International Experience and University

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How many extra credits can I pack in? Will this essay work for my college admissions? Which school is going to be the best for me? Will I make friends?

What if we’ve been asking ourselves the wrong questions all along? What would happen if we stopped focusing on how to “make college work” and instead focused on personal goals for the college experience and the years beyond?

Setting those personal goals begins with a deep understanding of what we want. Unfortunately, most of us truly don’t know what we want from the future right out of high school. I didn’t. It takes some time for most students to get to know their interests, passions, and goals for the future. International travel can help to clarify what we’re shooting for over the next 5-10 years. What’s more, it can help us to succeed in the world of college applications and new social scenes. Here are a few ways international travel can boost your college experience and help you to set your own goals:

Successful College Admissions

University admissions have become increasingly competitive as pursuing higher education becomes the norm. College admissions officers are looking for students who stand out from the crowd. Nowadays, students trying to land entry to their dream college will need something more unique than a top-notch GPA under their belts. Luckily for you, a combination of travel and personal study can build a killer college application.

What about the time you spent hiking in the Alps, studying local flora and fauna along the way? Or the time you went scuba diving off the coast of Australia? Put it on the application to show your interest in environmental studies! With a bit of intentional thought and study along the way, travel experiences can turn into application gold. I used travel to prove that I was passionate about my major and was already diving in on my own.

International Experience & Competitive Uni Clubs

This is a benefit of international experience I´d never heard of until it happened to me. A year into my university experience, I discovered a campus club I was interested in joining. An offshoot of WUSC, the club provided mentors and support to incoming refugee students sponsored by my university. But there was a catch. Entry to the club is incredibly competitive. I needed to prove that I was passionate about helping people, sensitive to the experiences of moving to a new country, and open to cultural differences.

With tons of international experience under my belt, I aced the interview and was immediately accepted to be a mentor! It turned out to be one of my best university experiences yet. As you work through college, you’ll find that a travel background can open doors to competitive experiences.

Score an Internship

When fellow students and professors see that you’ve had real-world experiences outside of a campus setting, they’re more willing to hand over responsibilities and opportunities. Makes sense, right? Students who travel have already proven themselves to be capable, responsible, and dedicated to their goals. These are the kinds of people who are top picks for internships, mentorships, and leadership positions. Knowing that I had traveled before, my professor picked me for a two month internship at a research library in Guatemala.

Immersion in Your Subject Area

A Gap Year is a chance to explore your field of interest before committing to a major. Want to go into marine biology? Take a year to dive and study the ocean on your own. Interested in geography? Spend time studying landforms and unique cultures around the world. Interested in language arts? Take language courses and visit local theaters as you travel.

Not only will you be getting an in-depth look into your future degree program of choice, you’ll also be racking up the experience needed for a killer application. Worst case scenario: you discover you’re not as into your major as you thought. Better now than three years in!

Professional Networking

Be sure to network with people outside of your peer group as you wander, you never know when you’ll bump into someone in your field who can give you some insight or a boost in your dream career. Success is all about connections. Use your time wisely and intentionally connect with people who can help you towards your goals. Who knows? Your Gap Year could change your life through these people!

Personal Confidence, Clarity, & Vision

This is the big one for me. Going straight from high school to university gives you zero time to get to know yourself, to pursue your interests, and to get your feet under you as an adult. Before university, I backpacked Europe with my boyfriend. I drove across the U.S. And during that time, I learned a great deal about where I wanted to take the next 5-10 years of my life.

By the time I entered university, I felt confident. I knew my major was right for me, and I was ready to take on my university years with a vision for my future. As a result, I’ve been more committed to my schoolwork, more interested in what I’m learning, and have been able to say yes to the opportunities that fit with my goals.

If you’re not sure what college suits you yet.
Travel.

If you’re not in love with the idea of picking a major. Travel.

If you want to give yourself a boost in the resume and experience department. Travel.

Feeling shy and unsure of yourself? Travel.

Think you’ve got it all together on your own? Travel.

There’s nothing to lose, and a world to explore.

Gap Year in the News

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There’s been a lot of great media coverage of the Gap Year movement this spring. Here are a few stories to encourage, inspire, and educate yourself, or skeptical friends about the value of a Gap Year.

