Winterline: My Gap Year Hasn’t Opened My Eyes to the World

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Finding Acceptance

My Gap Year has felt more like a holiday, getting to travel for a short vacation away from my reality that is home in Nepal and the struggles that I can see and feel there.

Finding My Comfort Zone

I’ve always been out of place, a stray puzzle piece that doesn’t really fit in anywhere. Back in Nepal, boarding school in India – it didn’t matter where I went, there was always someone who didn’t like what I wore or what I represented. Winterline has been different – it has been a wonderful group that not only accepts, but respects me. I’ve experienced something I feel like I’ve rarely experienced before: a sense of adequacy. Everything so far has felt comfortable, even if I’d never done it before. Everyone else has been pushed outside of their comfort zone. I’ve been pushed into a comfort zone.

I’ve learned a lot of valuable life lessons there – inside of the comfort zone, where I can really stand still for a second and evaluate, something I’ve almost never done. I’ve learned that there’s so much growing to be done every day! I’ve learned to throw myself out there.

Sure, I could just sit back and do what is expected of me and be enough. But that’s not where I want to be. I don’t want to be just good enough. There are days where even doing just that is difficult but when I’m barely making an effort is when I need to be working the hardest. I’ve met many people on this journey, driven by goals and ideas who have more knowledge on one single skill or idea than you would think there is to know! All because they’ve dedicated themselves to never being just good enough and pushing themselves constantly.

Discovering Growth

I found that growth is an incredibly slow-moving, constant, lifetime process. And most of that is the daily grind of effort and willingness to grow and understand that it’s never easy and it’s not supposed to be. It’s kicking and screaming at the top of my lungs when I think I can’t do it anymore and I keep doing it anyway.

I’ve learned growth is intentional; it doesn’t happen by accident.

I saw on my Gap Year that growth hurts. It hurts the same way everything hurts when I’m on the last stretch of ascending a hill on a long trek and my muscles are screaming in pain but I keep going because I’ve made it so far and I know that it’s going to be worth it. And I know that it’s going to hurt more the next day, but I do it anyway, because what I will remember is the reward and not the pain. I imagine a lifetime of growth, never any less painful but always stronger for it. I ask myself these questions: “Would I rather not have seen or felt struggle? Do I doubt myself for saying maybe? Am I stronger or weaker for this realization? Do the experiences I’ve had make me indestructible or vulnerable?”

My Gap Year Didn’t Change My Life… I Did

I am who I am. Nothing will change that. I can’t change who I am, and I can be bitter about it or I can maybe try and love myself and maybe do some good in the process.

I guess the answer is choice: What I do with what I have. Do I let the struggles I’ve seen make me more hateful towards those who choose to ignore them? Or do I help them see what can change? It’s something I struggle with every day. I would have never imagined myself where am today. Never. I could have easily been the next kid, fighting for an education, married off at age nine. Instead, I try to have gratitude for what I have. I have choice. And on Winterline, I have had and will have all the resources I need to make my own choices, good ones that I will be proud of and bad ones that I will be thankful to have known and learnt from.

At the beginning of Winterline, they told us it will be as difficult as we make it. We can shuffle around people and cultures like the next tourist or we can simply be present in the crazy whirlpool of opportunities that are already there for us. I’m trying to chose to make an effort every day of my life, whatever it’s going to throw at me. My Gap Year didn’t change my life, I did.

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Prathana Shrestha first published this piece on the Winterline Student Voices.

Interview With a Gap Year Student

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Kai Millici took her Gap Year in Ecuador. Her high school newspaper interviewed her about the experience:

Where in the world are you? What have you been doing this year?

I am living in a small town called Imbaya in a northern region of Ecuador. My program, Global Citizen Year, placed me with a host family where I have a mom, dad, a brother and a sister who are all really involved in the community. I live with them and work in the afternoons with my mom at the Caja de Ahorro y Credito, which is a small credit union for the town. Right now the members are working to meet the requirements to become a Cooperativa, which is a larger credit union that has more benefits for its members.

My program also placed me in the Caja. For about a month I didn’t have anything to do in the mornings before the Caja opened so I was given the option by my mom who asked around to teach English at the local school, work at the health center, help at the local preschool or the local daycare. I chose to help at the preschool to be able to be active in the mornings since I spend most of my time at the Caja sitting, and because it allows me to be more involved in the community by meeting a lot of little kids and their parents. I’ve also come to enjoy it a lot because it’s really interesting to see the first interaction Ecuadorian children have with their education and what the way they are being educated says about the culture. On top of that, I take Spanish class in the city that I live outside of once a week, and do a lot of activities with extended family of which there is a lot.

Why did you decide to take a Gap Year?

I took a Gap Year for a lot of reasons. For one, a lot of my interests that I’m looking into exploring in college are international relations-related: government, development, sustainability, and entrepreneurship. These are all things that I think feel really abstract and foreign if you only study them in a classroom. Especially for interests like diplomacy and development, it felt weird thinking about pursuing those in college, and then potentially as a career, without knowing what any of that actually looked like when all of these policies and negotiations and laws are made and people have to live them. So I guess more simply I wanted to see the effects of development initiatives, see how government interaction with citizens is different in a different culture, and gain a better understanding of what I wanted to study in college before I was learning about it in a classroom. This goal ended up working out really well because the Caja that I work at is one of many under a development organization based in our region, which also gets some aid from the U.S., so it’s been really interesting to observe how that works and the pros and cons of that.

I also felt that throughout high school I had been overly-focused on my grades and getting into college and always kind of looked at everything as having to be a straight path. In a lot of ways that mindset has held me back so I really wanted to have time between high school and college to see who I am and how I react to things when there aren’t grades, tests, activities, cliques, and the like involved.

