Changing the World Through Education

Who else has had this idea of changing the world? Who else has had this dream about being the Nelson Mandela or the Mahatma Gandhi of their country? Whether or not you share these dreams, we can all agree that this is a huge cliche. Well…I have to say I’m part of this cliche.

I have had this dream since I was 8 years old. But it was only when I was 12 that I discovered how I could make change happen: through education. Do not ask me how a 12 year old could come to Nelson’s Mandela conclusion that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” but I did.winterline, gap year, education, cristina hoyos

When I was 15, I experienced something that allowed me to confirm that my 12 year old self was right. I attended a German school through an exchange program, and it was the first time I experienced a different style of education inside the traditional system. It had the same structure as my school in Colombia but it was more basic and straightforward. This allowed me to have a lot of free time for myself. My life was not about school, it was about developing my passions. So I started to ask myself why the education style was so different and if that impacts the development of the country. The answer was hard for me to find because there are so many things going on behind the scenes in education. When I came back home I realized I had to do something to improve the Colombian system in order to improve our country.

Many people would say that if you are against the system, you should get out. However, I knew I had to finish high school to have the tools required to make a change. I took advantage of the system and used the opportunities given to me, such as the Monographic Project and student government, to get involved with the field of education. However, my involvement burned me out. I put so much effort into being the best that I didn’t leave enough time for myself. I realized that if I really wanted to change the world, I would have to change myself.  The first thing I knew I had to do was put my beliefs into practice and, in order to do so, experience a different kind of education.

Originally, I didn’t even want to bring a book on my gap year trip. I wanted to be as far as possible from everything related to academia. But I realized that through travel, I could explore the world through education and give the word a new meaning.

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Looks like Cristina did end up bringing a book or two!

In every country we visited, I dug into education in order to get closer to the world and create a connection with each place. I started in Panama, in a public school from a rural community that suffered from a low quality of education due to lack of space, teachers and personnel. I was familiar with that, as these issues are commonplace to public education systems in Latin America. It makes a lot of sense; developing countries struggle a lot in financing public education.

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Cristina and a student in Panama | Photo By: Brittany Lane

In Costa Rica I visited a private school that taught with a Quaker Philosophy. It was a Utopian education, but it represented the minority. The general public school system was closed due to a strike and I was unable to visit a public school.

Asia is different in every way: religion, economics, politics, and history, all tie into the different education system. For example, I couldn’t even find information about Cambodian education because the country found peace only 30 years ago. They are still recovering and reconstructing from genocide, which makes education not as high of a priority as it is, for example, in India. In India I visited UWC Mahindra College (MUWCI), an IB college with an excellent education, an example of one of the highest levels in the world. But is that really representative of India? In some ways, MUWCI felt like a bubble, because you drive 15 minutes away and you understand what poverty is.

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Cristina and Abby in Cambodia

In Europe, the Spanish education system looks a lot like the Latin American one. Then we get to Switzerland, Germany and Austria. All of them have this excellent system where students don’t need to finish high school to succeed. And finishing in the US, the greatest world power, education is the country’s Achilles heel.

I was able to observe how education can impact a country’s development and future and it allowed me to make important conclusions about the world. Asking myself the role of education in every place helped me to piece together the building blocks of countries and allowed me to understand the diversity of the world. I could connect better with every place we visited and see it from a different perspective. Education was a universal constant in every place, something I was always looking for. Through this experience I was able to collect ideas to implement in my own country and achieve my biggest life goal. I believe that my experience on Winterline allowed me to change and develop myself, my passions and my understanding of the world. I hope that one day the tools I gathered during this year help me to change the world.

Not Your Ordinary Circus

Throughout my time as a Winterline Field Advisor and living in Cambodia for a couple years, taking students to the Phare Circus was one of my favorite parts of any program I’ve ever led. The shows are exciting, funny, insightful, artistic, interactive, even stress-inducing with some of their tricks! Even if you’ve seen the same show multiple times (I’ve been there too many times to count!), it doesn’t get old.

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But there’s a little more to these performances and this skill set than what meets the eye. First of all, I’m sure when many of us read the word ‘circus’, we think of animals dressed up doing tricks through flaming rings, sequins and feather headdresses worn by women riding elephants, acrobats being whipped through the air at the top of a huge circular tent. Maybe we think of movies we’ve seen, like Dumbo, or The Greatest Showman, or even remember the Ringling Brothers. The smell and taste of peanuts and popcorn. The unease of clowns riding unicycles. A lead showman dressed to the nines.

