Alex Messitidis: Traveler, Athlete, Gap Year Student

Get to know a our newest member of the Winterline family, Alex Messitidis!

The concept of a gap year program is still new for many students. When were you first introduced to the idea of taking a gap year?

I was first introduced to the idea of taking a gap year from my friend Madison, who is currently on the 9-month program with Winterline. Last year she had talked to me about how excited she was about this experience and the exposure she was going to get, and I knew it was the path I wanted to be on as well.

Why did you choose to take a gap year?

I chose to take a gap year because I wanted a new opportunity, a different opportunity. Though the traditional four years of college sounded great, thinking about how I could be traveling and learning (my two favorite things) with other kids who share the same interests as I do, there was no better fit than this.

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Alex - gap year winterline

What country on our itinerary are you most excited to visit?

I believe I am most excited to visit Thailand. This is a place I have wanted to visit my whole life, and never thought I’d actually make it out there till now! Between the culture, food, environment, and history, it has always had my heart.

What activity or learning experience captivates you the most about Winterline?

To choose just one would be impossible, the whole program amazes me. The amount of self-determination and soul-searching we do, I have no doubt in my mind that every experience will mold and shape us into better, more well-rounded human beings. The culture and diversity we are going to be immersed in is going to truly help us in our growth process.

gap year winterline

Do you have an idea of what you would like to do in the future?

In the future, I hope to become an environmental lawyer. My family has always been very environmentally-focused, and from a young age I was taught about all the things going wrong in our world. Our earth is so under-appreciated and poorly taken care of, I’d like to be able to dedicate my life to bettering this place we call home.

Have you traveled before? If so, which trip has been your favorite and why?

My family has the travel-bug FEVER! We’ve been all around the USA, Europe, islands in between. We try our best to get as exposed as possible. My parents always told me that the more knowledge I had, the more power I held. So they always tried to bring my sister and I anywhere they could so we could expand our minds a bit. If I had to choose a favorite trip, it would have to be either Hawaii or Greece. The weather was gorgeous and people were unbelievably kind and welcoming, I couldn’t have asked for much more!

Alex - gap year programs winterline

What do you expect to gain from your gap year program and while traveling abroad?

During this gap year program, I hope to become more aware, more open-minded, and all-around a better human being. I think traveling to other countries is going to give us such different perspectives on living, culture, people, and it really is going to help us have a better understanding of what goes on all around us. Most people tend to only focus on themselves and their lives, but to understand people as a whole, and how different things could be halfway across the world — that is a beautiful thing. It will teach us appreciation for what we have, and the lives we live, and compassion for those who are not as fortunate.

What is one thing you want your future Winterline peers to know about you?

One thing I want my future Winterline peers to know about me is that I will always look at the positive in every situation we are put in. The experiences we share are only as amazing as the attitude we have going into them, and I am a firm believer that positivity is always key.

alex - gap year abroad

Tell us something fun about you!

My parents migrated from Greece to Montreal when they were young, and then had me and my sister Kate. We came to the U.S when I was about four, and started our life in Chester, New Hampshire! My family is sprouted throughout Greece and a bit in Montreal, so I’m lucky enough to be able to travel a good amount and learn so many new things about my culture and family.

And finally, Coke or Pepsi?

Neither, I’m a water type of girl 🙂

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Why you should choose an Accredited Gap Year Program

And while serendipity is a blessing, getting home safe and sound, having grown and achieved more than you set out to is probably the reason you decided to take a gap year in the first place.

There are many organizations out there that offer gap year programming. But the truth is, many of them haven’t been vetted by an unbiased third party. The Gap Year Association has been recognized by the US Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission as the standards-setting organization of the gap year industry. They set the standards for not only risk management and safety but also the quality of the experiential education programming, as well as a range of other variables, including how these organizations treat their field staff. It’s a holistic auditing of the entire organization.

“The highest caliber of field leadership, the best degree of office support, and the highest standards of safety.”

And this matters a lot. Think about it, in your lifetime, you’ll probably only have a few opportunities to take a gap year. Why waste it on an experience with a lower probability of success in any given area?