I haven’t traveled a lot before this year but the small amount I had taught me a lot about how the world is changing, the ways that we can all be similar but the ways that we are different depending on our culture and history, and a bunch of other ideas and questions that got me so curious and excited. Everyone tells you to travel while you have the chance, and I knew I would probably regret it if I didn’t do it. I also wanted to be able to travel somewhere long enough to really get it. Of course, after eight months I’m not going to be Ecuadorian. There are still a lot of things about Ecuador I won’t be able to understand. But the longer I’ve been here the more I realize how much I didn’t know before. I wanted to travel somewhere and be there for a really long time.

Has this experience taught you anything about yourself? If so, what?

It’s taught me so much about myself, but there are a few things that I think keep coming up for me all of the time. The first is that I shouldn’t place so much importance on everything. That’s not to say that I want to stop being punctual and bringing my hardest-working self to any work I do, but working this year and realizing I don’t have to freak out and analyze so much after every time a supervisor says I did something wrong or anything like that is a big thing for me to learn. People’s view of me and my reputation is built over time and I tend to forget that and over-analyze every little reaction someone has to my work. I’m still working on that but I’m glad to have identified that as a problem this year.

I also want to spend more time with my family and prioritize that more, because the work-family/life balance in Ecuador is much more focused on family and being around your extended family all of the time here. There are certain things about that focus here that I don’t think are possible with how my lifestyle and a lot of my peers’ lifestyles are in the U.S., but family as a bigger priority is definitely something I want to take away from this year.

You have to put in a lot of effort to get to know where you are when you’re traveling (talking to a lot of different people, walking around, going to events, activities and all of that), but through doing that here I’ve realized I don’t know that much about Seattle either. By this I mean I spend most of my time with friends in the same parts of Seattle, I don’t prioritize making new friends too much, and I don’t really try to learn about my city because I assume I know it having lived there my whole life. So I guess I’ve learned that it’s really easy to become comfortable and assume you know a place, but you should keep trying to peel back layers so you get to know it even better, and then you get to be in your comfort zone in more places.

What have been a few of the highlights so far?

Last week I went with four of my friends to the Amazon for a week. I live in the mountains so the scenery was still way different from what I was used to, and the climate and how people who live there adapt to it is way different. We got to see a bunch of monkeys and snakes and other animals, swim in the lagoons in black water (to be clear: it was clean it’s just known as black water), canoe a bunch, hang out with our really cool tour guide, hike through the forest, and wake up to the sounds of all the animals because we were sleeping in tents.

I wasn’t placed in Imbaya immediately, first all of the Fellows in my program were in Quito, which is the capital of Ecuador, for orientation where we lived with temporary host families for three weeks and met every day to learn about culture, the education system and that type of thing. I remember getting into Quito on a flight super late at night, and just looking out the window and realizing I was going to be in Ecuador until April. It was one of those moments where you have no idea what you’re looking at or what you’re getting yourself into, but you know eventually you’ll be looking at the same view or same thing with so much more understanding and clarity which was really cool.

On a day-to-day basis I most look forward to just talking with my mom Mayrita every day at lunch. My dad works all day and my brother and sister aren’t home when I’m home for lunch, so I just eat with her. I’ve loved getting closer and closer to her as the weeks have passed and learning about her life and sharing about mine. Forming that relationship was tough at first because both sides have some trouble understanding each other (culturally and language-wise) and now it feels so rewarding being able to talk to her about so much and feeling so comfortable.

What have been some of the challenges? Have you overcome any of them? How?

All of my challenges have stemmed from being out of my comfort zone in one way or another. They range from small things like being laughed at on the bus if I don’t know what stop to get off on, getting a spider bite or having to eat foods that I’m not used to. Those are challenges because no matter how good of a day you are having they remind you that you’re in a place you aren’t used to and that can be hard. The bigger challenges are more constant. It’s seeing your friends all come home for winter break on Snapchat or Instagram while you’re thousands of miles away from your family on Christmas and all you want to do is go home. On the day after the election I was really upset because I did not want Trump to win, and that was really hard because nobody really understood. I felt like I had to suppress my feelings and on top of that I didn’t feel like I could fully communicate my needs or anything like that so it felt lonely and overwhelming. Things like that. You’re kind of constantly stretching yourself and while that’s great it also means there are going to be so many big and small challenges that come up for you when you’re out of your comfort zone.

As far as overcoming them, I try to just think about why I came here in the first place and that helps a little bit. Like not look at what is happening or what I’m feeling in the moment as a bad feeling, but a feeling that reveals something about myself I wouldn’t get to see otherwise, which makes it more of a blessing or something to be grateful for. Which is way way more easier said than done. When that doesn’t do the job I facetime friends or family, listen to music, or just do something that reminds me of home.

Do you feel ready to jump into college next year?

Honestly, the fact that I’ve had a whole year without doing essays and math tests and all of that means I’ll probably have a rougher first semester than most people academically, but I know once I get back into the swing of things it won’t be a problem. But as far as navigating being away from home and having to take care of myself, I have so much more experience with that than I could if I just went straight to college. I also have more questions about the topics I want to study and more clarity on how I want to spend my time, so I think in that sense I’m also much more well-prepared for college than I would be otherwise.

If you had the chance to redo this year and choose Gap Year or college, which would you choose?

Gap Year without a doubt. You’ll never have the opportunity to travel somewhere for this long without having to worry about a career, or taking care of your kids or any of those things. I think a year like this allows you to go into college more passionate about the things you’re studying because you’ve seen it in a sense, so you get more out of it than you might if you did it in your junior year of college when you don’t have a lot of time left.

Overall pros, cons and recommendations?

Pros:
You learn so much about yourself, you learn so much more about a different culture and a different part of the world than you could if you traveled for less time, and you make a lot of great connections throughout the year, with friends you’re traveling with and the people you meet in your community. Also for those that aren’t convinced it’s a good idea just because of the personal growth stuff, you also learn/practice a different language, get internship experience in a field you’re interested in, and take part in something that’s becoming more and more popular and seen as more valuable to employers and groups that want to see evidence of travel experience and maturity.

