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Making Meaningful Connections Through Language Barriers

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Every part of traveling somewhere new presents it’s own challenges, whether it be understanding the local custom of haggling in markets in Morocco or distinguishing between local dialects in India. One of the most exciting, and arguably the most challenging, parts of traveling to different places around the world is learning how to communicate and make connections with people who don’t speak the same language. For some, this means relying on the power a game of soccer can have in making new friends, for others it means connecting through different avenues like art, music or dance.

As Allen Klein once said, “There are no language barriers when you are smiling.” Though we may not literally speak the same language, in being human we share a commonality between all us that allow us to communicate without the need for any words – the ability to feel, and to share those emotions. In being able to communicate our happiness through a smile, or sadness through the teardrops that fall from our eyes, we transcend any language barriers that may step in our way. I have seen time and time again in my experience traveling how easy it can be to communicate once we let go of the safety of our words and begin simply expressing ourselves using our emotions and most basic expressions.

The problem is not that we are unable to connect with others through language barriers, it’s that we are unable to recognize that sharing a language is not the only way to do so. Roughly 6909 languages are currently listed in the Ethnologue catalogue of world languages, each with their own ways to describe things, feelings and emotions we all encounter in our everyday lives. In each language there are words used to describe certain feelings and emotions that are simply untranslatable to any other language. This means that certain feelings, ideas or things are simply untranslatable from one language to the next, forcing us to once again rely on the most basic of communication devices we all possess – the many different ways of expression.

Ways to Communicate Without Language

It can be daunting going somewhere new without speaking the language and feeling like you may not be able to connect with those around you. Here are some ways you CAN connect with those around you without the need to speak a common language.

Bring a pack of cards

While not everyone in the world may speak Frisian, most people have had experience playing some form of cards. By having a pack of cards ready to share in the common room of the hostel or in the waiting room of the bus station you can bypass the need for words by partaking in an activity that may already be familiar to those around you.

Pack a beach ball

One experienced traveler I spoke to stated that one of the things she always kept in her suitcase was a deflated beach ball, particularly when they were visiting a place where there were kids that didn’t speak the same language as she did. By having the beach ball, they were able to join the kids in having fun and playing games without the need for a common language, simply relying on their ability to have fun instead.

Bring some music

A form of expression without the need for a common language, music is something that brings even the most different of people together. I may have had trouble asking the taxi driver for directions in Costa Rica, but when he heard my iPod playing Bob Marley he spent half an hour singing along with me to his entire first album.

Traveling somewhere that doesn’t speak the same language forces us to communicate through so much more than simply just what we choose to verbalize. It forces us to communicate using our body language, facial expressions, gestures and anything else we can use to get our point across. We spend so much of our time with people around us that can speak the same language that we have come to rely on shared language as the only way to communicate, without recognizing that it is not the only way to communicate.

It is travel that has shown me how alike we all are, regardless of the language we speak, the religion we practice or the beliefs we hold. I may not be able to speak your language and we may not hold the same views, but we both understand the same feelings of pain and hope. It’s this ability to feel, this humanity within all of us – that connects us all, regardless of the languages we speak. This is something I think we need to remember when traveling somewhere new, that even when it seems impossible to communicate without speaking the local language, communication without language is possible, and sometimes even more genuine than the words that come out of our mouths. After all, there are so many more parts of what makes us human than that which is verbally communicated.

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.

Attending University Abroad: How & Why

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The university or college experience is life changing for many, and with more and more opportunities available for young adults to study abroad, as part of, or in addition to their Gap Year, having an affordable and memorable post secondary education in a country other than your own is easier than ever. Over 313 000 students studied abroad in 2014/15 alone, with 63% of these students studying abroad for up to three weeks, and 3% studying there long term, for a full academic or calendar year. But besides the benefits of simply living in a different country, how is studying abroad more beneficial than simply studying in your home country?

Why Study Abroad?