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Let’s start with two guys who opted for a Gap Year after high school and what they learned, published in The Almanac:

“Asked about being self conscious as an American abroad, Peter sounded a note of humility. “I would never want to assert myself or do anything self-centered (or act to advance) a goal of mine that is self-centered,” he said. “My willingness and interest in using Spanish kind of stems from that respect.””

On walking the whole Appalachian Trail, he said:

“I would say it was very enlightening,” he said of the hike. “When you’re out in the woods every day, you have nothing to think about but yourself.” One insight: “You can kind of wing it if you really put your mind to something. As long as you put your effort into (it) you can achieve some pretty awesome things,” he said. “This is a pretty awesome thing, at least for me. It was something I didn’t think I could do.”

Selling Your Business? Consider Taking a Gap Year

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According to the Miami Herald, Gap Years aren’t just for young people any more! Mid-life or mid-career Gap Years can be the catalyst to the next big thing in your life. Consider this:

“These benefits are not limited to college students. I have witnessed highly successful individuals take gap years after selling their businesses, when they are not yet willing to retire but want to take some time off. They have used the time very wisely to attain even greater professional and/or personal success and fulfillment. Here is the secret:

First, make sure your financial house is in order. Consult your financial advisors and develop a financial plan.”

Voices: How my Gap Year Taught me That I Matter

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USA Today College featured a young man who discovered his worth on a Gap Year:

“Bali was the dose of perspective I needed in my life. Everywhere I looked, I saw people less fortunate than me, but I saw so many smiles as well. These were people who were content because they had people around them, and they were simply happy to be living life. Any love you showed to the children at the school would be reflected back at you two times over. It was a small haven of pure good, and for the first time in my life, I was so happy to be on this planet. Even though I wasn’t happy with myself, I was happy to be where I was.”

18-Year-Old Works Three Jobs to Afford Gap Year Travel to Machu Picchu

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How do you afford to take a Gap Year? YOU WORK! Hard, and a lot, just like Isabel Conde did, as told by Teen Vogue:

“Isabel took a gap year following high school graduation in 2016 and split her time among babysitting, being a law office secretary, and working at World Market. Six months of up to 60 hours per week later, she saved $7,500 for her trip and $1,000 more for college. She put Machu Picchu on her dream board to keep her going.
“I just kinda bought a plane ticket and got on a plane by myself — I didn’t know anyone in Peru,” she told Insider. “I had this moment where I was like ‘What am I doing!’, but as soon as I got [to Peru], I saw the mountains, nature, the beautiful people, and the culture, and I knew I did the best thing I could for myself.””

College Applications and Gap Years

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Sterling College Senior Dinner

Sterling College Senior Dinner


What do college admissions officers think about Gap Years, and how might the decision to take a Gap Year impact your college application prospects? In this post Tim Patterson, Director of Admission at Sterling College in Vermont, sheds some light on Gap Years from the perspective of a college admissions officer.

More and more students are choosing to take a gap year between high school and college. For college admissions officers like me, the growing popularity of gap years is a trend that merits close attention. Personally, I am a big fan of gap years because I believe that students who take a gap year arrive at college having gained a clearer sense of purpose that helps them focus and succeed in their program of choice. However, Gap Year students need to figure out how to approach the college application process, including the question of when to apply.

Should I Apply To College Before Taking A Gap Year?

Students often ask if they should finish their college applications and defer enrollment before taking a Gap Year. Most colleges, including Sterling College, allow students who receive an offer of admission to defer for up to one year by submitting an enrollment deposit. Alternatively, some students choose to hold off and complete the application process during their gap year, or apply after the gap year is complete. There are pros and cons to each approach.

The conventional wisdom that I usually hear from college counselors and parents of gap year students is that students should finish the college application process before embarking on a gap year. The argument goes something like this:

Settling on a college before a gap year helps students because they can access all of the resources of their high school college counseling office while completing their college applications. Additionally, by deferring college enrollment before a Gap Year students can make the most of their Gap Year experience instead of being distracted by college applications.

If you stop and consider the perspective of many college counselors and parents this argument makes a lot of sense. After all, counselors and parents have been known to worry that a Gap Year might somehow lead a student off track, and they want the reassurance of knowing where and when the student will go to college. Also, since high schools keep track of the plans of graduating seniors and often look favorably on graduating a high percentage of college bound students, guidance counselors can sometimes feel pressure to successfully “close the file” on each student before graduation. However, I think a different approach is often the right call.