Cons:
It’s super hard and while you adjust to where you are, it never stops being hard for one reason or another just because there are so many facets of it that are out of your comfort zone and you know that you won’t be in your comfort zone for a really long time. That being said, the benefits and what you learn from putting yourself through a gap year are beyond worth the hard parts.

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kaiKai Millici

Kai is a Global Citizen Year Fellow spending her bridge year in Ecuador. She is passionate about traveling, journalism, education reform, social justice and Native Peoples’ rights. In high school Kai was involved in soccer and track and field, was editor of her school’s newspaper, and studied international relations at the School for Ethics and Global Leadership in Washington, D.C for a semester. Her goals for the year are to become fluent in Spanish, gain a better understanding of herself and her values, explore her interests in education and entrepreneurship, and learn about Kichwa history and their current state.

Carpe Diem Education: Six Months in Ecuador, Peru, and Tanzania

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“So, how was your year abroad?”

It’s a loaded question, and one that I still – three months after landing back in New Orleans – struggle to answer adequately. I haven’t given up, though; whenever it comes up, I sing the year’s praises as loudly as possible. “It was absolutely phenomenal. I’d recommend it to anyone. Complete game-changer. The greatest year of my life.”

But really – how do you describe an experience like this? How do you describe the size of the universe? Sometimes I’ll gesticulate wildly, throwing hands everywhere to drive my lofty statements home; I’ll spend awkward seconds searching for high-magnitude words, and, in certain moments, invoke profanity. People get it – “Sounds awesome,” they say, nodding – but I can tell it’s still falling a little short. No matter how [darn] incredible I say this year was, it’ll always mean more to me than I can actually get across.

A Gap Year Changes Lives

What to do with such an inexpressibly positive experience? I can’t just sit on it – the gap year’s the type of experience that changes every life it touches – but, at the same time, it’s not an easy idea to sell. Although “world travel” does hold a certain element of mass appeal, the gap year is inherently a risk. It’s nonessential. It’s different. Gap years are often expensive, sometimes dangerous, and always time-consuming. It’s costly and uncomfortable, and we Americans tend to be both comfortable and cost-averse. The result is usually a quick dismissal of the idea.

So I’m not, at this point in time, attempting to persuade the masses to consider the gap year. That’s a pretty grand endeavor. But in the next few hundred words, I’d like to explain what I actually got – what I’m getting – from the whole experience.

What I Got Out of a Gap Year

Telling people about the journey, to the point that they really understand it, is difficult. (That’s one reason it’s taken me three months to get around to finishing this blog.) I can’t just place people on the clay footpath in the village of Igoda, inviting them into another riotous game of street football as the sun sets below the Tanzanian foothills. I can’t bring everyone beneath the cosmic sky of the otherworldly Peruvian highlands, where the light spots outnumber the dark and the campesinos’ alpaca shift and sputter in their stables. What does it feel like to sit in the Swing at the Edge of the World? “Awesome?” “Incredible?” Yes – indescribably so. You have to go to the Arequipa Food Festival to taste the culture, the music, the empanadas and morocho, and so on. You can’t just hear about it. It’s that exclusivity that makes memories so valuable.

But in the end, this wasn’t a trip about “memories”. Great memories can be made anywhere. I told a friend a few days ago that, all these weeks later, the impact of this journey is just beginning to become apparent to me – long after the scenic views have been taken in and the bucket list entries have been checked off.

Perspective. Perspective. Perspective.

It’s the intangible side of the adventure that sticks: the broadened perspective, the personal clarity, the happy-go-anywhere confidence of a traveler. When you travel (not just “visit”, but travel – there’s a difference), the mundane becomes magical. Watch a Tanzanian woman weave a basket. It’ll blow your mind, and you’ll discover new appreciation for materials, for culture, and for the individual struggles of a billion Third World families. It stays with you.

In such a profoundly new space, simple stuff can become challenging– try making your way across Peru by bus – even as the world’s complications and complexities seem to dissolve before your eyes. What if we all appreciated life as much as Mufindi’s villagers, who mostly live without electricity, running water, healthcare access, or more than a few dollars a day, but still find the time to laugh, play, and love each other? What if our priorities could be more like theirs? I believe that everyone should, at some point, attend a Lutheran church service in Swahili.

Everyone could benefit from a morning bucket shower in a cornfield. (Ask me how much I appreciate hot water now.) It’s all about perspective. Perspective. Perspective. If more people would just go – go to a strange land, simply to do strange things, in strange ways, with complete strangers – the world would become more content, more productive, and more understanding.

Skill Building & Priorities

I was truly fortunate to get my first taste of the world at large before going off to college. The benefits of the post-high school gap year are limitless.

  • Academic burnout is a distant memory.
  • I’m more self-aware than ever before.
  • I became fluent in a second language while abroad, and am well on my way to learning a third.
  • I learned what it feels like to (attempt to) teach kids English,to administer life-saving medical treatment, and to sit a the head of a traditional Kihehe farewell ceremony.

I’ve made friends from across the country (amazing, adventurous American travelers who I’m beyond blessed to call close friends) and from across the world (host families, language teachers, doctors, dentists, nonprofit leaders, villages full of kids, and fellow explorers). Priorities have evolved. I’ve progressed in my relationships with family, friends, career, and routine. And at this point I’d feel comfortable living in nearly any city or country in the world – which is fortunate, since they’re pretty much all on my list.

If the year itself was incredible, its long-term impact is utterly astonishing. The trip was a force multiplier, a yearlong dose of unadulterated perspective that will shape every event of the rest of my life. I’m seeing things differently. I’m doing things differently. Everything is different – and, truthfully, that can be painful at times. But in the vast majority of situations the difference is overwhelmingly positive.This was among the greatest opportunities I’ve ever been given and is definitely, to date, the greatest decision I’ve made.

