gap year/study abroad

Should I do a Gap Year, Study Abroad, or Volunteer?

Malia Obama may be the spark I’ve been looking for.

Throughout my life I’ve advocated for traveling, exploring, and immersing yourself in other cultures.

-       In high school I went on sponsored trips around the world to understand other cultures.

-       In college I studied abroad in a tiny city in Italy where I spoke Italian, made friends with international students and locals, and began to see the similarities between humans.

-       After college I backpacked through Eastern Europe, wanting to walk where my great-grandparents walked.

Throughout my adult life I’ve traveled, often staying in small communities with friends or locals to get a feel for life there. I’m not as interested in visiting landmarks as I am with connecting with the people who live somewhere.

From 2014-2015 I lived in a small village in southeastern India as part of an environmental impact organization and sustainable community. I became immersed in local culture and became an expert in reforestation and water conservation in arid lands. 

I’ve recently discovered bicycle touring, a way to really see, in slow-moving fashion, an entire country or island, zigzagging or riding the perimeter, meeting locals, camping on stranger’s front yards, connecting with friends of friends of friends.

The things I always learn are:

-       The world is smaller than you think. It’s not a scary or dangerous place. And we are all connected. It’s easy to make friends and find people you really want to share with and get to know, everywhere.

-       Listening, observing, and reflecting are silent but necessary skills to learn about yourself, check your judgments, and find ways to connect that transcend the often-privileged mindset that ‘you know best’ and others should ‘do it your way.’

-       The different choices we make as humans are what brings us together and helps us learn from one another.  It’s empowering to use these experiences in other times of your life - to remember how someone else solved a problem or overcame an obstacle. These are lessons we can use over and over again.

I wish for young people to get out there and become a part of the larger humanity. There are so many ways!

-       Gap Year Programs- Volunteer, Intern, Apprentice

o   American Gap Association

§  How to Plan a Gap Year

o   Global Citizen Year

o   Go Abroad (Includes several Program Types: Intern, Volunteer, High School, Teach, etc.)

o   International Volunteer HQ

o   Global Volunteer Network

o   United Planet

o   Projects Abroad

o   Volunteer Alliance

o   Cross Cultural Solutions

o   2016 Best Volunteer Abroad Programs from Volunteer Forever

-       Study Abroad Programs

o   Generation Study Abroad

o   Study Abroad

o   Go Overseas

o   Brooklyn College’s Study Abroad Programs

o   Ciee Study Abroad (Council on International Educational Exchange)

-       Hosting an international study abroad student

o   AFS-USA

o   Ayusa (Academic Year in the USA) Global Youth Exchange

o   Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs Exchange Programs

o   Aspect Foundation

o   Rhianna even has a scholarship for students in Central and South America to study abroad in the US!

In case you are wondering about cost, diversity, college acceptance or graduation, here is a great article with resources Busting the Top 10 Study Abroad Myths.

I’m excited to see what Malia does with her Gap Year. It could be the spark of a movement towards global exploration and cultural understanding that we so desperately need. 

What if all learning experiences “counted?”

I am sitting in the lush forests on Kauai, Hawaii, after several days of hiking up to mountain ridges and walking along narrow pathways to glorious ocean vistas. On the hikes I am sharpening so many skills - balancing my weight, navigating though a variety of terrains (sometimes quite slippery), and making innumerable snap decisions regarding safety and exploration. I stop often to admire details of the flora and fauna - touching, smelling, and comparing. The moss is tremendous. I am constantly astounded by the variety and texture. The rocks, too, many which have bits of lava from different stages of volcanic eruption within them, are exceptional and though they look strong, easily crumble in my fingers.

I am learning about myself too - endurance, strength, preparedness with food and water, how to protect myself from the elements with minimal gear, and to remind myself to look up from the path and admire my surroundings. 

I knew from an early age that what I learned and sought outside of school was just as valuable, and sometimes more so, than what I was learning in school. In my senior year of high school I created a half-day internship for myself at an educational television show. It was there that I learned about public speaking, speaking professionally, how to develop relationships with co-workers, how to do specific and detailed research for on-air deadlines, how to produce a television show, how to splice tape and create pre-recorded segments, and the list goes on. 

In 1999 I began attending one of only a handful of co-op universities in the US, which offer programs that are half academic, half real-world work experience. When I began as a freshman at Northeastern University, I was most excited about the yearlong schedule: 6 months of classes split up into two, 3-month semesters, and then 6 months of working in the field of my major or one I might be interested in. Within these paid internships I was able to work in a variety of departments to understand each field. At a PR firm I did cold calls for our database, spent a few days with the bookkeeping team, sat in on meetings, shadowed an executive for a day, and learned the culture of the organization. At a pop-rock radio station I worked in several departments each for a week at a time: music, promotions, news, and the office. These experiences gave me the perspective of work-culture, what it means to be proactive, how to show you’ve learned something by applying it appropriately, and, maybe most importantly, how to sell myself. Tailoring a resume, writing a cover letter, and going on an interview were things I began to just know how to do, and they set me apart from other recent graduates. 