You can apply to college during a Gap Year

You absolutely CAN apply to colleges during a Gap Year, and for many students I think that doing so is the right choice. Here’s why:

A Gap Year is a time of growth and change

Students almost always gain a great deal of perspective and maturity during a Gap Year, and many emerge from the experience with new academic interests and a more evolved sense of purpose. Applying this new perspective and self-knowledge to the college search can lead to students to consider college options that are a better fit given the self-knowledge gained during the gap year. Precluding that possibility by choosing a college before the gap year might be the “safest” option, but I think it’s a missed opportunity.

Not going to college right away isn’t a catastrophe

The average age of a student here at Sterling College in Vermont is 22, and generally speaking students who have life and work experience before college are more focused and successful in their studies. There is nothing wrong with delaying college until you’re fully ready, clear-headed, and prepared. If your Gap Year leads you to other opportunities, it’s OK to take advantage of them instead of imposing a fixed end to your gap year experience.

A Gap Year can make your college applications stronger

When my colleagues and I are evaluating applications, we look for things that set an applicant apart. Students who are able to describe their Gap Year are often our most captivating applicants, and we know from experience that students who have completed a Gap Year are often better prepared for success in college than their peers who attend college straight out of high school.

Students with a clear sense of purpose thrive in college

I keep coming back to the phrase “sense of purpose” because I think it’s a pivotal part of the whole conversation about Gap Years and college applications.

Like many colleges, Sterling College has a clear mission and purpose – we happen to be focused on a mission of environmental stewardship, with majors in Sustainable Agriculture, Sustainable Food Systems, Ecology, Outdoor Education, and Environmental Humanities. It takes a very focused student to succeed at Sterling, and we look hard for evidence of that sense of purpose during the application process. A gap year is a great opportunity to hone in on a sense of purpose, and then approach college applications with clearer focus and intent.

Gap Year students can be savvy about financial aid

Finally, a word about affordability. I believe that we are in the midst of a student debt crisis in this country, and I am often shocked at how little students and parents know about financial aid and college affordability in general. I could write a whole series of posts about financial aid, but here are the points that are most relevant to gap year students:

  • Financial aid packages can change from year to year.
  • Students are in the best position to advocate for an affordable financial aid package BEFORE they commit to a college.

By committing to a college before receiving the financial aid package for the academic year in which they plan to attend, students sacrifice all of their leverage and are unable to compare financial aid packages and find the best fit at the best price.

The choice is yours

Ultimately, the choice of whether to apply to college before, during, or after a gap year is up to you. If you have already have a clear sense of where and why you want to go to college, by all means go ahead and lock in your plans before your gap year. Just don’t feel as if there is only one path that you need to follow. One of the most important lessons of a gap year is that you are free to make your own choices, and use your own compass to navigate the world. This is true in life, and in college as well.

To contact Tim Patterson, or learn more about Sterling College, please visit www.sterlingcollege.edu.

Taking a Gap Year After College

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Why I opted for a gap year abroad after college

Due to scholarship requirements and an eagerness to launch my undergraduate career, taking off for a year after high school wasn’t in the cards for me. However, that didn’t mean I was going to pass up a Gap Year all together, and four years later I found myself face to face with the invaluable opportunity to live abroad for a year.

In March of my senior year of college, I received a long-awaited email with a few short sentences informing me that I received a Fulbright grant to teach English in Germany. The months leading up to the final decision had been a pressure cooker of anticipation that would decide whether walking across the stage on graduation day was impending doom or the closing of one chapter before starting life’s next adventure.

Taking a chance on a Gap Year after college was never an easy, clear-cut decision. As my four-year undergraduate journey came to an end, friends and classmates were being snatched up by graduate schools, picking up stable full time jobs, or even exchanging vows at the altar. Society’s expectations and the desire to finally settle into the “real world” as an esteemed adult more or less dictated where everyone’s priorities lied. That’s not to say I didn’t want the same. I had a set list of goals I wanted to achieve in my 20s, which included obtaining a master’s degree, starting a 401(k), earning a stable income, and growing professionally, just to name a few. A slightly delayed timeline was the only difference.

Before running off to wholeheartedly dedicate myself to a career and tying myself down to a rental agreement and car, I wanted to squeeze in one last hurrah of youthful exploration. Shooting for a structured program abroad that guaranteed an occupation and stipend gave a peace of mind that I would have a clearly defined purpose for the next year. Professional development and an immersive environment to advance my German skills? Check and check.