According to Saint Augustine, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” I’m only a couple of chapters in, but it’s definitely a really, really good book.

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This piece was written by Jack D and shared with us by Carpe Diem Education. You can read the original here.

Lessons from Madagascar: Taking the Leap

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Make the most of every moment: cherish every incredible sight, LEAP into every crazy opportunity and don’t regret a single second of it!

It sounds cheesy, but the world is a truly remarkable place and we only have a fleeting section of its immense existence to enjoy. Seeing the Madagascans smile their way through life reminded me to appreciate just how lucky I am.

Materially, the locals I met generally had the clothes on their back, the wooden home of their own making, and the money that came in after a hard day’s work to provide food for the family. It’s their ability to value the astounding environment that surrounds them and the companionship of such a close-knit community which brings such light, life and laughter to them.

My friends, family and I live in a materialistic world, and I now think that it only blinds us to the real magic out there… the people, the nature, the cultures, the landscapes.

Madagascar is a one-of- a-kind placce. You may have heard it a lot, but believe it this time. The way to sum up Madagascar in one word: paradise. It really does triumph as the world’s most intense kaleidoscope of nature.

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Here are 10 quotes/excerpts from the blog posts and diary I kept in Madagascar where I learned that the simple, natural, stripped back way of life is the best:

1. ‘On my forest walk this morning I was able to witness a myriad of spectacular, endemic wildlife. Of course, the famed lemur, with its quirky and photogenic nature, topped the pile. (Even if it did decide my shoulder seemed a good place for a toilet stop.) However, vibrant frogs, stunning birds and innumerable colourful, camouflaged chameleons also hopped, flapped and crawled through the forest beside me. I love nature!’

2. ‘The truly stunning Nosy Iranja is made up of two jungly islands ringed by utterly pristine white sand beaches and joined by a snaking sandbar around 400m long. Time flew by as we spent it strolling through the tiny idyllic village and market shops, swimming in the crazy warm waters, walking/dancing/running up and down the sandbar, relaxing with a cool drink in hand, and more. Sitting in the middle of the bar as the waves rushed towards us on both sides, watching the sunset, before a delicious candlelit dinner, was the cherry on top of a completely perfect day!’

3. ‘We are all loving how different and exciting every class is. Some students are desperate to learn, seeing English lessons as an opportunity for a better future, and others just there for a little fun, but every class is as rewarding as the next. Being able to see the progress being made and the joy of improvement on the students’ faces is immensely satisfying. It also helps to make the occasional class mango-throwing war less of a stand-out memory! Top tip from Zoe and Amy: don’t forget the stickers in kids’ class or keeping their concentration can be a far more challenging and stressful endeavour.’

4. ‘Tanikely Marine Park: a breath-taking island where crystal clear doesn’t do the water justice and the panoramic view from the lighthouse was totally beautiful. After snorkeling with turtles and a friendly octopus, selfies with a cheeky banana-stealing lemur, sunbathing until we all turned a bright shade of red, and stuffing our faces with a spectacular lunch of crab, shrimp, zebu, fish, lobster and, of course, rice… we departed feeling as though the idyllic Madagascar we had all dreamed of before arriving was nothing compared to the real thing.’

5. ‘Our first stop was Nosy Mamook-rainforest clad and almost completely untouched, aside from one tiny village with a population easily under 50. After an afternoon spent whale and dolphin watching from the boat, we all drifted off to a nice, rocky night’s sleep. The next morning we headed over to Mamook and spent a few hours feeding very hungry lemurs and giant tortoises some bananas, before seeing our first big and truly majestic Baobab tree. By evening, we really were feeling as though we had conquered Madagascar-primary rainforest, lemurs and Baobabs all in one day!’

6. ‘With just a short time left, I’ve been reflecting on how in Madagascar the adventures never ends and the people and places never cease to amaze me. Today a girl of about 8 years old guided me over the rocks to Ampang in high tide after we were embarrassingly thrashed in our volunteer vs. local football tournament. While she knew no English, I felt as though we had known one another for years after our endless giggles and hand-clapping games: communication is about a lot more than words. I think most of us would happily put up with a few more rice and beans meals if it meant we could stay just a little bit longer.’

7. ‘Active turtle surveys have been a success this week with lots of GoPro snaps of our resident Yoshi and his friends filling the turtle logbook. Nudi surveys are also being carried out to assess the health of the reef, and while being very serious and important work, they are also a great chance for some entertainment as we attempt to remain neutrally buoyant while floating upside-down to measure small caterpillar-like creatures in very confined spaces!’

8. ‘It’s been another gratifying, enchanting and relatively “mora mora” week on camp-basically translates as “slowly, slowly” but is generally used to mean calm or chilled out- the perfect way to describe Malagasy culture.’

9. ‘On Nosy Antsoha, the lemur island, the water was mesmerizingly blue and clear, and we all wanted to dive right in. First though, we all gathered our cameras, walking shoes and snorkel gear and headed ashore. It was a steep climb to the top of the island, but thanks to the outstanding panoramic views and countless lemurs descending from the trees to munch on our bananas, I think it was worthwhile! Most excitingly though, as we neared the bottom on the route down, we were surprised by a mini green turtle rescue place! There was about 12 tiny baby turtles, smaller than our palms, and honestly the most adorable things to walk (flap) the earth. Turtles are the most incredible and beautiful species, and I can’t imagine a world without them in it. In fact, I think my dream job may have just changed to turtle saviour!’

10. ‘We all feel that we have learnt even more than we ever expected, both in terms of our environmental and conservational knowledge, and in terms of cultural immersion and experience. Being around locals with so much contentment with the little that they have, and sharing camp with such amazing people, all of whom have fascinating (and often mad) stories to tell, with a shared passion for travel, is something really special.’