Cost

The biggest myth surrounding study abroad programs is that they are over expensive and catered to the upper class. This is 100% myth. Many countries, including Germany, France, Norway, and Iceland, offer free tuition to all students (excluding low administrative fees), with many courses and programs specifically to foreign students.

Language Opportunities

One of the biggest benefits of studying in a foreign country is the opportunity to learn a new language. In today’s globalized economy, the ability to communicate effectively is one of many key skills needed to succeed in your job. A recent survey completed by an LA-based business found that nearly 9 out of 10 employers in Europe, Latin America, and Asia believe that being bilingual is crucial for success in the business field. Not only does the ability to communicate in another language give you an advantage, it also allows you to understand more about the country and culture the language is from.

Education

Each country’s educational system is unique, meaning that what may be considered “normal” for some, is completely different to the way things are taught in another place. Having the opportunity to experience the educational system of two different countries forces you to adapt and become more flexible in your learning habits and allows you to better understand the country that you are learning in. Whereas the American educational system places more of an emphasis on individual learning and problem solving for example, the Japanese education system may be more focused on group problem solving and the “collective” rather than the individual.

Preparing to Study Abroad

There are countless study abroad programs available to students, however finding the perfect program or university abroad requires research, time and patience. There is no “one fits all” study abroad program for students, so there are a variety of factors that should be considered when considering which foreign program or university you wish to attend.

There are typically two factors which most influence which study abroad program students attend.

Location

Many students choose to pursue to their studies at a certain university due to the country or location it is in. This could be due to simply already having a connection or personal history to the place or already knowing the language. Other factors which can go into choosing a program based on location is the affordability of the city as well as “employer activity” within the city. QS Top Universities has an in depth list of the best student cities in the world, as well as universities rankings by region

University Ranking

Another method to determine which study abroad to attend is to simply research the top universities for your major or minor. By then knowing which universities are most accredited for chosen field of study, an informed decision can be made in regards to which top ranked university you wish to study at. QS Top Universities also has World University Rankings based on subject, as well as faculty.

By being aware of the best student cities to live in as well as the top universities for your chosen field, an informed decision can be made which will guarantee you the experience of a lifetime.

Scholarships

While tuition fees for study abroad programs may be cheaper than at home, living costs (as well as airfare back and forth) can add up quickly. Here is a list of organizations that have compiled lists of various scholarships and grants that can ease the financial strain of being a student studying in a foreign country.

There are so many factors to consider when deciding to study abroad, and while staying in your comfort zone can be reassuring, the benefits of studying abroad are infinite. Exposure to a new culture, language, and education system widens your horizons and gives you advantages in the work force. It allows you to better understand the globalized society we now live in and makes you more marketable to future employers and grad schools. It allows you to travel and study at the same time, to work towards your goals while at the same time experience a different culture, place and way of life than back home.

While the decision to study abroad is not one that should be taken lightly, anyone who joins the millions of Americans who have ventured across the globe in their studies will find that studying abroad is an experience like no other.

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!

Volunteering During your Gap Year: The Refugee Crisis

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Over one million people were forced to flee to Europe in 2015, according to a report from the United Nations Refugee Agency. Ongoing conflict and violence in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the world is causing many to risk the perilous journey over the Mediterranean to Europe in their attempts to reach safety. The European Union has struggled to cope with the crisis since April 2015, when the number of deaths at sea rose to record levels and asylum applications increased by more than 80% from the previous year.

Fear and insufficient resources have caused many European countries to greatly restrict the number of refugees and migrants from settling in the continent, with more and more people dying everyday in their attempts to reach safety. As Melissa Fleming from the United Nations Refugee Agency puts it, “The simple truth is that refugees would not risk their lives on a journey so dangerous if they could thrive where they are.”

Living in a world so globalized and connected makes it hard to be unaware of the of the plight and suffering many refugees are currently facing. And while being informed is of utmost importance, there has been little information on what individuals at home, or as Gap Year students traveling, can do.

