimes it strikes at the most wonderful times, an elating sense of empowerment, excitement, and freedom all jumbled into one big smile on your face. Whenever you hear a new song, quote, or idea that brings on these jubilant feelings, put it in your journal. As you gain awareness about your passions and capabilities, learn about new must-read books or documentaries to watch, or feel charged to make a difference, jot it down to inspire your future self.

With any luck, not only will your journal prove a necessary outlet for preservation and thought processing on your gap year, but you’ll come to fully realize the benefits of writing exercises in all aspects of your life. Here’s to many bookshelves filled with your observations!

Photo Credit: Aaron Burdin

Bruce Palmer of NOLS: On the Value of a Gap Year

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At this year’s AGA Conference I caught up with Bruce Palmer, long time director of AGA accredited Gap Year organization, National Outdoor Leadership School director and father of a student who completed a NOLS program. We talked about the importance of outdoor education, Gap Years and the value of this kind of experience in the life of a young person.

Please tell us a little bit about who you are


I’m the Director of Admissions and Marketing at NOLS and have worked with the organization for over 26 years. Previously I worked in university admissions for a decade. My favorite part of that job was interviewing students because you learn so much about so many different things.

I found out about NOLS while I was working in admissions, interviewing NOLS grads. I was interested in outdoor education and impressed by the students coming out of NOLS programs, which lead me to working with the organization.

I believe that the education that NOLS provides has an impact. Coming from a traditional background and transitioning to an experiential school had been very exciting; I love watching students as they come in, unsure and tentative about the experience, and the transformation by the end into capable and stron young people who exude confidence. They make friends for life and develop skills they couldn’t have imagined. They have a “swagger,” a just confidence in themselves and what they are capable of. Passion develops in these courses.

Why are you so passionate about the concept of Gap Years/Expeditions

What we are seeing at NOLS is 750 students a year who do a semester 75-135 days long. The traditional gap demographic 17-19 they are unsure of direction, good students academically, but are tuned in enough to know that they really don’t know what the next step should be. Students view NOLS as a way to explore that and explore themselves a bit, as they see the world. Incoming they have a sense of adventure. You have to be willing to step outside your comfort zone in order to be excited about a NOLS experience. These are really cool young people in their own right to begin with; then, we allow them to have these experiences that really truly are life changing. It changes their outlook about themselves, the world and how they walk in that world. We give them tools that they can use every day.

When you think about NOLS you think about “Oh I learned how to rock climb, or white water raft,” and they do learn and master those things. But the skills they really learn and use every day are conflict resolution, communication, self motivation, motivations of others, leadership… these are transformational for students and allow them to step forward into who they are going to be as they move forward to college and jobs.

For me the passion is seeing the change, the students grasp these things and run with them. NOLS grads, ten years later, are doing incredible things and they point back to NOLS as a turning point and where they indicate that they learned who they were and what they wanted. They live simply, and they learn how little they need… only the contents of their backpacks. These are great tools to cope with life as they move forward. The skills and fortitude they develop in these gap experiences will carry them a long way.

One example you may be familiar with is Tom Scott– Founder of Nantucket Nectars, who was a NOLS participant. He now runs The Nantucket Project.

NOLS is one of the oldest and most respected programs in the field, what is it about your programs that is so effective and enduring?

The things that make NOLS effective include getting people out of their comfort zones, and allow the wilderness to educate them. NOLS instructors are facilitators more than teachers and they are consistently working to help students to assimilate the lessons that present themselves. We allow students to learn by doing, particularly around the concept of leadership. They don’t just hear or read about it, they TAKE leadership with real responsibility and consequences. When there is a consequence to your action you take it in and the instructors facilitate the conversation. The vast majority of students report as the most important part of NOLS being the student expedition 3-5 days of the program small groups of kids travel by themselves in the mode they have learned. They take the skills they have learned and apply them. We walk them through a process that gets them there. A NOLS program provides an opportunity for students to step into their best selves. The proof of the enduring value of NOLS programs is that we now have grandchildren of previous participants enrolling in current programs.

What is the biggest challenge your organization faces and how are you solving it?

There are a variety of challenges that we face. As a society we have become a little more risk averse… or maybe more consequence averse… which is a challenge for us because risk is a key element in the learning process. We manage the risk and we help students understand risk and assessment but in order for that to work there has to be real risk there. What we do is not contrived, and so we teach the kids to do risk benefit analysis and figure out objectively the best course of action.

Within the Gap space there are more organizations providing programming, which means increased competition, and enrollment challenges. As one of the oldest programs in the field, we continue to provide consistent value for participants.

Tell me a success story: a life changed as a result of a NOLS expedition.

bruce and clay

My son, Clay, did a 30 day course in between his junior and senior years of high school: the Wind Rivers Wilderness Course. Having worked at NOLS for 15 years I knew everything there was to know about the course, which is interesting as a parent. Clay grew up in Wyoming, was active in boyscouts, and had a NOLS dad, so camping not a challenge. He was really shy and lacked confidence but when he took off on this NOLS experience, he really thrived. He ended up being the leader of the student expedition, he gained peoples’ confidence enough that he was voted into that role (exciting for him and for me as a Dad).