Travel Helps Us Find the Path

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Travel broadens the mind and reminds us every day to make what we can of where we are and what we have…

On my trip to Madagascar I learnt that good old Dumbledore was right when he said that, “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” Often we embark on a Gap Year because of hard times. It might be stress and anxiety, trouble at home, exhaustion after that long 14 year non-stop ride on the education train, or even just difficulty in deciding on your future. Whatever it is, go with an open mind and travel will get you back on the right path.

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ameliaAmelia Green is a 19 year old student with a deep love for travelling thanks to her military father. She was even lucky enough to live abroad in Oman for 3 years and attend an international school, enabling me to
make friends from across the globe. Her trip to Madagascar was a once-in- a-lifetime experience and now she is an intern with The Leap, which she expects will open up opportunities for her in the future.

Gap Year Student Stories: An Internship in Washington D.C.

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Once a month we will highlight student experiences from AGA Accredited Programs. This month we’re pleased to bring you the story of Joe Caplis, who is on a program in Washington DC as an intern, through then American University Gap Program.

Getting Started in the AU Gap Program

As a newcomer to the AU Gap Program this spring, I was a little unclear on what to expect. Sure, I had read all the materials provided and looked at what past students had to say about their experience, but nothing I read could have foreshadowed the excitement that was to come.

The first few days were dedicated to preparing for the Internship Fair where about 50 different organizations would be coming to recruit us bright-eyed and bushy-tailed students. I walked into the internship fair a little nervous, but did my best to fall back on the lessons we were taught leading up to the event. The night after the internship fair, I received a call from the Federalist Society, one of my favorite organizations from the fair, asking if I could meet for an interview the next day.

Learning the Skills to Succeed

Our first day of class with Professor Christian Maisch (who is quite the comedian!) featured Ambassador Barbara Stephenson from the American Foreign Service Association in the morning and then we practiced our interview skills with an expert in the afternoon.

After class, I was ready to trek downtown for my internship interview. I walked into the beautiful office building, just a few blocks away from the White House, ready to be put on the grill; but instead was taken to a restaurant where I was relieved to find myself not on the menu! The interview went great!

Working in D.C.

After landing my dream internship with the Federalist Society, I started my career in Washington D.C. as a research associate. Since then, I’ve worked to compile reports on various topics to brief the leadership and have written a short introduction for a well-known Congressman. The work is hard but the hours pass quickly when you’re doing what you love.

After the first week, my co-worker and gap-semester buddy Will and I quickly realized there is only one appropriate way to close out a good week of work. At 5pm, we hop on the Metro toward the Capital and go to D.C.’s best burger joint, Ollie’s Trolley. The only problem so far is the experience is going too quickly—I’m doing my best to savor each fry, one bite at a time.

-Joseph Caplis
AU Gap Student, Spring 2017

Planning your Gap Year Airfare

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Airfare is one of the trickiest elements to building a strong Gap Year. Typically it’s the priciest pieces in the equation of an any Gap Year, and still remains one of the most expensive considerations even on academic study abroads. That being said, there are a lot of ways to save money on your flight. We highly encourage you to start your airfare search early given not only the volatility of the market, but also the constant changes that the airline industries seem to be going through.

There are a lot of elements to consider when scoring a great airfare. Here are a few tips gleaned from years of banging our heads against the proverbial walls of travel:

Know your rights!

The Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division lays out certainties of compensation and expectations for travelers: http://www.dot.gov/airconsumer. If you feel like you’re not getting this, mention it, and if necessary, never hesitate to talk to a supervisor, or threaten to report the airline. Note: this only is required for US airlines.

Sign up for air miles

These little things are priceless and within a few years you’ll typically earn yourself at least one free domestic flight if not a free international one!

Keep track of your boarding passes

It’s unfortunate, but many airlines will “lose” your information and make it more difficult to get your miles awarded.

Visa Check

If you’re traveling to a place that requires a visa, don’t forget to get one! The airline won’t let you board your plane if you don’t have the necessary visa! Find out if you need one by going to the State Department and checking out the entry requirements for your destination. In many cases you can get a visa-on-arrival, but just as often you’ll need to send your passport to a Consulate General’s Office (a foreign embassy) to get a visa stamp for entry.

Those who ask, receive

If your flight is changed, don’t be afraid to ask for free things – hotel vouchers, meal vouchers, etc. Heck, the worst they can say is ‘no.’

Do your research

Find out online what arrival dates should be cheapest. Keep in mind that weekends will be more expensive, and typically the cheapest day to fly is Wednesday. It’s usually cheapest to book your flight approximately 6 weeks out . . . if not more. Roundtrip tickets will help cut the cost, as will flying early in the morning.

Buy local

Book your regional flights through local carriers. When traveling internationally this is particularly important to do and easily can save you hundreds of dollars simply by booking your flight (for example within Southeast Asia) from a Thai travel agent.

Discount companies aren’t always the best bet

Booking your flight through a discount company – like Priceline, or Expedia, often will save some money but disallow the earning of airmiles, and very regularly will route you through some fairly exhausting itineraries. Remember, the times a traveler are most at risk are in transit, so showing up exhausted and not fully present is a recipe that simply compounds your exposure.

Check here

Don’t forget to check the usual suspects: www.kayak.com, www.Cheapflights.com, and www.yapta.com for good deals.

Read the fine print

Be aware of the terms of your travel: change ticket fees, abilities to re-route, change dates, etc.

Keep composure

Changing your flight once you’ve started can sometimes be simple and sometimes complicated. But remember that when you’re traveling in a foreign country it never helps to lose patience. Be polite, ask for a supervisor if needed, and be patient but assertive.

Student deals

Take advantage of student airfares if you’re currently a student. www.statravel.com.

