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.

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 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!

What to Do When Your Student Comes Home a Different Person

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The countdown has dwindled (to your great joy, to your kid’s great despair) and the end of the Gap Year is now upon us! You look up from the kitchen table to see your child on the couch and it’s like a year hasn’t passed. But it did, and while your child might look the same more or less (save for that new tattoo?!), their mind and soul might be a little different.

Getting to know that new person takes time. We know you love them, but how do you set both guardians and child up for success when they come back and they aren’t quite like you remember.

Before They Come Home

Establish open lines of communication. Before the Gap Year, during, and especially after; it’s important that you’re able to “talk it out” with your kid. If you have expectations for their participation in, or attendance to, certain family affairs, let them know in advance. Invite them to help plan meet up’s or other obligations – your kid will appreciate that you value their input. Ask them, as well, what they’d like to do in their first few weeks home. Discussing what these first few weeks will look like can help mitigate any misunderstandings.

Discuss curfew, chores, and house rules. Your kid just experienced a whirlwind of independence – anywhere from choosing their own meals (and meal times) to deciding when they want to leave the house and when they don’t. That degree of independence can be liberating, but you must discuss with your child if self-government holds up in your household.

  • Can significant others stay the night?
  • Is drinking permitted?
  • Should curfews be abided by?

Instead of deciding top-down how their life back home after their Gap Year is going to look, have a dialogue about what would be best for both parties.

Remind them you love them. When you come back to a life that feels entirely different, with a new sense of self and new life goals, insecurities can be quick to bubble up.

  • “What if they don’t like me now?”
  • “What if I don’t fit in anymore?”
  • “How am I going to end that relationship?”

These questions can lead to much vulnerability. Tell your kid, time and again, that you love them for who they are, who they are becoming, and for who they were. Prepare a soft landing for them in this tumultuous period of their lives.

The First Weeks Home

Transition your “role” as parent – not as a lawmaker, but as an adviser. Your kid will be navigating a LOT of emotions as they return home, not least of which is their newfound self-sufficiency and relative “adulthood.” As a parent, it’s critical that you offer support during this period and a backboard of advice. You can talk about the gambit – their life abroad, their next life plans, college, grades, relationships, friendships. But ask out of genuine curiosity and with a willingness to offer objectivity or new perspectives, not to mine for reasons to chastise or punish your kid. This will help establish healthy boundaries as your wee one is growing up.

Remember: you might be different, too.

Just as your kid coming back might not feel like the same ol’ Timmy or Susie, you might feel different to them, too. Maybe having an empty-nest shed new insights on your personal life, maybe you’ve offered forgiveness to someone you swore you never would, maybe you love Pilates or the Pittsburgh Pirates now. Whatever it is, keep in mind that you’re also a dynamic individual and your kid might have a hard time adjusting to your “new you.”

Don’t Pressure Your Kid to Maintain Old Habits

If your child comes back a vegetarian, don’t make their favorite ribs for a “Welcome home!” meal. Maybe your child has expressed concerns about their lethargy, their apathy, or their inability to focus on getting important things taken care of. Rather than tempt them to join you for a last-minute movie spree, encourage them to maintain and actively pursue their goals.

Remind them you love them! This is just good advice all-around, and worth mentioning again.

When your child returns from abroad, they’ll be experiencing a heavy dose of reverse culture shock. While it’s a difficult psychological experience for your kid, it can also do a number on Mom and Dad (or other guardians). Be patient with your child as they figure out what their life back home looks like after all of their time away. Their new self will be your favorite version of themselves before you know it!

What Matters More Than Talent: Meta-Learning

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I once led a six-week leadership retreat for five young people taking self-directed Gap Years. I rented them their own apartment in the bustling town of Ashland, Oregon, and challenged them to devise a clear set of independent learning goals, which they would pursue with daily mentorship from me and my co-leader.

One student wanted to learn about biology and Kendo; another wanted to improve her photography and web design skills. So I sent them away to interview biologists, martial arts instructors, photographers, and designers. My students boldly introduced themselves to complete strangers, pushed themselves to learn both online and offline, and blogged about their successes and failures, over and over again.

Those were just the weekdays. On the weekends, I sent them on wild adventures to build their self-directed resolve in some rather unusual ways.