The place where it made the biggest difference was in helping him to figure out where he wanted to go with his life. Subsequently he did a rangeland ecology program at U of WY. On the NOLS program he learned that he was passionate about being outside and he walked away knowing he didn’t want to work at a desk. His passion for wildlife was furthered by NOLS and he learned a lot about what he liked and what he wanted his life to look like going forward.

Then, he did a couple years of seasonal work for two years in outdoor jobs. The most interesting was tracking wolverines in the winter. He snowshoed in, hung cameras, baited them and proved there are wolverines in Wyoming. He’s now 28 years old and he’s a range manager on a bison ranch. I would never have expected my kid to be doing that. The combination of NOLS, plus the formal education, and then his summer and part time jobs lead him in that direction. He’s living a really happy life hanging out with 750 bison, doing very hands on work that he’s very passionate about. A big chunk of the passion came from the 30 days he spent in the Wind River mountains with NOLS.

How to Stay In Touch With Friends & Family On Your Gap Year

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The thought of being away from home is one of the hardest challenges to surmount prior to a gap year – and that’s even before you go! The physical distance between you and home can be a tough pill to swallow while you’re actually abroad. Keeping in touch with loved ones is a surefire means to soften these blows. However, while important, communication can also become unhealthy. It can detract from your presence on your gap year, make you feel unnecessary amounts of FOMO or homesickness, and it can actually lead you to question why you even did a gap year in the first place.

This frame of mind is not ideal for anyone, let alone a student on their gap year.

Here are some tips to help you stay mindful when keeping in touch with family and friends, including communication strategies that work.

Talk About It Before You Go

Explain any concerns you have about communication with your closest friends and family. It can be hard to look your Mom in the eye and break the news that you won’t want to talk to her every day, but it is important that both parties lay out all of their communication-concerns from the beginning. Having this underlying understanding of each other’s needs will provide fodder for healthier communication in the coming months.

Leave Your Smartphone Behind

Yeah, we said it!

Your best bet for maximizing your presence in a foreign destination is to not bring your smart device altogether. There are still ways to communicate, such as using your laptop or computer labs in foreign countries. Not having it around to tempt you will free your mind from its tether and allow you to be fully present in your international experiences.

Can’t Part? Set Ground Rules For Yourself

If the idea of leaving your precious smartphone in its box for a few months is just too much to bear, decide (with conviction) to be more conscious towards your smartphone use. If you are bringing it to use primarily as a communication tool, keep it put away unless you’re calling your family.

Don’t convince yourself that you will only use it for phone calls if you secretly know you’re hoping to blow up your Instagram feed with dozens of new pictures each week.

Aim For Quality Over Quantity

Cozying up for a good conversation with a loved one is one of life’s sweetest pleasures. Use your gap year as a time to reconnect with that reality. Instead of having ongoing text message conversations with friends and family, decide to set aside time each week for a proper catch-up. This can be a phone call, a Skype date, an email, or simply a longer-than-normal message on WhatsApp or Facebook messenger. Put thought and intention into sharing your stories. Connect the dots of your experience before blabbing a play-by-play to anyone who’ll listen.

This strategy will not only allow you to be more fully present in your gap year destination, but it will also allow you a stronger presence in your communication relationships, too.

Go With The Flow

Some weeks you might need to chat with family or friends more than other weeks. This might be because you’re feeling particularly down, you are struggling with homesickness, or you are physically able (or unable) to have the privacy necessary to catch-up. Don’t be alarmed by the inconsistencies of your communication, but don’t be surprised if it bums out your family and friends, too. It’s important you explain to your loved ones the reality of your situation and schedule, while also fully-trying to be there for them as they are there for you. Travel can be whack and mess up any sort of plan, so it is important that Gap Year students are extra-appreciative of their loved ones’ flexibility.

Remember The Time Before Smartphones

Okay, you probably don’t. But keep in mind that there were plenty of travelers and Gap Year takers that survived their journeys without pocket internet (and we’re not talking about ancient explorers).

Our sometimes-neurotic attachments to communication with others can truly be a hindrance to studying or volunteering in a foreign country. It can be all-too-tempting to hole away in your room for an ooVoo call rather than staying up and chatting with your homestay brother or your new friends. Keep in mind that while communication can be a healthy and normal behavior, it can also quickly become dependent and negative.

Be conscious of how much you feel the need to speak with others back home before leaning on those who are in your immediate vicinity.

Look around you. You’re in a fascinating place, surrounded by good-hearted people, and having an experience that many would kill for. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and we’d hate for it to be squandered because you’re addicted to telling your BFF’s every single detail from your day. Strive to use technology as a helpful tool and not a crutch, and you’re sure to avoid sacrificing your Gap Year experience for more thumb fluttering on your touch screen.

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