An Educational Gap Year: What the World Taught Me

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Melanie
I started my 14 _ month long summer vacation with utter excitement. I signed up for things
left and right, knowing exactly what I wanted to learn, what insights I wanted to seek, and more
so what I wanted escape from back at home. Coming from a high society of lost individuals, I set
out to see other worlds and finally feel at home somewhere. So, I packed my things and
journeyed to volunteer in Costa Rica for 3 months. I was able to check off ‘Spanish fluency’ and
‘find home away from home’ from my to-do just as planned. I then lived with my family in
Paraguay for a month, where I worked, studied, and grew close to those closest. It was, just like it
sounds, sheer paradise. Check.

My too-good- to-be- true first semester set a high standard. Second gap semester, I took a
job in bumble-town France where invincible, brave ol’ me abruptly received a culture shock for
which I didn’t sign up. It wasn’t the new food or the incredible difficulty to pronounce the one
word I knew, “quoi?”, it was just this feeling I hadn’t ever had before. With no inspirational
youngsters around, and a plethora of smelly cheese, I stopped feeling like the valiant,
independent explorer who could take on anything. While I expected to discover another unseen
utopia, I’d instead discovered a new side of me, one I didn’t ask to see. However, I had a
challenging, intriguing job, learned French, backpacked through several European cities, and
became best friends with a group of smoking 90 year olds. Check?
melanie hilltop

Through working exotic jobs, adapting to various cultures, and simply living
independently all year, my gap year taught me a lot of things that changed me for the better. At
18, experiencing such an array of jobs has a very worthy reward. I learned to be disciplined,
empathetic, and most of all, patient. I worked along side hardworking, compassionate locals who
taught me the value of caring about what you do. I saw the immense separation between the rich
and the poor in both South America and Europe, and lived with people from both parties. The
jobs I had allowed me to live the very distinctive lives of people from all over the world, and this
experience opened my mind to a much larger extent than I ever thought imaginable.

Looking back, I am so thankful for all the many petit-lessons these jobs instilled in me. For instance, I
farmed organic coffee beansand ever since I fervently appreciate locally grown food. I got a
TEFL certificate and taught English to adults, and never again will I be the disruptive, arrogant
student I once was.

Along the way, I met people who gave up everything they have just to help
me when I had a small issue, and ever since when I can’t find a good friend, I decide to be one.
The list goes on and on. The list, that is, of things I learned not through a book or a college
course, but through raw experience. I learned that there’s a difference between knowing that
something is there (ex: poverty, lack of education, pollution) and living through its detrimental
effects. One adds abstract knowledge and the latter adds empathy and genuine comprehension-
in other words, go live it to really learn about it. I lived, and boy did I learn.
melanie leopards
I also learned a great deal by having the home, people, language, climate, food, and
purpose that I’m used to stripped away from me, only to be faced with complete other worlds to
which to adjust. Adapting to other cultures really opened my eyes to see how the society I grew
up in shaped me into who I am. It opened up my eyes to see that different worlds prioritize
different values- that what many people describe as ‘success’ here in America, is not what success
means at all in many other parts of the world.

Differences like these are the ones that allowed to me reflect on what values I believe, what morals I’d like to take home with me, and why it’s so important to leave your bubbled life as much as possible. Waking up in a different culture every
morning also made me realize that the world is huge and that, as cheesy as it sounds, there really
is no place like home. I learned to appreciate every quality and detail of my life back in
comfortable New York, and realized the blessing it is to always have somewhere so great to call
home.

Lastly, these new cultures taught me the beauty of learning languages. The special thing
about learning languages is that the reward is being able to understand and communicate with
another few hundred million people. When my level of French hit advanced, I faced a whole new
population of people on this planet that I could now personally get to know and uniquely learn
from. It is a great feeling, and I’m only optimistic about learning many more very soon.
Furthermore, I went about my gap year alone, just me, my journal, and I. This was
significant because I frequently left beloved places only to show up to a new place where I, once
again, did not know anyone and had to start all over. This was tough by myself, especially for a
first timer.
melanie zip
When showing up to a new home with a new family, or to a new job with new co-workers, you’ve got to be very self-sufficient. I had no option but to keep my rooms organized, my clothes cleaned, and myself fed. I cooked countless meals, I took hundreds of trains and planes, and I must have packed and unpacked my bag 1000 times. I was vulnerable, forcefully
sparking up small talk in a new language to keep myself from being isolated, and it all made me
so much stronger.