Taking a Gap Year was a responsible, sound decision, but I couldn’t muffle the nagging voice in my head questioning if it really was the right thing to do.

The Post-College Gap Year Stigma

Seniors in college and recent graduates are constantly drilled with questions about their near future. What’s next? During the buildup to my departure to Germany, neighbors, acquaintances, and relatives alike curiously asked what life had in store for me next. After announcing my plans to live and teach abroad for the upcoming year, the reaction was always the same— “Wow, that’s amazing…but why?” No one got it. Rather than proudly revealing my achievement, I instead had to constantly justify to myself and others why I was “taking a year off”.

Whether a result of the United States’ education system or a deeply embedded hustling go-getter culture, there’s a certain stigma behind taking a Gap Year in the United States. During high school, the college-bound crowd is encouraged to apply to every scholarship under the sun, many of which are restricted to high school students. Missed the application window? You might have to scramble for smaller awards or take out financially crushing loans. Although some scholarships and higher education institutions may allow recipients to defer for a year or two with good reason, it’s not easy. Students are consequently steered from high school straight into college. After college, you naturally continue education, or settle into a job and start paying off racked up loans.

There’s a strict sequence of life events to check off before true adulthood, otherwise you run the risk of being perceived as a slacker or confused millennial trying to figure life out. Even so, gap year participation has skyrocketed in the last few years. International travel is the cheapest its ever been, Millennials are ditching the antiquated view that travel is a luxury reserved for retirees, and internet culture has inspired an inescapable wanderlust.

The benefits of taking a Gap Year, whether it’s after high school, college, or a relief from career burnout, are widely advertised. It’s no shock that a Gap Year spent volunteering abroad, exploring diverse careers, or simply traveling for the sake of adventure results in personal and skill development. You might not find your life’s purpose while meditating under a waterfall in Thailand, but stepping out of your comfort zone and drastically overhauling your reality shapes you at the core over time.

A Different Perspective: Germany

Teaching in Germany comes with many perks, one of which is gaining an insider perspective of students’ attitudes and a general feel for how education is approached.

Germany is no stranger to the concept of the Gap Year. Until just a few years ago, all young German men would have to serve a term in the military or do civil service such as volunteering. Putting their lives on hold right after schooling was common, and since mandatory service was abolished in 2011 it has remained popular to travel abroad for an extended period or do freiwilligenarbeit (volunteer work) before deciding on what to do next. Young students taking a year to live abroad is quite popular, often as an au pair to fine tune language fluency or volunteer at a local school for a few months for career insight.

When compared to the United States, universities in Germany are laughably affordable, with public ones only costing a few hundred euros a semester in fees (tuition at private universities are slightly steeper). With admission deadlines much later in the year, significantly less stress over funding, and a laxer attitude toward taking time off, the education system in Germany might lend a good explanation as to why the Gap Year has become a cultural staple. It’s not uncommon for students to be in their mid-20s by the time they receive their first bachelor’s degree.

Living in a rather small town off the usual tourist route, I’m regularly asked what a young American woman is doing in the German countryside. Instead of raising eyebrows at my year-long transatlantic jaunt, students and strangers give me an understanding nod and conclude that I’m doing an Auslandsjahr, literally a “foreign country year”.

No single cultural perspective has the right answer, and Gap Years are definitely not for everyone. The host of Gap Year Benefits are constantly cited, but who’s to say that the direct plunge from school to career doesn’t also have its own advantages?  As young Americans continue to collect passport stamps and effortlessly gallivant across country borders, the attitude towards taking time off for a global education outside a classroom will undoubtedly continue to evolve.

Ultimately, a Gap Year abroad is an intimate experience of personal growth unique to each person. The only person who can decide whether a year abroad will be beneficial and when it’s best to take it is you!

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raquel headshotFreshly graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in tourism management, Raquel spent the last few years trekking through Peru and Argentina, farming in Japan, teaching at a summer camp in South Korea, and exploring her parents’ heritage in Mexico, Spain, and Germany. Now during her fifth time in Germany, Raquel’s teaching English through the Fulbright program for the next year before pursuing a career in international education. She’s also virtually working as a junior editor at GoAbroad.com hoping to spread the international love.

 

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.

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!