Currently, there are only a few organizations accredited by the GYA, with a growing number of accreditations in progress. That is, they have met “a commitment to the highest standards in safety, quality, and integrity. They have agreed to consistently abide by the standards of the Gap Year Association, which typically means that a student can count on an experience with the highest caliber of field leadership, the best degree of office support, and the highest standards of safety.”

I sat down with several members of the team at Winterline and NOLS to understand exactly what went into the GYA accreditation process. What makes it such a rigorous process? What is the value from an organizational perspective and from a student’s perspective?

milking-goat-gap-year

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“At the highest level of the organization,” says Nathan Scott, President and Executive Director of Winterline, “the most valuable thing about going through the GYA process was the thorough vetting of our own processes.” The GYA wasn’t just concerned about any single area of expertise, preparation, and response. It was everything, “from how we post job notices, hire employees, treat parents and students, and communicate internally and across continents. This has been a comprehensive review.”

At NOLS, the decision to go for accreditation was worth special consideration. “It took us several months to decide if we wanted to go this route, so there was much vetting of Ethan and the GYA in the first place,” says Kary Sommers, Associate Director of Admission & Marketing at NOLS. “We ultimately decided that it was worth it and it was the route we wanted to take because we believe this ‘stamp of approval’ from the GYA will instill confidence in students and their families seeking adventure, education, and leadership in their gap year.”

For both NOLS and Winterline, the process took more than 9 months from initial conversation, through two waves of document submissions and rigorous analysis before full accreditation. There were 111 standards to be met. “Our job was to provide the GYA with evidence that we were meeting those standards,” said Sharon Seto, Curriculum Advisor at Winterline.

There are four types of feedback from the GYA on whether you’ve met the highest standards of the industry:

  1. Pass
  2. Pass with suggestions
  3. Pass with accolades
  4. Investigate

A “Pass” meant that you’d met the standards. “Pass with suggestions” meant it was up to you to follow through on improving that area. A “Pass with accolades” was the most highly coveted response, meaning that you’d gone above and beyond the standards of the industry. And “Investigate” meant you still had work to do to prove that you’re meeting the standards.

“Who keeps the med kits, who keeps the emergency cash, and how much, who has the emergency phone lines on which days?”

“The hardest part was that these standards might be slightly different for each program,” Sharon explained, having been through different kinds of accreditation four times before. “In our case, we go to so many countries on our gap year program, and are in so many different kinds of work and study environments, we had to meet individual standards with multiple responses.”

Each country needed its own attention, and every protocol needed to be written down. “Who keeps the med kits, who keeps the emergency cash, and how much, who has the emergency phone lines on which days?” she continued.

mike_temple_wat_pho_thailand_bangkok-gap-year-program

“What are our students themselves trained to do? You have to have all these medications on hand, but you have to make sure the students don’t have access to it. We had to write enrollment criteria, saying what you needed to be able to do in order to be eligible for our programs: scuba diving, mountain climbing, working with machines, driving, etc. It’s not as simple as say, ‘backpacking.’ It was complicated.”

The point is that an accredited gap year organization was tackling these questions very far in advance, so that students could, with confidence, focus on other elements of the experience. As Nathan put it, “Many of the things were details that hopefully our students and their families will never have to worry about. Things like, ‘What are our insurance limits should anything go very wrong?’ How much cash do we have on hand in these currencies when we’re in X country?”

“A good metaphor is choosing an airline to fly with.”

In Kary’s words, “I was most surprised and impressed by the in-depth nature of the standards, most of which NOLS was able to easily satisfy. However, there were some categories that we did not fit neatly into. The high-level standards, however, make the time and energy invested feel worth it as the first wilderness-focused accredited member of the GYA.”

When you’re planning your own gap year there are many, many things to think about. Gap year programs take some of this weight off the individual as well as offer additional expertise and security.

“A good metaphor is choosing an airline to fly with,” Nathan continued, “something everyone can understand. There’s a level of assurance that no matter what airline you fly with, they’re going to get you from Point A to Point B. And if that’s all you care about, then you can absolutely go with the cheapest, rock bottom provider. But there’s usually more factors than that. Comfort, safety, how the company treats their employees, and so on.”