At Phare Circus, there are no animals, only humans using their bodies to create incredible performances. There are costumes and props, but nothing like what you might imagine for a circus or something like Cirque du Soleil (but there is a tent and popcorn!).

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Circus tricks | Photo By: Abby Dulin

This isn’t your typical circus, with an even less than typical start. What you don’t see is that The Phare Circus supports at-risk Cambodian populations by training them for a specific skill, thus creating an avenue for a more successful future. Once someone has made it to the circus as a performer, musician, light production member, or artist, that’s the outcome. The last step. They’ve truly made it out of poverty and into a comfortable livelihood.

In the province of Battambang, Cambodia, you’ll find Phare Ponleu Selpak, an NGO school for training in professional arts including illustration, painting, theater, music, animation, graphic design, dance, and circus. Founded in 1994, at risk youth are trained at this school entirely free of charge, as well as given free general education (K-12) and social support before moving on to the circus or creative studio. Currently, the school supports around 1,200 children, as well as their families.

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Winterline students at circus school | Photo By: Abby Dulin

Each performance at the circus is a story of Cambodian culture, having to do with myths, legends, actual historical events, or even modern-day society. You’ll see gripping nightmarish reenactments from a child’s mind during their traumatic experience living through the Khmer Rouge Era. You’ll see hilarious comparisons between Khmer culture and foreigners as tourism continues to grow and the cultural differences intermix.

And those are just the story lines.

Shows are filled with incredible stunts, tricks, art, dance, and interactive moments with the crowd. Before and after the show, the audience makes their way through a gift shop, filled with goods handcrafted by those that went the route of creative studio instead of circus performing. Each item sold in the gift shop or created during one of the performances raises profits to support the NGO school as well as the performers and artists.

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Circus tricks | Photo By: Will Vesey

The circus and skill training for our students is located in Siem Reap and is a favorite skill day. It’s a skill where students can let go and simply try everything that’s thrown at them. Learning to juggle, learning to flip properly, how to make standing human pyramids and balance other bodies with yours. It’s not so much a specific skill you learn so much as it is learning more about yourself; what you’re good at, what you’re willing to try, and how to trust your body to perform a certain way. It’s also a great opportunity for our students to get their bodies moving as our Asia trimester spends a considerable amount of time in big cities after an outdoors-filled first trimester!

To learn more about the Phare circus and their efforts, please visit https://pharecircus.org/ to check out their different shows and how to reserve your own tickets if you’re planning to visit Cambodia. For the Phare Ponleu Selpak school and social enterprise efforts, visit https://www.pharepse.org/ and consider supporting this fabulous NGO.

In Khmer language, the name Phare Ponleu Selpak means, “The Brightness of the Arts”.

Finding a Home on the Road

For the first time in twelve years, I am not in typical schooling. Despite the lack of a desk, learning has not stopped. On a program where my life consists of new experiences and new people constantly, my brain feels more stretched now than it did in Calculus III. As I’ve been trying to process the newness and the lessons I learn every day, I’ve realized that not only am I gaining new perspectives, but I’m changing old ones. As complex ideas like permaculture and design thinking become more clear, simple ones, like “home”, are becoming much more muddy.

When I moved out at sixteen to attend boarding school, I don’t think I understood then how much that word would become something I circled back to. “Home” was no longer a GPS destination, it existed somewhere between my house and dorm room, a place I couldn’t pinpoint. I listened to my friends assign it all sorts of different meanings, the backseats of their cars, their pets, their beds at home, and it became more and more difficult to make home a concrete structure. We talked about home, but we knew every time we went back that it wasn’t the same anymore.

This year, I have a less permanent home than I ever have. Almost every week is a new location, sometimes hostels, sometimes a hammock, sometimes even tents. During our NOLS course, a week long backpacking trek in the Gila, the homes we referred to started as the houses we left behind. Once we arrived in Panama, I started to see a shift. We were starting to become comfortable with the constant discomfort that comes with travel. My backpack wasn’t a piece of foreign equipment, it was everything I owned. All the things I forgot about or left in my drawers at home almost didn’t exist. And if I did need something, I could count on almost anyone else in my group to share or let me borrow it.

In our rural homestays in Piedras Gordas, my “home” was with a host family. Although it was clear that I didn’t know the customs, and I couldn’t speak the language, I fell into patterns of comfortability with them. Through sharing food, stumbling over Spanish, and even acting things out, we fell into understanding.