Become Informed

In order to become involved with, and have a positive impact within the refugee crisis, you first have to understand it. That means more than memorizing a bunch of numbers and dates – it means understanding how you can be involved, and how to create a positive, lasting impact.

The point of any kind of volunteer work – related to the refugee crisis or not, is NOT to soothe our conscience. It is NOT to make us fall asleep better at night, knowing that we “changed a life.”

The point of volunteering; whether it be volunteering your time, money or voice, is to create lasting, positive change. While your heart may be in the right place, positive change cannot be made by paying $75 to be driven out to a refugee camp where you can hand out food and supplies to the poor family of your choice. As Daniela Papi states in her article for the Huffington Post, “It’s like buying food pellets at the zoo to feed the goats. Except these are people. Not goats.”

As Papi suggests, consider instead donating money to organizations like the United Nations Refugee Agency, that can distribute these supplies through local power structures to ensure that high needs are prioritized.

That being said, every little bit counts. The key is asking questions first and taking action second. It’s about understanding how to make a lasting impact that isn’t simply about taking action, regardless of what that action may be. It’s about taking action in the best way possible to ensure that lasting change is made and that you are not simply participating in a “voluntourist” agenda.

Make a Donation

United Nations Refugee Agency – provides items like tents, blankets, cooking sets and other life-saving needs.

American Red Cross – ensures distribution of food, water, hygiene kits, baby supplies across countries all over Europe.

Bootvluchteling (Boat Refugee Founation) – assists the Italian government in ensuring safe crossing of refugees in the waters between Italy and Libya.

Volunteer Your Time

There are numerous way someone can become involved in the refugee crisis, including volunteering your time through an organization or directly through your community. Keep in mind that it’s important to use any specialized skills or experience you may already possess when volunteering.

For example, if you are a writer, you could write a piece on the effects of the refugee crisis you have noticed while traveling. If you are a nurse or have a background in healthcare, you might consider doing hands on work for one of the organizations listed below. If you find an opportunity to volunteer, do something that you know, that you’re qualified at and that you’re passionate about.

Bootvluvhteling (Boat Refugee Foundation) – volunteers needed for Lesbos and Samos, minimum age 21 and availability of at least 14 days.

Mercy Corps – volunteer positions available at headquarters in Portland, OR with the next orientation (required for volunteering) occurring February 27. Please note that volunteering overseas is not an option.

Support Refugees – this organization has compiled a list on countless volunteer opportunities throughout Europe. Also features much “need to know” information about volunteering that is very useful and important to consider.

Becoming involved with the refugee crisis does not require the affiliation of an organization – look for like minded people in your own community that are also interested in doing something positive for the issue. Discuss ways you can directly impact your own community, thinking on a local scale rather than a national or international scale.

In the fall of 2016 I had the opportunity to live in Germany on my Gap Year and get to know more about the refugee crisis firsthand. I got to know individuals personally that had recently immigrated to Germany from places like Syria and Iraq. I was able to see how individuals had used their time and resources to create change for newcomers to Germany. My own Oma (grandmother) had a group of eight Syrian men over for a traditional German Christmas dinner this past holiday season to welcome them to Germany. An anarchist squat I visited in Berlin called “Rauchhaus” converted old hospital dormitories into classrooms in the building they occupied to teach English to new refugees.

There are so many ways to become directly involved with the current refugee crisis – whether abroad or at home. You can write about the people you have met that have been directly impacted by the refugee crisis, or encourage your friends and family back home to raise money for organizations like the United Nations Refugee Agency. As individuals traveling, Gap Year students are in a unique position to use their experiences and opportunities to raise awareness for, and to directly support, the refugee crisis.

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Image credit: Author: A picture taken along the River Spree in Berlin, Mitte this past fall. One of many pieces of graffiti and art that have become a part of the urban landscape that is Berlin. Notice the partially hidden lettering above the “Refugees Welcome!!!” which states “WE ARE PEOPLE.”

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!