Do you have any additional tips for keeping airfare low? Help keep us updated!

Gap Year Travel Safety

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Traveling safely is no joke. In all honesty, half of our lists here have been learned the hard way – so please take our word from it that if the fire is hot, there’s no need to burn yourself to be sure.

International & Domestic

Check the medical situation

Does the region you’re visiting recommend certain vaccinations or medical supplies be on hand before you arrive? Do you have any personal medical concerns that need to be addressed before you travel? Keep in mind some medications (like malaria pills) will need to be taken weeks and sometimes months in advance.

Know where you’ll be staying

Especially for the first few nights. Youth Hosteling Association (YHA), or Hosteling International (HI) are great resources to find yourself in safe living situations. They have high standards and safety is paramount for their good name.

Communication

If you’re traveling alone, get a cell phone and know your emergency phone numbers. As well, check for relevant apps such as the State Department one that lists embassy phone numbers and addresses. Have regular check-in times with family. Partially so that they can live vicariously through you and your experiences, but also as a safety measure to make sure in case something happens they’ll know ASAP.

Take care of yourself

If you’re sick, don’t waste time wondering how bad it is. For many Gap Year students health takes on a secondary-import because they’re used to having a parent there to tell them when something is bad and when it’s just healing normally. If you’re not sure, call home or go to a doctor!

Driving

If you’re going to drive, make sure you have proper insurance and know the rules of the road. Stay off of motorcycles. We know it’s tempting, but in the Peace Corps they’ll send you home even if they suspect you rode one… they’re that dangerous! Also, in EVERY case, the time you’re most at risk is in a motor vehicle. Make sure you at least have a short conversation with every driver to make sure they’re awake and sober: and wear a seat belt (if there is one).

Keep up with your street smarts

Before you go out, ask the locals what areas are safe and which aren’t. Even in New York city, there’s areas you just don’t go at night alone!

Look before you leap

If there’s a crowd of people, don’t let curiosity get the best of you . . . stay away until you REALLY understand what’s going on.

Let it go

Nothing in life is certain, but, if you’re mugged, the best thing to do is usually just give up what you have. Whether it’s drugs they’re after, cash, or your passport, all are easily enough replaced and in every case will be cheaper than a hospital bill if you resist. But, the one thing that we can assure you of is that an ounce of prevention is worth a ton in gratitude: pay attention; if you feel uncomfortable, go somewhere safe; and reserve a little skepticism about everyone and their intentions.

Prepare for everything

It never hurts to get certified in wilderness medicine through WMI, WMA, or SOLO. These are some of the most reliable ways to make sure that you can take care of yourself in an emergency.

Alcohol and drugs are dangerous

In cases of rape while traveling, there’s almost a 90% correlation with alcohol. Even marijuana, in some countries can carry a death sentence. The bottom line is that if your goal in your Gap Year is to party, then you’re not taking a “Gap Year.”

International Only

1. Know your Embassy’s phone numbers.

2. Visit the State Department website for any travel warnings, and WATCH THE NEWS.

3. Visit the State Department website to see what areas you need a visa for and which ones you can get ‘on arrival.’ Every country you travel to will have an immigration department, and without adequate preparation you may not even be able to enter the country!

4. Register with the State Department’s Smart Travelers Enrollment Program.

5. In questionable situations, if you can’t boil it, cook it, or peel it, don’t eat it.

6. Scan your passport and email a copy to yourself. This is just in case yours gets lost, stolen, or a tiger eats it… in this way you have a digital copy so that you can more easily prove you are who you say you are to the embassy when you’re trying to get a new one.

7. If you lose your passport, contact the embassy immediately – delaying this call will only mean a delay in getting a new one as they now have to check to see if your passport has been used illegally and thus taking more time for them… oh yeah, and more time for you!

Let us know if you have any other essential travel safety tips to know before you go!

How to Talk About Your Gap Year Without Annoying Everyone

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A nugget of wisdom from good ol’ Lorelai Gilmore:

“Hey, don’t you want to see it? Huh? The place where you’ll be living and studying and developing very naïve but pretentious world views that will come crashing down the minute you graduate?”

Whether you like it or not, your newly-enlightened worldview is still in some-ways idealistic. This is not a bad thing. I repeat. This is not a bad thing. But the reality is that even with the insane number of amazing experiences you now have under your belt, you still have a lot to learn, and humility will be your BFF as you navigate your post-Gap Year relationships and conversations.

Here are my best tips for talking about your Gap Year without everyone’s eyes glazing over.

How to NOT sound like an arrogant-annoyance

There’s no quicker movement from “0 to annoyed” than to constantly barrage your family and friends with the amazing stories you had while experiencing a much-cooler life than basically everyone else you know. Want to bypass this intersection?

 

Don’t be the one-upper

You know how you hear stories that instantly trigger memories about your own personal experiences? While it’s great to relate to others and communicate your empathy through sharing them, it can unfortunately devolve into a game of “my experience is more hardXXcore than yours.” Listen and react appropriately to others; don’t just wait for your chance to interject with something that’s all about YOU.

Cool it on the conversation policing, especially in public

Some of your friends and family might make comments that are inappropriate, inaccurate, or insensitive to other cultures. Instead of calling them out in the middle of a group, if you feel strongly about something they’ve said, take them aside independently and have a quick chat about it. Don’t embarrass them in front of others – but don’t let these false comments slide, either.

Integrate your experiences

If you are quick to tell others how much you support access to clean water or education equality in India, don’t let these interests lie solely in memories. Walk the talk and merge your newfound interests with your life back home. People will be more interested in hearing about your intensive Swahili course in Tanzania if you’re currently seeking opportunities in your home community (or heck, online) to continue developing that skill.

 

Mutual Interest is Key

While you were traipsing around the planet bringing new meaning to the word “globetrotter,” your family and friends were also having important experiences. They might have been ordinary or they might have been extraordinary. Regardless, they matter, and you need to let them know that.