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He continued with the metaphor. “Fundamentally, what happens if my luggage gets lost? Am I with an organization that is able to track my luggage, get it back to me, and get me some restitution in the meantime? Are they insured should they lose my luggage? An accredited organization can give you satisfactory answers to all of these questions. But a non-accredited organization? Maybe they can get your luggage there — but if they don’t, you’re screwed.

“What it means is that we, an accredited organization, not only have a higher chance of a smooth flight, but the question is, what if X happens or Y happens?” An accredited organization has been vetted to have thought through even the most extreme possibilities, so that when something happens, the right people are there at the right time, with the right resources, and the right plan.

“Can you trust an organization that doesn’t go for accreditation?”

To Nathan, one of the most valuable parts of successfully becoming accredited meant joining a standards-based community, one that includes sharing information, holding each other accountable, and supporting each other. “As an accredited member of the GYA, we now have to submit all of our incident reports. This helps the entire industry a lot. For example, it’s good to know that pot pizza is now widely available in Cambodia,” despite being illegal and carrying potentially significant penalties. A gap year program can plan for that when it has the knowledge, and mitigate a wide variety of risks and unfavorable outcomes.

For Kary, the long-term benefit of becoming accredited was acknowledging the importance of an organization like the GYA, as well as “the recognition that NOLS provides high-quality gap and life experiences, and staying relevant in a changing world.”

To Kevin Brennan, Vice President of Finance & Planning, the big question was, can you trust an organization that doesn’t go for accreditation?

cambodia-business-program-gap-year-students

“What organizations that don’t seek this kind of approval end up being open to is the charge that they’re not open to the thoughts and ideas of others. An organization that wants to say it’s offering gap year programs but hasn’t sought the imprimatur of the GYA is open to the perception that they don’t want to be looked at too closely. If an organization doesn’t go after the GYA certification, that’s much more likely to put the thought in my head that they don’t want to be reviewed, that they don’t want a critical eye to be brought to their work. And that’s not the most positive stance.”

Kevin remembers a time in the early 1990s when he was a manager for a study abroad program in Kenya, at a time of great political upheaval. By reorganizing the sequence of the program design, he and his team were able to avoid the political violence in that part of the country at the times it was set to occur. Being able to build a plan around ground-level knowledge and expertise creates a bedrock of safety that an outsider can only scrape the surface of. That expertise is exactly what the Gap Year Association seal of approval represents.

As Kevin put it, “In a way, we knew how to ‘read the tea leaves’ because of our experience on the ground, and having done this for years — as staff persons, directors, and employees of organizations. Our experience is itself experiential education. It’s part of what allows me to say that after 25 years in this business, the GYA accreditation process is a good structure, and it’s going to keep growing into itself and improving over the years.”

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How to Plan A Gap Year Like Malia

Many were still unfamiliar with the concept of a gap year and were curious to see what she had in store. Thanks to the help of a number of new sources, we were able to piece together a timeline of Malia’s gap year so far.

If you are a student, currently in the process of gap year planning, I hope this example will inspire you to venture further outside of your comfort zone.

Summer 2016

Malia started off her gap year by following in the political footsteps of her father with a summer internship at the U.S. Embassy in Spain. Normally, the Embassy only accepts upperclassmen and recent college graduates for their coveted internships but in this case, they made an exception. Barack Obama has said in the past that Malia’s Spanish is quite impressive so it stands to reason that she would want to spend her summer embracing a foreign culture on the beautiful streets of Madrid.

Malia and Barack Obama

Photo Credits: Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

Although Malia is familiar with the political world, an internship at the U.S. Embassy allowed her to approach foreign politics from an outsider’s perspective. What are Spain’s concerns when it comes to U.S. politics? How do diplomats work to communicate between these two countries? Nothing can stand in the place of real world experience when it comes to politics. For those interested in pursuing a career in international relations, that global perspective may be just what you need to test the waters and get your foot in the door.

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Fall 2016

In the fall, Malia traveled to South America in pursuit of another side of Spanish-speaking culture. She joined Where There Be Dragons on their 3-Month Gap Semester program in Bolivia and Peru. Malia spent three months trekking through the mountains, camping in the Amazon and exploring topics such as environmental conservation and social reform — all while improving her Spanish language skills.