At present, I don’t live in a house. Yet home is not a word that I have banned from my vocabulary. In fact, I find myself saying it more and more as I am away. I’ve found that home is not a place, a person, or even a group of people, but places we build within ourselves. The home I used to talk about referred to places where I felt comfortable. Creating a home while you’re away from one is all about finding the peace within your own mind to create spaces where you’re comfortable, and you feel loved.

What this also means is developing the ability to be open to every new environment and every new person you meet. That is not an easy skill at all. Travel comes with exhaustion, fear of change, discomfort, and isolation from being in different places. It can take a lot of bravery to open yourself up even once, let alone having the courage and effort to try on a daily basis. Starting a conversation at a restaurant or with your host family can be daunting. Finding running routes or spots to exercise in a new city is scary. Asking for help in a language that is not your own, or from people you don’t know, can be difficult.

Being an open person is not easy for me. Every day I have to try to open doors, start conversations, and push down my fear of embarrassment. Yet almost every day, I am rewarded. With each new exchange, I’m building a foundation. I think of all of the times I try something I’m afraid of, be it a new hike, new food, new group of people, as putting down a brick for my house. Some bricks are harder to lay than others, and sometimes I can build a wall in a day. The way to truly test the strength of your home is to see if, by the time you leave, you’ve filled it with family.

I’ve bounced around pretty frequently for the last two years, and I felt that the places I left behind were barren and empty. I think of my room at my house in Raleigh sitting empty, my dorm room which is now occupied by someone else, and my cabin in Durango. When I decided to leave, looking back was never an option. I thought that in order to keep moving, you couldn’t put down roots. I see now that in every place you can build a home, and in every place you should try. Over the course of the next year, I will not count the memories I have by the pictures I’ve taken or plane tickets I’ve collected, but by the homes I built and the people I housed.

A Tale of Two Farms: Volunteering in the Panamanian Jungle

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Exploring the farm | Photo By: Benjamin Kilimnik

High in the mountains of Panama, shaded by dense tropical canopy, lies the sleepy town of Piedras Gordas. Most families of the town are subsistence farmers, patiently tending to the land that yields most of what they consume. Within this tranquil town – where time itself seems to slow to a shuffle – local farmer señor Onecimo is nurturing grander ambitions. He hopes that one day his secluded property will transform into an educational hub for tourists, volunteers, and students alike.

The Spark

Several years ago, señor Onecimo hosted a group of international volunteers from the American Peace Corps, a volunteer program dedicated to socio-economic development abroad. The thoughts and suggestions of these volunteers opened his eyes to opportunities for growth in his community, and their enthusiasm was infectious. For señor Onecimo, the experience marked the start of his vision: to offer educational tours that showcase the unique flora and fauna of his farm.

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The man, the myth, the visionary – señor Onecimo | Photo By: Benjamin Kilimnik

Since hosting volunteers from the Peace Corps, he has invited many more individuals and groups from abroad. Just as the visitors learn about his way of life by living with his family, so does he gain an appreciation for new perspectives and other cultures. Often, these volunteers can provide the knowledge and manpower needed to implement important projects on señor Onecimo’s farm, and in the community at large.

In October 2018, our Winterline Squad 2 worked with local entrepreneurs in Piedras Gordas, Panama, under the guidance of ThinkImpact instructors. During our stay, I had the opportunity to work with señor Onecimo, who also happened to be a member of my host family.

While staying in his family home, I picked up on aspects of his vision. Despite my limited Spanish skills (see “When Language Fails: My Homestay in Panama” for details), I could understand certain chunks of conversation, and was able to grasp the gist of señor Onecimo’s ideas for the farm. The tough part was organizing these ideas, and developing a more concrete plan to turn his vision into reality.  

To start with, fellow Winterliners and I focused on expanding access to señor Onecimo’s farm for visitors by constructing handrails along the trails of his property. Our primary design used wooden stakes and recycled rubber wires – materials señor Onecimo already owned or could acquire easily. Afterwards, we set to work crafting signs that would label important plants, fruits and vegetables along the trail.

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Handrails for señor Onecimo’s patch of jungle | Photo By: Benjamin Kilimnik

While my fellow Winterliners and I were not able to fully realize señor Onecimo’s dream of offering educational tours and attracting more visitors – a difficult feat given our less than 2-week time constraint – we were able to get him several steps closer to his vision.