Emily Rapport, in her opinion piece for edSurge titled Why Course Credits Don’t Reflect What I Learn, explains as a current undergrad how the learning experiences she pursues outside of her classes are offering her more learning and skills that apply to her interests and passions than the learning and skills she is getting from her classes. More so she is pushing that these out-of-class learning experiences be credited, acknowledged, and appreciated by her university. These experiences are clearly what her future employers will value. 

She offers some solutions: 

1. “Introduce experiential learning frameworks into students’ first-year experiences.” Teach students to reflect on all of their learning experiences and value them as such. 

2. “Create courses that use students’ outside-the-classroom experiences as texts.” Classes that apply theory to required internships and community service projects. 

3. “Structure an undergraduate experience so that it moves from classroom to “real world,” with opportunities for student-driven capstones other than academic theses.” Allow students alternatives to a thesis to apply their skills before graduation and as their requirement for graduation. 

I am a huge fan of, not just talking but, taking action. It is one thing to privately value the variety of your life experiences, knowing you are using them and getting the most you can from them, and it takes those experiences to a whole new level to advocate for their legitimacy in the academic world. 

Maya Angelou said, “You are the sum total of everything you've ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot - it's all there.”

So what if all learning experiences “counted?” 

The Local Community

The Local Community    When I think of community I always imagine the organic nature of it, like a loose web floating in air that continually gets more entangled in slow motion so that you only understand the depths of connection when you step back or see it from another angle. It dawned on me yesterday that my community in India are the local people and not so much the people in my reforestation community.   I drive through town waving to my neighbor children, swerving around cows, stopping to see my coconut guy who has the best, juiciest coconuts, having a tea in the café and hearing my name yelled from across the terrace when it is ready in a Tamil accent: “Kay-tee!”   I sit in a cafe to read my book and look up to see Shakthi, smiling his huge toothy smile, asking if he can take a few minutes of my time. Shakthi runs dance parties for the children in local special needs schools. I’ve attended the parties and they are fabulous: blaring Tamil pop-music, children dancing around the room, children sitting and watching, children singing along, children with physical needs being swept around the room in the arms of a teacher or volunteer, laughing with delight. Shakthi refuses to charge for this service and he refuses media and press. He is not doing this for recognition; he just wants to offer the children a moment that isn’t hard or frustrating. He wants to create spaces of joy. And he does. We chat for an hour or so planning a visit for his children to Sadhana Forest.   Again I am struck by the relationships and friendships I’ve developed over this year with the locals. I’ve been excited for the next chapter in my life, to move onto another community, another country, something different. It’s been eagerness and anticipation that I feel most. This week thinking about the people who live here who’ve touched me with their open hearts and stories and invitations to dinner with their families I’m overcome with sadness. This is what I’ll miss. This is what community means to me.

The Local Community 

When I think of community I always imagine the organic nature of it, like a loose web floating in air that continually gets more entangled in slow motion so that you only understand the depths of connection when you step back or see it from another angle. It dawned on me yesterday that my community in India are the local people and not so much the people in my reforestation community.

I drive through town waving to my neighbor children, swerving around cows, stopping to see my coconut guy who has the best, juiciest coconuts, having a tea in the café and hearing my name yelled from across the terrace when it is ready in a Tamil accent: “Kay-tee!”

I sit in a cafe to read my book and look up to see Shakthi, smiling his huge toothy smile, asking if he can take a few minutes of my time. Shakthi runs dance parties for the children in local special needs schools. I’ve attended the parties and they are fabulous: blaring Tamil pop-music, children dancing around the room, children sitting and watching, children singing along, children with physical needs being swept around the room in the arms of a teacher or volunteer, laughing with delight. Shakthi refuses to charge for this service and he refuses media and press. He is not doing this for recognition; he just wants to offer the children a moment that isn’t hard or frustrating. He wants to create spaces of joy. And he does. We chat for an hour or so planning a visit for his children to Sadhana Forest.

Again I am struck by the relationships and friendships I’ve developed over this year with the locals. I’ve been excited for the next chapter in my life, to move onto another community, another country, something different. It’s been eagerness and anticipation that I feel most. This week thinking about the people who live here who’ve touched me with their open hearts and stories and invitations to dinner with their families I’m overcome with sadness. This is what I’ll miss. This is what community means to me.