For “hobo weekend,” they hiked on train tracks (on which trains weren’t actually running) to a local reservoir and camped out under tarps and thin blankets, a lesson in the importance of maintaining one’s attitude in a difficult situation: like not having a home to return to at night.

For “travel weekend,” I challenged teams of students to get as far away from our home base as possible, and back, in 48 hours with only $50. I showed them how to use Craigslist (to find cheap rideshares) and Couchsurfing (to find free housing), gave them some safety protocols, and then sent them on their way. One team made it as far as San Francisco, a 700-mile round-trip.

For “entrepreneur weekend,” the students attempted to earn as much money as possible using only $5 seed capital. For “paperclip weekend,” they traded up a worthless starting object (a paperclip) into a more valuable one (a set of golf clubs) using only their wits.

For the final weekend, I gave them surprise one-way tickets on a Portland-bound Amtrak train, a to-do list with tasks drawn from previous retreat activities, and the challenge to eat, sleep, and get themselves back four days later, with a budget of only $80 each. (My co-leader also boarded the train, trailing the group undetected with a fake moustache, as an extra safety measure.) Spoiler alert: they made it.

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What Matters More Than Talent

When the program ended, everyone went home happy—and I spent a long time asking myself why I ran it.

The leadership retreat combined some of the most fun and interesting activities I’d picked up over my years of hanging around innovative summer camps, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, world travelers, and outdoor educators. I hadn’t thought about how they fit together before I ran the program, but there had to be a common thread. What was it?

An excerpt from a blog post by the author Seth Godin finally nailed the answer for me:

“An organization filled with honest, motivated, connected, eager, learning, experimenting, ethical and driven people will always defeat the one that merely has talent. Every time.”

The world is full of places that try to teach “talent,” school and college being the preeminent two. But the world has far fewer places that attempt to teach honesty, motivation, ethics, and the other traits Godin described.

Yet for many businesses and other enterprises, these traits ultimately matter more than talent. People get hired for professional skills and fired for personal skills.

That’s when I realized that what I was teaching at the leadership retreat was what educators call meta-learning: the personal skills that help you learn effectively in complex and unpredictable environments.

Building the Skills That Matter

The leadership retreat wasn’t really about sleeping under a tarp or finding rideshares or learning Kendo: it was about building resourcefulness, creativity, self-regulation, self-motivation, conscientiousness, and focus.

It was about greeting a stranger, learning from a defeat, arguing one’s case, and telling a good story. Meta-learning was the thread that connected all of my own formative educational experiences, and I was trying to pass that thread along.

If you’ve spent the majority of your life on the competitive college-prep track, then you’ve gained a very specific set of meta-learning skills:

The ones that help you succeed in structured and academic-focused learning environments. But if you don’t see yourself becoming an academic or corporate professional—if you want to have a more self-directed life that defies conventional expectations and boundaries—than you’ll need to expand your meta-learning capacities.

Gap Years are Laboratories for Meta-Learning

When you leave the academic bubble to travel, work, and learn in the real world, you’re navigating complex and unpredictable environments. You’re tackling novel, multi-faceted problems each day. You’re developing your heart as much as much as your mind.

No matter if you sign up for a traditional Gap Year program, do a crazy program like mine, or bootstrap a solo gap year, you’re doing a service to your career and your soul. You’re signing up for an experience that doesn’t just pour information into your head; it helps you learn how to learn. The investment will pay for itself over and over again.

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Blake Boles is the author of Better Than College and The Art of Self-Directed Learning. He leads gap year and travel programs through his company Unschool Adventures.

This post was adapted from Chapter 15 (“Learning How to Learn”) of The Art of Self-Directed Learning.

Keeping in Touch With Your Gap Year Friends

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Leaving home to Gap Year for a semester or year is fertile ground for making new friends. Together, you trip and stumble and fall and giggle through the language barriers, conquer unexpected challenges, and actively explore your new sense of freedom. You quickly start to question your lifestyle back home, and get to shed your past and start fresh. You meet people from all different walks of life and challenge your conventional norms. Who wouldn’t want to do this hand in hand with a rad person who totally “GETS IT?”

Your bestie from abroad is a special gal/guy, and it’d be a shame to let your tight bond go to waste just because you’re in separate time zones. Here are some ideas for keeping in touch with your Gap Year BFF!

