Alum Q&A

By: Kim Olds & Anna Nickerson | July 6, 2018
Topics: Alum Spotlight, Gap Year Planning, Student Voices
As our Fall ’18 Global Skills Program is fast approaching, we thought it would be best to share a Q&A with our alum, Anna Nickerson. She was a student with us last year, and has since become an intern in our marketing department! She has a lot of great insight and experience that she’s eager to share with potential students.

Overall, what was your Winterline Global Gap year like?

The year was an adventure. In all senses of the word. In general, when I look back on Winterline, it was so much fun. But, it was also one of the most challenging years of my life, in a very positive way. I have never been so stimulated by so many things in my life (culture, food, activities/skills, people, etc.)! It was a year where I experienced some of the most personal growth of my life and it was also a much more introspective journey than I expected. I learned much more about myself than I had anticipated, and I made some lifelong relationships with amazing people. It was a total rollercoaster of a year. There were a lot of amazing moments, as well as a number of challenging moments. But I really wouldn’t change my experience on Winterline for anything.

What was the best thing about your experience?

The best thing about my experience was the people. Both the people I traveled with in my squad, and the people I met along the way. I was a media work-study student on the journalism scholarship, so I interviewed a lot of people from partner organizations in different countries for the Winterline blog. This was a great way for me to connect with people outside of my group and learn even more outside of the Winterline curriculum. The people I lived with became my family, and I miss them so much. I still stay in touch with all of them every day!

What was the hardest thing about your experience?

Also, the people! More specifically, it was difficult for me to learn how to live with a group of other teenagers and two field advisors. I had a difficult time adjusting to constantly being around other people, especially because I personally really need alone time. It was a challenge for me to always have a roommate, always share a bathroom, etc.  But, I found different ways to get alone time like journaling or watching Netflix, and sometimes even eating a meal by myself. That personal challenge really taught me the importance of self-care.

Winterline Alum
These (crazy) people!

What surprised you the most?

I honestly was surprised by how much fun I had! When I signed up for the program, I was really focused on the skills and learning. I didn’t really think about much else. I lived with some of the funniest and most unique people I’ve ever met, and I just had an absolute blast this year. Most of the skills were interesting, and a lot of the things that I did outside of program days were a lot of fun. I learned to take myself a little less seriously on the trip, which was an important lesson for me specifically.

What scared you the most?

I tend to be a pretty anxious person because I overthink things, but overall there wasn’t a lot about Winterline that “scared” me. I went into the year ready to be challenged. So, I guess what scared me the most is one very specific example. On a rest day in Monteverde, some of us chose to try repelling down waterfalls with our two Field Advisors. And it was a challenging experience for me. The water kept hitting my face and my contact lenses fell out multiple times, which I had to put back in. I took double the amount of time to repel down the waterfalls as my friends did. And there were many tears I shed to myself while repelling down these walls. But, I survived and even though I did not have a very enjoyable time, I showed myself that I can be tough and that it’s okay to not like everything I try.

I also think another thing that can be scary to some students (and parents) is how you have to be accountable for your own personal safety. There’s a lot in place to help students stay safe and manage risks on the trip, but at the end of the day it’s up to each individual to be accountable for their own personal safety. I never jeopardized my personal safety, and as a result I had a really positive experience with Winterline and the risk management aspect.

How much time do you spend alone versus with the group?

It honestly really depended on where we were in the world and how busy our program days were. I would usually start the day by having breakfast with only one or two other people, then I would get ready for the day with my one to three roommates. And then, we would spend the majority of days with the entire group for program/skill days. After those days, I would usually just hang out in my room listening to music, journaling, writing for the Winterline blog, or talking to my friends and family. On days that we didn’t have program days I would either just chill out by myself, or with a couple friends, and watch Netflix and hang out. But more often, I would go on mini-adventures by myself, in locations where we were allowed to explore alone, or with a couple friends. And I would usually have dinner with just one other person, unless we had a designated group dinner (which is a lot of fun). So overall, it really depends on how much youwant to be with the entire group, just a few of your close friends, or by yourself. It definitely took me a while to figure out the balance, but I got it down and found things to do to get alone time, which I learned is necessary for me.

Winterline Alum
Just one of our MANY adventures on a rest day!

What do you wish you had known before you started?

I wish I had more realistic expectations going into the program. When you sign up, you don’t have much context except for the fact that it’s “9 months, 10 countries, and 100 life skills.” One thing I want to note is that the program spans over 9 months (starting in September and ending in May, like a traditional school year) but it is not a full 9 months of traveling because of the Winter and Spring breaks. I learned more than 100 skills, but that’s not even what is most important to me. It’s the 5 or 6 really, really important skills that I’ve been able to use in my life that matter to me. I look back on my year and I think more about the quality of the skills I learned, as opposed to the quantity.

I think it’s important to remember that you will be living with other people and that you will have some disappointments in some aspects of the program. I went into the program somewhat naive and quickly realized that not everything is a perfect fantasy. I also wish I had known that I would have to get emotionally vulnerable with the group in order to get close and build trust with everyone, which is an important part of the program. For example, as a squad we did “circles,” usually about once a week. We would come together as a group and each go around in a circle and share how we felt emotionally and otherwise about the trip. It’s a place where you can really open up to your peers and feel like your voice is being heard, which is really necessary during such an intense and worldly experience. If students made poor decisions that affected the group, sometimes we would also have circles to address those problems. I just wish I was more prepared for that.

What does Trimester 1 feel like?