Making friends in the clinic waiting room

While spending an afternoon in Auroville I ducked into a shop for some tea tree oil. I came around a corner in the store upon a local woman I know. She was sitting on a grass mat, under a fan, with another employee, resting while waiting for customers. She saw me and we rushed towards each other in slow motion with smiles and hugs.   Suba used to be the receptionist in the local health center. During my first 4 months in India I had every serious illness one can get in this area starting with salmonella poisoning and progressing to typhoid fever, amoebas in my stomach, and eventually dengue fever. I got to know Suba very well. She saw me at my worst. She carried me from her desk to a place to lie down while waiting for the doctor on several occasions.   One day, the local taxi driver’s son, with whom I’ve become good friends, drove me to the health center. He formally introduced me to Suba, having gone to school with her for many years. Since then I’ve visited the health center numerous times to purchase bandaids and rehydration salts from the pharmacy. Suba would joke with me that I needed to come home with her so her mom could feed me to make me fat. We developed a lovely relationship and we were always so glad to chat and catch up, with her commenting, more and more frequently, on how healthy I looked.   RecentlyI went to the health center with my list of supplies and Suba was not there. I stared at the new receptionist incredulously, demanding information. Auroville is a small town, but what if I never saw Suba again! Yesterday, bumping into her in the boutique made me realize and appreciate the wonderful relationships I’ve developed with local Indians, the Tamil people.

While spending an afternoon in Auroville I ducked into a shop for some tea tree oil. I came around a corner in the store upon a local woman I know. She was sitting on a grass mat, under a fan, with another employee, resting while waiting for customers. She saw me and we rushed towards each other in slow motion with smiles and hugs.

Suba used to be the receptionist in the local health center. During my first 4 months in India I had every serious illness one can get in this area starting with salmonella poisoning and progressing to typhoid fever, amoebas in my stomach, and eventually dengue fever. I got to know Suba very well. She saw me at my worst. She carried me from her desk to a place to lie down while waiting for the doctor on several occasions.

One day, the local taxi driver’s son, with whom I’ve become good friends, drove me to the health center. He formally introduced me to Suba, having gone to school with her for many years. Since then I’ve visited the health center numerous times to purchase bandaids and rehydration salts from the pharmacy. Suba would joke with me that I needed to come home with her so her mom could feed me to make me fat. We developed a lovely relationship and we were always so glad to chat and catch up, with her commenting, more and more frequently, on how healthy I looked.

RecentlyI went to the health center with my list of supplies and Suba was not there. I stared at the new receptionist incredulously, demanding information. Auroville is a small town, but what if I never saw Suba again! Yesterday, bumping into her in the boutique made me realize and appreciate the wonderful relationships I’ve developed with local Indians, the Tamil people.

Community, family, mountains, and meat

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Can Decreix

The last of my community visits was in Cerbere, France, just across the border from Spain. My friend was going to live here and I was getting a sneak peak at her new life. We got out at the Spain/France border at a huge train station filled with at least a dozen parallel tracks and graffitied trains. My friend turned her back to the trains, faced the impending mountain in front of us and said something like, “now we walk up for 5 minutes”. Five minutes! That’s it? We climbed the steep rock steps until reaching some small buildings nestled together across the terraces. The buildings are all identical containing 2 bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen and open dining room/living room. The bathrooms were just for hand-washing as the compost toilets were outside where you could sit and do your business while looking down the mountain at the trains coming and going. Surreal.

What struck me about this community of 5 people plus 2 volunteers (WOOFers) was how much they lived like a family. The communal meals were small and intimate. A varied, green salad came from the garden. The wine was homemade from the inherited grape vineyards across the mountain. Conversations were fun and educational without the speakers seeming like they were trying to make it fun or educational. The day was peaceful; I chose my work of organizing their schedule from post-its scattered across a wall to a custom-designed post-it schedule chart. Pure Kate-style.

Can Decreix is special in that the Degrowth movement was founded at Can Decreix and the founders still live there. Degrowth is the idea of moving forward while remembering and implementing ideas of simplicity from the past. In their words: Research and actions to consume less and share more.  Ideas like sharing resources, growing food, trading homemade products, reflecting on these processes, and living as sustainable as possible. The goals are to enjoy life without harming the earth as opposed to being as productive as possible. I found the community to be more of a home than a formal community. They don’t offer tours, their meetings are a bit chaotic, and their focus is on communal activities rather than efficiency or productivity. It got me thinking about my own goals of wanting to do good for the earth and not being focused on making or saving money, or working myself until I’m ill.

My final reflections as I travel through communities meeting people who call themselves environmentalists, eco-friendly, and sustainable, repeatedly strikes me as hypocritical that they eat meat. This is, of course, a gross overgeneralization, but in my mind anyone who is working to save our planet would choose to be vegan. After all so much of our land and water go to feeding and raising animals for slaughter. A vegan person (indirectly) uses 600 liters LESS WATER PER DAY than a meat/dairy eater. That’s how much water it takes to grow food for, clean, and feed animals for slaughter. And we’re not even addressing the quantity of land that’s used for this. Imagine how many vegetables could be grown on that land with that water!?! Enough to feed everyone, I would bet.