Share the mundane details of life

Since your Gap Year BFF is probably on the other side of the country, you will be tempted to limit your conversations to memories of your shared lives and adventures back on the other side of the pond. While it’s fun to reminisce, it isn’t a great foundation for the growth of a longterm friendship.

Gap Year BFF’s Jamie and Grey share: “Our joint love for Ghana was the cornerstone of our friendship, but it was important for us to continue building it beyond that.”

When telling stories, use the actual names of your friends and your professors. Talk to him/her about what’s really going on. Avoid generalizing or skipping over things because you’re busy or think he/she doesn’t care. Talk to him/her the same way you would talk to your BFFs at school – about EVERYTHING. He/she deserves to know, and probably wants to, too!

Kick it old school with snail mail and commit to phone dates

Who doesn’t just LOVE getting care packages?! Take the time to put a little lovin’ in a box/envelope and drop it in your local post box for your gal pal across the country.

While it will be tempting to back out every now and then, avoid falling into a habit of breaking your phone or Skype dates. Texting and snapchatting and giving them a little #TBT shout out every now and then is good and all, but is it enough?

Introduce your @home besties & him/her

We have a hunch that your besties in your hometown or at your university would be huge fans of your new friend, too. Take the time to get everyone involved in the lovefest!

For instance, Jamie’s other friend Meredith was pumped when BFF Grey posted a funny photo on him/her Facebook wall.

This step can look as simple as friending one another on social media or following each other on Instagram. Having the groundwork laid pre-tip #4 will only enrich him/her experience being welcomed into your home communities.

Invite your Gap Year BFF for a visit!

Step 1: Think about how AWESOME would it be to show your life back home to your Gap Year bestie?!

Step 2: Invite them over.

Step 3: Nag them until they buy their plane ticket!

Introducing your BFF to your life at school or your life back home will strengthen your relationship. Now, she’ll be able to put a face to all those names, totally “get” why you couldn’t get over that guy, and better understand why you called the gelato in Italy second-best to your favorite diner ice cream in your hometown.

Gap Year BFFs Madeline and Marley can’t wait to reunite in Seattle later this year. “We met while studying abroad and just clicked!” said Madeline,

Marley joked, “It’s hard to tell if me or my mom are more excited for him/her visit this summer! ….And I secretly want to set her up with my brother.”

Plan your next joint adventure abroad!

Before even leaving the hills of New Zealand, Gap Year BFF’s Karinne and Olivia were already scheming ways to return together. A few weeks later they had a full fledged plan to get jobs, save up money, attend community college, and then come back the following spring.

Having a common goal to work towards together and a loving buddy who can hold you accountable to your commitments is a surefire way to keep the travel stoke AND the BFF stoke alive.

Jamie agrees: “Grey and I couldn’t wait to get back to Ghana. We did some independent research, contacted a local NGO outside of Accra, booked our plane tickets and returned the following summer. It was amazing, especially to be able to do it with someone who ‘gets’ me.”

Did you hit the jackpot or WHAT? Not only did you get to travel abroad and check out life in amazing foreign countries, you also got to share your experience with a new BFF. You lucky thing, you!

Bridging Culture Gaps

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You don’t have to go overseas to experience a different culture – there are a variety of deep and wonderful cultures anywhere. Thus, the most important thing is the way in which you approach any different culture. For instance, traveling from North Carolina to Los Angeles is no doubt going to be a different experience and there’s often little need to go to the other side of the globe to push your comfort zone.

That being said, in the words of Holly Bull from the Center for Interim Programs, “Perhaps the most important aspect of a Gap Year is the student making their own decision.” In other words, whether you feel called to be in Hawaii working with dolphins, in Louisiana engaging in service-learning about environmental issues, or in India living in a yoga ashram, the fact that you as the student are making your own decision is the largest predictor of a “successful” Gap Year.

Here are a few tips that are important to remember when you’re thinking about visiting a foreign culture:

The bottom line

There are no excuses for “inappropriate.” No matter what, if you feel unsafe, threatened, of if you generally feel a bit off about what’s going on, then no amount of cultural norms make it okay. If, particularly as a woman, a man is touching your leg or neck, in almost every culture such behavior is unacceptable unless you’re at the least dating . . . no matter what the man may say. Please, for your and every other traveler’s sake, tell the man “no” firmly and leave.