Ask them questions, too

It’s called a dialogue, di-alogue, two. There’s not much fun if you’re the only one talking. Like a good ping pong match, toss questions back at them and inquire thoughtfully about their personal experiences while you were away.

Don’t minimize their experiences

Sometimes the things we say come off as a lot more harsher than we intend. For instance, “I could never live in <insert hometown> again” OR “Everyone here is so complacent. My greatest fear is to not really LIVE life and to just do the same thing day-in, day-out.” While you might feel all of these things, there are more sensitive (and less offensive) ways to say them. “I’m thankful for my experiences in <insert hometown>, but I want to try out living in other places” OR “One of my values is diversity of experience and staying active. This will manifest in my life in these ways: x, y, z.”

Tell them you love them and are thankful for them

It can be a little scary to see your best friend or your kid or your sibling jaunt off around the world to experience so much. Wouldn’t you feel a little insecure, too? Remind your closest friends and family that they matter to you, and that while you had a valuable experience striking off on your own, you couldn’t wait to come back to see them, hug them, hear how they’re doing, and start making more memories with them. Ah, love.

 

“How” to share versus “what” to share

We’ve already talked at length about how to answer the inevitable “How was it?” question after your travels. These tips are applicable even when responding to more detailed or specific questions. The secret is to know your audience and adapt your stories based on their expressed interest or their time availability.

The more conversations you have in the days, weeks, and yes – years – after your Gap Year will continuously illuminate new approaches to these discussions. You will stumble. You will annoy people. You will start to realize people avoid eye contact as they’re passing you on their way to class (okay, maybe that is extreme). But without a sincere effort to keep trying and to keep learning – not to mention that humility I alluded to earlier 😉 – you might stagnate.

Be transparent with your friends and family, maybe even going so far as to explain to them that you want to talk about your Gap Year but you don’t want to overwhelm or bore them with stories – asking them to be direct with you when you say something offensive offhand or are beating a dead horse.

Happy chatting and good luck!

A Short History of the Gap Year

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clothes-travel-voyage-backpackWith the decision by President Obama’s daughter, Malia, to take a Gap Year after high school and before entering Harvard, the spotlight has been put on this increasingly popular stage in the development of individuals. Some commentators applaud Malia’s decision while others deride it.

Malia will not be the first member of a “first” family to take a Gap Year.

A major boost to the Gap Year concept was given when it got “royal approval” in Britain with Prince William taking a Gap Year before starting at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. Among his adventures he spent time sleeping in a hammock in the jungles of Belize, working on a dairy farm in the UK and laying walkways and teaching English in remote areas of southern Chile.
Catherine Middleton, whom he married also took a Gap Year before going to St Andrews. She spent time studying in Florence, Italy and crewed on Round the World Challenge yachts in races off the south coast of England. And, like her husband to be, whom she only met much later when they were both at St Andrew’s, she also spent time in Chile.

Because the Gap Year is a relatively new phenomenon in the USA where less than two per cent of students take a gap year after high school, it might be useful to know something of its background as a structured element of a young person’s education.

Considered an Essential Part of Education

As far back as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries young people of sufficient wealth undertook “The Grand Tour”, a year-long trip around the principal cultural centers of Europe. This was considered an essential part of the education of a gentleman.

In modern times the roots of the Gap Year movement can be traced to Britain. After World War II, all young men were conscripted at age 18 for two years of National Service in a branch of the armed forces, unless they were granted a deferment to continue their education and enlisted after graduation.

Looking back, this can be seen as a kind of enforced two-year Gap whether you were going on to further study or to join the workforce. It was a period that accelerated “growing up”. It was also a time when the majority, who had never been away from Mum and Dad and the comforts of home, could learn to fend for themselves. By the time that those who were going to continue their education arrived at the universities, they had matured in many ways that their professors contrasted favorably with younger entrants coming straight from secondary school.

National Service began to be phased out in 1957 and the last conscripts were demobilized in 1963. This uncovered a problem unique to the peculiar educational system in Britain. All universities in England and Wales, with the exception of Oxford and Cambridge based the selection of applicants on the grades they achieved in the final year examinations sat each year in July, known then as “A” levels. They would start as college freshmen that same year in September. But, candidates for the two ancient universities, even though they had taken their A levels and knew the results, had to stay in school for another trimester to take the Oxbridge entrance exam in December. Pass or fail, this group would find itself at a loose end until the following September/October. This nine months could be wasted or put to good use. (A few especially gifted students took this exam in December of their penultimate school year).

Gap Activity Projects & Frank Fisher

Enter GAP (Gap Activity Projects), brainchild of Frank Fisher, the celebrated headmaster of Wellington College, one of England’s premier independent schools which sent many pupils on to Oxford and Cambridge. His idea was to create a clearing house of structured activities that could be undertaken in this “fallow” period and would prove useful to the student as well as to the community at large. Fisher’s influence extended well beyond Wellington itself. He had been the Chairman of the Headmasters Conference, the association, or club, of the heads of Britain’s 200 elite boys schools and also established and taught a six-week course for men who had been selected to become head of one of these schools for the first time. This, of course, was in the time before Wellington, along with most other similar schools went co-ed.

It was during the 1970’s that I became associated with GAP as a volunteer public relations official. The organization was expanding to serve pupils at other schools well beyond the elite institutions and was increasingly part of the mainstream educational system. A small amateur start-up had come of age, separated from its parent and turned professional. It achieved charitable status in 1976.

Most of the activities on the GAP “menu” involved travel within or far outside the British Isles. Many involved manual work, a major change from the academic life the applicants had been used to and awaited them in their future careers. Most had a social purpose of some kind.
The GAP organization recently changed its name to Lattitude Global Volunteering to reflect its international outreach as well as to avoid confusion with the clothing store chain.

