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.

Planning your Gap Year Airfare

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

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

Know your rights!

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

Sign up for air miles

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

Keep track of your boarding passes

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

Visa Check

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

Those who ask, receive

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

Do your research

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

Buy local

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

Discount companies aren’t always the best bet

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

Check here

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

Read the fine print

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

Keep composure

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

Student deals

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

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

Gap Year Travel Safety

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

International & Domestic

Check the medical situation

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

Know where you’ll be staying

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

Communication

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

Take care of yourself

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

Driving

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

Keep up with your street smarts

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

Look before you leap

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

Let it go

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

Prepare for everything

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

Alcohol and drugs are dangerous

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

International Only

1. Know your Embassy’s phone numbers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.