Ease in

If you’re traveling for three months, spend the first months simply engaging and observing: try to see things from the local perspective and then, when you feel comfortable, venture into sharing some of your own opinions and cultural norms. This extends to simple things like taking pictures, or constantly asking “how much is that” . . . these are things that leave a big and stereotypical footprint that inevitably put you in a box and limits your experience as much as it shows your ignorance of the local cultures.

Remember to travel lightly

This is in reference to the environment as much as it’s in reference to the culture. But in general, traveling with an open mind rather than insisting on reinforcing your own opinions is the best way to make friends and experience the local cultures authentically. For instance, when traveling in a Muslim country, learning about Islam, cultural values as they are represented on the ground, and the state of the average family is going to be far more educational than watching the news about radical Islam. The reality is that the differences that divide us as a species are far less numerous than the similarities.

Be a good guest

It’s often said in other parts of the world that the “guest is god.” It’s a way of saying that when a guest comes in, that you’ll be treated as if you were royalty with all things shared and all invitations made. Oftentimes, in a more impoverished setting, the family may give you (a single person), the only bedroom while the entire family sleeps in the living room (where some of the rest of the family would sleep on any other night). Even though this may be uncomfortable, it’s probably rude in these circumstances to refuse.

However, Americans consume enough as it is . . . so don’t simply take everything without consideration for the rest of the family nor for the power of cross cultural communication.

Give back

One night, offer to cook your host family or friends or coworkers a traditional meal from your home as a thanks for their hospitality and to reduce their work for the evening. In the author’s experience, there was a time the family was making hot water so he could take a shower. They had gone out in the woods, cut down wood to burn simply so he could take a hot shower. He didn’t know about this, and so consumed three-quarters of the water from the bucket in a ‘new and exciting bucket-shower’ as the locals do. However, unknowingly, the entire family was now relegated to using only the final quarter of the bucket for their shower.

Dealing with food specialties

In most cases, it’s better to make excuses rather than refusals. It’s one of those understood issues of living culturally that if you don’t like a particular food, or if you’re a vegetarian for instance, then rather than saying that you “don’t eat meat,” say that you’re “allergic to meat,” or a vegetarian. Of course this is perhaps a bit misleading. However, it’s an understood way out from cultural expectations and half-truths are often understood culturally better in different countries than here in the States.

Traveling with expectations is overrated

It’s impossible to walk into an experience without expectations – they are usually subconscious and fed by media, friends, or your own American culture. However, being a good student in life means being open to being wrong. Walking in as an anthropologist in lieu of an “American” – inasmuch is possible – is invaluable. Keep your mind (and your eyes) open.

Keep a journal

We know . . . this sounds like homework, and who wants to spend countless hours writing in a journal? But perhaps one of the most important aspects of a structured Gap Year is keeping a journal. How often do you know how you really feel until you’ve thought about it a bit? How often do you just remember that really great insight without writing it down? The point of it, above all else, is to keep the reflective element of learning a daily practice rather than simply photographing the local people and ghosting through your experience.

In all, cultural travel at its best consists of two main ingredients: common sense and respect. Respect the local people, local traditions, local food and way of life, local authorities. Also be sure to respect yourself and fellow travelers. Keep an open mind and use a dash of humility and common sense, and you’re sure to have a pleasurable experience no matter where you travel.

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!

How to Bootstrap a Solo Gap Year

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If you have almost no money, how can you fund a self-designed Gap Year experience? Most give up. Some get really creative.

Victor Saad was 25 years old and seriously considering MBA programs when he decided that he could get a better learning experience—and spend much less money—by designing his own professional gap year, or in his words, a “self-made master’s degree.” He made plans to quit his job and take 12 business apprenticeships over the course of 12 months.

But he had one big problem: money.

Victor’s adventures would take him across the United States and the world, including China, Costa Rica, and Cairo. All these flights and living expenses would have to come from somewhere. As Victor explained in his TEDx talk:

I don’t have some massive trust fund, and FAFSA doesn’t let you take a loan out for your own self-made degree. So I got creative. I asked 200 people to subscribe to the project at $10 a month. They would get to learn from my lessons and see what I was doing, and I would have the means to run the project. After several really interesting conversations about why in the world anyone should give me a penny, roughly 100 trusting individuals gave me just what I needed.

