The Difference a Gap Year Abroad Makes
International Immersion Helps a Young Student Find Her Path
Our family moved around a great deal. Nearly every six months to a year I was starting a new school which, for a shy person like me, was absolute torture. I could not wait until the end of high school. While this is not an uncommon feeling, I had spent the previous four years in a wayward state. My grade point average was at a low 1.33 and I had more incompletes than anyone else I knew. I had simply checked out by the time I started my third high school. Formally a straight-A student, I felt disconnected from others and from the world around me.
The one thing that saved me was my interest in international travel. During my senior year I worked two jobs to save money and was awarded a small scholarship that made it possible for me to volunteer abroad if I graduated. That year I worked hard, went to most of my classes, and pulled higher grades. Already, even before my departure, there was a noticeable difference in my self-awareness and development.
I arrived in Denmark in July and stayed in dorms for the first two weeks with people from all over the world. Despite language and cultural differences, we bonded over soccer, cooking, using nonverbal clues, and wrapping our mouths and throats around Danish words during language classes. What really solidified our connection was a general feeling of knowing we would need to rely on one another to survive the unknown in our new country.
When we departed to live with our host families, I felt comforted knowing that within a couple of hours from me in any given direction I was connected to someone. My host family lived in the country next to a pig farm. We dug our own potatoes for dinner each night and we had every meal together, which is something I did not grow up with. In the evening the adults, and I was considered an adult, drank tea together and discussed the day. They were kind to speak in English at first, but once I was ready for the challenge we switched strictly to Danish.
I secured a volunteer position at Dansk Flutnig Healp, which is part of the aid that the Danish government provides to recent refugees. My job was to help the activity organizer teach the participants about Danish culture and life. I was personally clueless, so it was a great way for me to learn as well. Also, because I was studying Danish, I was able to take language classes with the refugees, which gave me an opportunity to befriend everyone. Most of the participants were Tamil women from Sri Lanka and a few students from Poland.
The women embraced me and began to share their stories. One day in class one of my Sri Lankan friends passed out at her desk. The other women ran to her and rocked her gently until she came to. Later that afternoon, my friend told me what had happened to her, how the civil war in Sri Lanka had taken the lives of more than half her family, and how her husband was able to secure refugee status but only years later did he apply for her to follow him. Left alone in a war-torn town she had witnessed many atrocities, and certain triggers would make her emotionally and physically shut down. It wasn’t until I worked with torture survivors later in my career that I understood she was experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder.
Having people I cared about share these stories and show me the dark underbelly of the world hit me hard, but I realized that instead of escaping from the world I needed to be a full participant. While still in Denmark I started researching colleges that emphasized international studies. No one in my family had gone to a university and it wasn’t something we spoke about, but I knew it provided the key to understanding the world around me.
My year abroad made it possible for me to rethink my role in this life. Without having gone to Denmark, I sincerely doubt that I would have completed my bachelor’s degree in international studies, lived internationally for several more years, or completed my master’s degree. I currently work as an academic adviser at a community college and specifically advise first generation students. I also teach GED classes in Spanish, which is one of the most rewarding positions I have held.
Essentially, I am an involved participant in my community and around the world. I embrace the wayward youth within as the motivation to find my place in this world, but more importantly to connect.
For More Info
When I was researching exchange programs with a social justice mission for my gap year, I found Alternatives to the Peace Corps: A Guide to Global Volunteer Opportunities (Alternatives to the Peace Corps: A Directory of Global Volunteer Opportunities) to be essential reading. I ultimately chose to study abroad with International Cultural Youth Exchange (www.icye.org), an international non-profit youth exchange organization promoting youth mobility, intercultural learning, and international voluntary service. I was interested in this program, because it provided opportunities for pre-college students; it enabled me to be deeply involved in my host country; and it offered a volunteer service focus. I was also awarded a small scholarship from ICYE.
While in-country my host mom helped me navigate through different organizations in the nearest town to secure a volunteer position. I didn’t find my position working with refugees at Dansk Flutnig Healp for about a month, so in the meantime, I volunteered at the zoo, a position I wouldn’t have even considered before moving to Denmark. It turned out to be a great opportunity, and as soon as I finished my time there, the perfect volunteer position became available.
This was a valuable lesson for when I was later in college and planning to travel to Guatemala. I first volunteered for an organization in the U.S. with a focus on Central America. This provided me direct links and contacts to Guatemala once I got there. Students looking to set up their internships and exchanges independently can do something similar. Or, for the more adventurous, sometimes just showing up to the host country and being flexible can open wonderful doors of opportunity.
Advice for Pre-College Students
While there are many different exchange organizations for pre-college students, it’s important to consider what you would like to accomplish during you international exchange experience. You should take into account you interests, values, and needs when evaluating different programs and their missions.
Timing is also important, especially for high school students. When is the ideal time to study abroad depends on whether you want to graduate with your class at home or at a foreign high school? If you need to build your funds, how long will it take you or your parents to save enough money? Several of my friends went abroad during high school and had wonderful experiences in their host countries, but I couldn’t afford to. I also knew that I was more interested in volunteering abroad than in studying abroad, and since I needed to work to save enough money, I held off until I graduated, which was a good choice for me.