I learned not only to be responsible and disciplined, but also to be brave.
Often I would miss home or feel uneasy in yet another new setting, but I pushed through one un-
comfort zone after another and relentlessly grew into a tenacious, extremely independent 18-
year-old ready to tackle just about anything. Another valuable thing that came out of being alone
for so long was having the time to reflect, and a lot of new things on which to reflect. Finally, the
overload of unfinished thoughts left over from high school were understood. I spent days
analyzing the world around and within me, and now, I feel clear. Thus not only did I have a year
to see and to try new things, but also to think deeply about whom I was prior, and why. I got to
see what about me stayed the same when everything else around me was different, and only then,
did I learn plenty about myself too. Ten months of adventure, challenge, and direct perceptions of
other worlds, inarguably, taught me a lot.

Written by Melanie Russo, who worked with Taylor the Gap to plan and prepare for her independent Gap Year.

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.

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.

Why I Decided to Take a Bridge Year

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

All That Awaits Me in Ecuador for Certain is Uncertainty

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

How to Maximize Your Gap Year Through Continuous Reflexive Learning

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Taking a Gap Year is a great way to experience new things, you wouldn’t otherwise have time for later on. The things you do, and learn throughout this period can provide you with a wealth of knowledge you can harness for years to come, if you know how to use these experiences to their fullest.

Before you begin your Gap Year, it might be a good idea to consider joining a Gap Year program. This way, you’ll make sure that you have a sound plan when it comes to how you’re going to spend your time during this period.

Taking a full year off before you go to college might seem like a very long time. But as a learning experience, it’s relatively short. Think about how long it takes to become a certified nurse, for example. More than that, the information you will be receiving will be more or less unstructured. You won’t have a teacher besides you, explaining what everything means, and what you should be looking for. That’s where reflexive learning comes in.

What is Reflexive Learning?

Reflexive learning is much more than just accumulating information, and being able to reproduce it later. That’s basically the traditional, didactic mode of teaching. A professor stands in front of the classroom, and talks about their subject, while the students take down that information, and learn it, in order to pass their exams. However, rarely do you get a chance to think about how you can apply that information in real life situations. And rarely do you get a chance to find new ways of combining those bits of information, to reach new ideas.

A reflective learner takes charge of the learning process. Apart from gathering information, you’re also responsible for putting it together, and then assessing the results of this process. More and more colleges are opting for this mode of learning, even when it comes to training their own staff.

It helps you become more aware of your understanding of the world around you, your biases, and preferences. In the long run, it can help you become more efficient in your learning process, and more quick to adapt to new situations. Reflexive learning should become a habit, to get the most out of your learning experience, no matter where you may stumble upon them.

Reflexive Learning Takes Practice

This type of learning requires a lot of practice for it to become effective. Encountering different cultures is known to be a trigger for reflexive thinking, because it shed new light on many things that you are accustomed to, and tend to take for granted. Using your gap year as an opportunity to travel, and discover new cultures can be one of the most life changing experience you can have.

Observing the way other cultures understand and deal with similar problems provides you with an opportunity to think about the ways in which you deal with certain issues, and how much of that practice has to do with your culture, rather than your own inclinations. You discover ways of dealing with certain situations that are much more efficient, because they will feel more natural to you.

Training yourself to reflect upon your personal experiences is also going to give a head start when it comes to college. For teachers, it may quite difficult to find the perfect method to deliver their classes so all of their students benefit from it, when they have to deal with dozens, or hundreds of people.

Get to Know Yourself & Others

The skill you will have gained during your Gap Year is going to help structure information in such a way as to help you retain it, and use it later on. And the experiences you will have gained are going to provide you with something to which you can compare and contrast the information you receive in college.

And use this time to learn about how the world works, and more importantly, about how people are. Really get to know all the people you meet along the way. And don’t just focus on what they have to offer. Think about yourself, and how you relate to them as well. The truth is, you’re never going to be able to understand someone fully. But you have a good chance to know yourself in depth. And the best way to understand things about you is in relation to others.

After your Gap Year is over, you shouldn’t let all of those memories, and teachings gather dust. Any encounter can be a learning experience, as long as you use it as such. The only time wasted is the time not spent learning something new. Take every opportunity you get to challenge your preconceptions, and make reflexive learning a life-long habit.

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About the author: Amanda Wilks is a Boston University graduate and a part-time writer. She has a great interest in everything related to career-building advice and entrepreneurship and loves helping people reach their true potential.