In other words, Victor crowdfunded his expenses—but not in the typical fashion.

When most of us think about crowdfunding, we think of IndieGoGo, Kickstarter, or GoFundMe: powerful platforms that can certainly be used to run a successful fundraising campaign. But many potential contributors are hesitant to fund someone else’s travel adventure, and many cannot give more than a small amount of money. Many of these traditional campaigns fail to meet their goals.

A Different Approach: Providing Value to Supporters

Victor took a different approach that employed the same core idea behind crowdfunding—you give me some money, I provide you with meaningful updates and rewards related to my project—but turned it into a subscription service instead. It’s a lot less intimidating to ask someone for $10 a month for the next 12 months than asking for $120 right now. This model also ensured that Victor wouldn’t take the money and then neglect to provide the goods he promised (as too many crowdfunding campaigners do), because a contributor could simply cancel their sponsorship. For contributors, this approach feels much safer and friendlier than a traditional crowdfunding campaign.

What about travel costs? Victor’s subscriber income wouldn’t cover all the flights he needed, so he asked his network for help. The father of one of his former students ended up giving him a number of “buddy passes” for standby flights.

What about lodging cost? Victor’s approach was to first ask friends and family if they knew anyone in the area he could stay with. Then he tried Couchsurfing, Craigslist, Airbnb, and “frantically posting on Facebook and Twitter.” Essentially, he took whatever the world offered him:

I stayed in everything from office spaces to vehicles to mansions. I was a vagabond. But it was okay. I was a student.

I learned all this while researching Victor before interviewing him for my podcast, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, so I asked Victor if he relied on any other sources of funding to make this year possible. He told me that some of the apprenticeships he took did pay him $15-$20/hour and that he sold some possessions to earn a few thousand dollars at the beginning of the year. Beyond that, he received no outside support and completely self-funded his 12-month, travel-intensive learning experience.

Recipe for Independent Gap Year Funding

It’s clear from Victor’s story that he had a number of resources that allowed him to pull off this feat of funding, most notably a wide social network that let him recruit a critical mass of subscribers and people to donate things like flight buddy passes. Regardless, I see a model here for any young person who wants to take a Gap Year, doesn’t have the cash to fund it, and is willing to exercise her entrepreneurial muscles.

Here are the ingredients:

Subscription service: Instead of running one big crowdfunding campaign to fund your travels, offer “subscriptions” to your gap year for a fixed monthly rate. Provide options ranging from $5/month to $30/month. (The best platform for doing this at the moment is probably Patreon.) For the different levels, offer a range of perks including monthly email updates, postcards, souvenirs, and videos (which can also serve as accountability and journaling tools for you). Aim to generate at least $1000/month from this income.

Donated airline miles and buddy passes: To tackle with the major expense of flights, ask your family, friends, and communities if they would be willing to donate accumulated airline miles or buddy passes to your cause. You can also get one of the many credit cards that gives you 50,000+ air miles as soon you spend a few thousand dollars (which you can launder through your parents when they need to buy something expensive like a new computer).

Free housing: Get really comfortable with using Couchsurfing to stay at strangers’ houses. Tap your extended Facebook network to find potential hosts where you go. Investigate work-trades situations with hostels or private homeowners who will let you stay for free in exchange for a few hours of work each day (find these opportunities at Help Exchange and Work Away).

Part-time work: Develop a highly transferable skill (what I call a Masseuse Model skill) that will enable you to pick up part-time work wherever you go.

Frugality: Learn how to cook rice and beans really, really well. Figure out to how entertain yourself without going out for drinks or going bungee jumping.

Good-looking personal website & travel blog: Tell the story of your financing efforts on a highly polished personal website, which also serves as your travel blog. Victor was a master of sharing his story online, being genuine, inspiring people, and gaining their support. Be like Victor.

 

Together, these six ingredients could fund a Gap Year. It’s not an easy path, but it’s a rewarding one. Good luck, gappers!

PS- If you try putting this plan into action, I’d love to follow your progress, and maybe even help you set up your subscription service. Write me: yourstruly@blakeboles.com.

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Blake Boles is the founder of Unschool Adventures, the travel and education company for self-directed young people ages 14-21. His most recent books include The Art of Self-Directed Learning and How to Live Nowhere. Learn more at blakeboles.com.