Trimester 1 is amazing. All of my memories from trimester 1 are in the outdoors, which I think it really cool. I really connected to nature on the NOLS trip, in Belize (this year’s group is traveling to Panama, but programming in Panama is very similar to what I did in Belize), and in Costa Rica. I loved how a lot of the skills in trimester 1 are physically demanding because it added an element to the program that made me feel so proud of myself, especially in an outdoor setting. A lot of my favorite memories from Winterline took place on NOLS and in Belize/Costa Rica.

Winterline Alum
Getting outside, and enjoying the beauty of nature, is such an essential part of tri 1!

What do Tri 2 & 3 feel like?

Trimester two and three are the opposite of each other. During trimester 2, I felt much more challenged, and to be honest I think it’s the most challenging portion of the trip. The cities we traveled to are very populated and can be stressful at times, so I had a hard time adjusting. The languages are very different from a lot of the languages that most Americans have studied, and overall there was more of a disconnect for me. I had a harder time transitioning to Southeast Asia than anywhere else. I do think it’s an important part of the trip and it is really rewarding to look back on. I felt like I tackled a challenge, and was thrown in a bunch of directions, but I survived, and even thrived, in some locations.

Winterline Alum
Anna and Andrew at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Trimester 3 felt like a breath of relief for me after Asia. Everything seemed to be easier once I was in Europe, and not in a bad way. I think it was well-deserved. I really enjoyed just exploring the streets of all sorts of European cities, and stumbling upon amazing buildings and churches. I felt like Europe was the “reward” after months of challenge and personal growth.

Winterline Alum BMW Driving Experience
The gang taking on BMW Driving Experience in Munich, Germany!

Tell us about your Independent Study Program (ISP) experiences.

I wrote a blog about ISPs, which you can find here! An ISP is an Independent Study Project. There’s three ISP weeks during Winterline: in Costa Rica, India, and Europe. These weeks encourage students to study/practice a skill of their choice and to live without the entire group, so students can be more independent. When I was in Costa Rica, I did a 5-day Spanish Immersion course and stayed with a homestay family. In India, I went to an Ayurvedic clinic and ashram to study and practice Ayurveda, yoga, and meditation. And those two ISPs prepared me for the final, and most independent, ISP in Europe. Students plan for their Europe ISP at the end of trimester 1, all the way through trimester 3. We were each given a budget, and a lot of flexibility about what we could do. I did cooking classes in Paris and I stayed in an Airbnb just outside the heart of the city. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life!

Who was your favorite partner? Least favorite?

My favorite partner was probably the cooking school in Paris, called La Cuisine, that I set up for my Independent Study Week. I learned about French cuisine, and I actually just made one of the traditional French sauces for my Dad’s 50th birthday party a few weeks ago! The chefs were amazing and the cooking classes were so hands on. My least favorite partner was the robotics school in Austria. I am not a fan of technology, robotics, and coding, so it wasn’t really against the partner, but more the skill.

What was your favorite location? Least favorite?

That is such a hard question! I constantly tell people that Costa Rica was one of my favorite countries, but I also just fell in love with Germany, Italy, and France. Such amazing places. But, my least favorite country was Thailand because that’s where I got sick!

Winterline Alum
One of my favorite views on the entire trip… Munich, Germany!

How much spending money did you need?

Again, it totally depended on where we were. In Central America, I spent $15 to $30 a week. In Asia, I spent about $20-30 a week. And in Europe, I splurged a bit and spent $40 to $50 a week. Throughout the entire year I used money I had saved up babysitting, tutoring, and working the previous summer and I kept myself pretty accountable. There was a pretty wide range in how much students spent throughout the year. If you are willing to budget and track your spending, and be frugal, you can get away with spending only $25/week. If you want to spend a lot and not track your money at all, you could potentially end up spending $100/week. I was somewhere in between this, and anywhere on the spectrum is fine. But I do think it’s an important conversation to have with your parents so you’re on the same page going into the program.

How much time do you spend on your own, with field staff, with partners – what is the independence level like?

Hmmm… It totally depended on the student. For me personally, I became really close with one of my field advisors and we hung out a few times a week outside of program days to get coffee, lunch, or just chat. Our group spent anywhere from 3 to 6 days a week with partners, and the field advisors were usually there, but not always. The independence level changes over the course of the trip. If you feel like you are being babied during first trimester, it’s kind of by design. The field advisors want to see what you can handle, and then will gradually give you more independence if your group earns it. By the time I was in Europe, I spent time with the entire group for program days and dinners, but I was much more independent and chose to do my own thing with just a few people more. I will say that your independence you’re given is a reflection of how responsible you’ve shown the FA’s you can be, especially with drinking, curfews, etc.

What are your top three pieces of advice for a new student starting this year?

  1. Keep a journal! I wrote in my journal almost every day, and now I have mini “books” of my adventures with Winterline. I also kept a personal blog, which my family was grateful for because they could stay updated on my trip. Writing also just helps you remember things that you would otherwise forget (and I have a bad memory, so it helped me).
  2. Go out of your way to become friends with people in your group who you wouldn’t be friends with at home. My group was a melting pot of people from all around the US, and from Europe. I definitely had a lot of preconceived notions about other students within the first week, but I made an effort to have conversations with everyone and I found some good friends in people I wouldn’t have expected on day one. You’d be surprised by how interesting everyone in your group will be!
  3. Don’t expect to be best friends with everyone. This is huge! I am very much a people-person, and love to connect with others. I went into the program assuming that everyone would like me and we would all get along, but as is normal in a group setting, I discovered that I didn’t want to be best friends with everyone. Make a conscious effort to remind yourself that there will be people who you may not want to be best friends with, or who don’t want to be best friends with you. That’s okay and it’s normal. The only thing to remember is to be respectful to everyone in the group, and to be kind!
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