Malia Obama Bolivia

Photo Credits: (NYTimes)

A rural, international experience is perfect for those looking to get away from urban life. Maybe you are tired of your hometown and are looking to explore a new place or you want to become fluent in a new language. Immersing yourself in a foreign environment can be humbling and telling for those feeling lost in a bustling city.

Spring & Summer 2017

But the year isn’t over yet! Sources have confirmed that Malia will spend the remainder of her gap year interning under Harry Weinstein of Weinstein Company. Known for the creation of several award winning films such as Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook, and Inglorious Basterds, Weinstein Company is one of Hollywood’s great independent production companies.

malia-obama-black-jeans-spl

Photo Credits: Hollywood Life

This isn’t Malia’s first time working in the entertainment industry. In the summer of 2015, she spent time interning for HBO’s Girls and inspired the show’s writer and star, Lena Dunham, with her can-do attitude. “She wanted to do all the jobs. That was the cool thing. She was totally enthusiastic,” Dunham said to Howard Stern on The Howard Stern Show. Although an intro-level position in the entertainment industry is often monotonous, being where the action is and absorbing what you see happening around you can be invaluable at a young age.

What this means for you: Tips

If Malia’s gap year can teach us anything, it’s that the best gap year is made of a variety of experiences. If you’re a high school student going through the process of gap year planning, consider approaching the task in this way.

Rather than finding one activity to consume all your time, break your year into chunks and dedicate a few months at a time to each of your interests. Give yourself a chance to test out a handful of options and you may be surprised by what activities resonate with you the most. A bevy of unique and challenging experiences will prepare you for the adversity you may face in college and beyond.

While traveling the world, our students try out a hundred different skills over the course of our 9-Month Program; some more and less appealing to some than others. At Winterline, that pedagogy of exposure and experience drives our Global Skills Gap Year Program.

By the end of the year, students have a strong understanding of their likes and dislikes and what areas of study they would like to pursue further. They come home having learned something about themselves and the world — and that’s the most valuable gift you can give yourself from a year off from school.

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How to plan solo travel on your gap year

What do you want to do? For some, the answer is easy. There’s a country they’ve always wanted to go to, or some sight they’ve always wanted to see.

For others it’s about the activity: where can I best learn cooking, rock climbing, French as a foreign language, or photography.

Feel free to explore this interactive map of our students’ locations, partners, learning objectives, and photos!

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So, if you’re ready to start planning your own solo travel or independent travel project, here are four pieces of advice that we give to our students so they’re set up for success.

1. Make sure it’s awesome.

You only have so many opportunities in your life to plan something as free ranging as your time on a gap year, semester, or summer abroad. You’ll want to make sure that whatever you do, it’s better than most, if not all of the other things you could be doing. The economic concept of the opportunity cost is useful here. Do something awesome.

2. Think about what you want to learn.

Ask yourself, what are you interested in? What makes you weird? What is really cool that you’ve always thought about exploring? Or what is something you know almost nothing about?

Solo travel or independent study project should push you far enough out of your comfort zone that you’ll be sure to learn something new and crazy. It could be a life skill, a career skill, or maybe just something strange that you’re curious about.

3. Decide on a place

Once you have a sense of what you want to learn, think about the best places in the world to learn that. If it’s learning how to survive in the wild, you maybe wouldn’t want to go to Paris. If you want to learn urban photography, what about Dublin or Milan?

Choose a place that has either a top notch instruction partner, or a rich culture around that particular skill.

4. Make a plan

Our gap year students design their own independent travel and study projects months in advance. They design their own budgets, safety plans, learning objectives, and partners all on their own.

We’re always inspired by their creativity and personal ambition. But in fact, we hold them very closely accountable to a $1000 budget. They are expected to book their own flights, plan their own meals, find a partner or organization that will teach them what they want to learn and explore, and make all the arrangements necessary for a safe and happy return.

Further, they’re expected to give us a run-down on the safety precautions they’ve taken for making sure they’re safe; and also if the unexpected happens, they’ll be prepared and ready to respond.

Getting organized about your adventure is really important for making sure you have the best time ever. You don’t have to stick rigidly to a plan. In fact, serendipity can create some of the best learning experiences.

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