Gathering Early Data on Gap Year Students

After a few years there was a thick volume of case studies reporting on the experiences of gap year students (known in Australia, where taking a gap year has become the norm, as “gappies”). In addition to useful but rewarding assignments, there were some remarkable examples of what might be achieved by young people, not yet twenty years old. One small group used their Gap year to build an eye hospital for 200 patients in Bangladesh.

It was not long before many students, their parents and most especially many other universities began to recognize that a Gap Year, productively spent, had many advantages. Instead of being merely a way to ensure that young people could make productive use of an otherwise wasted nine months they saw that a gap year could be as important a part of a person’s development as one spent in the lecture hall.

Gap Years Have Clear Benefits

From the point of view of the universities, students who had taken a Gap Year arrived more mature and with greater ability to manage their lives. This in turn enhanced their academic performance, according to many college professors and administrators. A survey conducted in the USA found that students who include a Gap Year as part of their higher education experience earn college degrees in less than four years and are almost twice as likely to vote in national elections. The survey, which was conducted by Nina Hoe, PhD of the Institute for Survey Research at Temple University, interviewed 1,000 American Gap Year students and alumni ranging in age from 18-60 years old.

For the many students who wanted no delay in their education and went straight from school to university, the Gap Year became one after graduation and before beginning a lifetime’s career, very much on the line of the Peace Corps in the USA. Lattitude Global Volunteering caters to young people up to age 25 and reports that taking a Gap Year after college is becoming increasingly popular.

It did not take long before Wellington College’s offspring GAP Activity Projects was joined by a plethora of organizations – both commercial and charitable – offering Gap Year programs of all kinds. And the concept caught fire internationally so that now taking a Gap Year is the norm in many countries.

Nor is taking a Gap Year any longer reserved for the well-to-do. For families with limited financial means grants are available to students eager to do voluntary service. Other organizations specialize in arranging paid assignments. Some young people see a Gap Year (or two) as a period in which to earn and save for college fees so they do not end up burdened by excessive student loan debt.

Maybe Malia Obama’s decision will give a boost to the Gap Year concept in the USA making it as accepted a part of the educational trajectory as elsewhere.

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Michael Morley is the retired Deputy Chairman of Edelman, the world’s leading public relations firm, and author of two books on PR, published by Macmillan

Why I Decided to Take a Bridge Year

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I write in the dim airplane cabin, the glow of my laptop illuminating my face as the faint rumble of the engine forms a ceaseless background to the bustle of the flight attendants beside me. Sudden tremors of turbulence strike me as a representation of what lies at the end of this flight: the beginning of a journey that promises tribulation. As jet engines propel me ever farther away from my life of comfort and safety, the reality of what is to come seems all the more real.

All That Awaits Me in Ecuador for Certain is Uncertainty

In a few short hours, I will step foot into a nation where I am largely ignorant to the local language, culture, and customs with little concrete knowledge of where I will be staying or what I will be doing. Never before have I taken such a blind leap of faith into a new experience. Yet, somehow, as my new reality of discomfort draws closer, my breaths get deeper, my muscles relax, and a profound sense of calm envelops my being. Rarely during my regular schedule of rigorous academics and extracurriculars did I feel such a freeing sensation. It is striking how, in a quest to find peace, risk succeeded where routine failed.

Why?

To answer the question of why I decided to take a bridge year, I could call upon all of the logical reasons that my active involvement in an Ecuadorian community has the potential to be a mutually beneficial relationship that will prepare me to be a global leader. However, while this reasoning is absolutely valid, my pure response comes from a far deeper place. From the moment I learned of my acceptance to Global Citizen Year, I knew I had to do everything in my power to make my dream of taking a formative bridge year a reality. Buried within myself, I felt something drawing me towards unfamiliarity, new perspectives, and self-discovery. What I can only describe as my basic instinct recognized that which I needed most far before my methodically calculated self did, and I was immediately overcome with an overwhelming urge to follow my heart.

As I have taken the first steps of the impending marathon that is a Global Citizen Year, my confidence in my decision to participate has blossomed. Progressing through Pre-departure Training with some of the most insightful individuals I have ever met left me with a feeling of emotional fullness that I can only describe as being utterly, unconditionally alive.

After eighteen years of fulfilling societal expectations, I have finally stepped off the conveyor belt of traditional education and listened to the desperate voice within me that cries out that there must be something more. For the next eight months, I will seek education that transcends textbooks and lecture halls. Where I am going, every sunrise symbolizes a renewed opportunity to discover, to empathize, and to learn. All the pressure to “do” has been alleviated, and I am now free to just “be.” My blissful unfamiliarity with the Ecuadorian culture has empowered me to escape the role of an achiever and transition to that of an observer. Shedding the obligation to pursue tangible achievements has liberated me to focus simply on maintaining an open mind and open heart throughout the inevitable ups and downs that are to come.

At just the right time, I allowed myself to acknowledge the bridge year that was beckoning me to take part and, thanks to Global Citizen Year, I was able to say yes. Like an ongoing domino effect, that first yes has led me to Ecuador, where I promise to keep saying yes. Over and over, I will say yes to things that appear foreign, things that are challenging, and things that scare me. With “yes” at the tip of my tongue, I dive into the upcoming journey, and I cannot wait to see where it leads.

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Dominic Snyder is a Global Citizen Year Fellow in Ecuador. He is passionate about pursuing enlightening experiences and forging connections with people. He has had the opportunity to support his peers through a student counseling program, lead his school’s DECA and FBLA chapters, and travel to Japan and the Dominican Republic with summer abroad programs. His goals for his Global Citizen Year are to approach every moment as a chance for growth while maintaining an open mind and an open heart. He is inspired by the kindness, perseverance, and passion of his closest friends and family. Click here to check out Dominic’s blog.