The Blazing Startups of Piedras Gordas

I happened to work with señor Onecimo, but he wasn’t the only entrepreneur Winterline supported in Piedras Gordas. Another group working with Onecimo’s wife, señora Edithe, constructed and installed signs to direct people to señora Edithe’s artisanal weaving business. Using techniques handed down for generations, señora Edithe has been crafting traditional sombreros and intricate decorations by hand for decades. The skill of weaving a sombrero is recognized by UNESCO as part of Panamanian “Intangible Cultural Heritage.”

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A sample of señora Edithe’s exquisite craftsmanship | Photo By: Benjamin Kilimnik

The Neighborhood Zipliner

Just a short hike down the road, señor Ernesto is busy establishing a center for eco-tourism and ecological education on his farm and around the wilderness reserve which he manages. Eventually he hopes to offer everything from guided tours of his jungle reserve to a zipline spanning part of his property. He has already begun construction on a climbable rockface for visitors to enjoy as well as jungle cabins for visitors to stay in. The winterline group that worked with señor Ernesto expanded and improved the network of trails running through his property, constructing signs and planted over 100 coffee shrubs.

Building Relationships

Beyond our construction projects, what I have found most valuable about volunteering are the conversations and human connections I made with the people of Piedras Gordas, and especially señor Onecimo. Something a ThinkImpact instructor said to me captures it quite well:

“…when you’re here for a short amount of time, it can be hard to realize the specific impact you’ve made. However, – even if you didn’t create something tangible – by interacting and communicating with your hosts, you have built trust and intercultural empathy. When you consider a longer timespan like I’ve been able to, you realize how valuable these interactions are for everyone involved. The skills of open-mindedness and empathy you learn here are things you can take with you wherever you go.” – Gabriela Valencia, ThinkImpact Country Director for Panama (check out the full interview here.)

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Engraving signs with hammer and chisel | Video By: Benjamin Kilimnik

The Virtues of Listening

Perhaps the most important thing I learned during our community work was to avoid what I call “Helicoptering”, which involves assessing a community’s needs and how to address them based on your own worldview. It can be all too easy to make assumptions from an outsider’s perspective, but it is worth keeping an open mind and learning from the community. Before creating designs and prototypes I made sure to talk to señor Onecimo and others in Piedras Gordas to gather information about the situation. That’s how fellow Winterliners and I found out about locally available materials, and how we were able to design several prototypes of handrails and signs that met his specifications – designs that he can recreate fairly easily without us.

It is clear to me now that bringing about lasting change in a community through volunteering is no easy task. No project reliant on external help will last very long once that help evaporates. The projects that succeed have the interests of the community at heart, include participation from the community, and above all, provide locals with the means to continue long after you have left.winterline, gap year

When Language Fails: My Homestay in Panama

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A tap of the toes; a spin of the heel; a whirl of red satin.

We arrived in the small mountain town of Piedras Gordas to the sound of traditional Panamanian music and the sight of dancers in traditional dress. Gathered in the community center, several locals had interrupted their daily routines to celebrate our arrival with song and dance. The festive welcome was as unexpected as it was heartwarming. Following their performance, we had our first interactions with the people that welcomed us – sixteen young adults from all over the world – into their very own homes.

Although the mountain scenery of the town was gorgeous, our intentions were far from touristic.  As part of an 8-day homestay program, our goal was to immerse ourselves in the culture of our hosts while working with local entrepreneurs to improve the community. We spent most mornings and evenings with our host families while taking part in workshops led by ThinkImpact during the day. Topics of instruction ranged from design-thinking and asset analysis to rapid prototyping and hands-on work with local entrepreneurs.

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Exploring the Mountains of Piedras Gordas | Photo By: Benjamin Kilimnik

Behold Its Feathers

When a community is not used to receiving foreigners, interacting with locals can be a challenging ordeal. At times, while exploring the town of Piedras Gordas, I felt treated somewhat like an exotic bird: observed with curiosity by everyone I passed, but always kept at a distance. For someone with very basic Spanish skills like mine, it felt very intimidating to start conversations with strangers in a community I barely knew – especially with all eyes focused on me.

Only gradually did I realize that the key to breaking the communication barrier was to stop acting the part of the bird. Instead of staying undercover, I swallowed my shyness and tried to be as open and obvious as possible, starting conversations or non-verbal interactions whenever possible. By actively going against their expectations I normalized my presence. Over time – i.e. many clunky interactions later – I stopped being viewed as this mysterious person and became more approachable for some members of the community.

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My Host Family’s Pet Turkey | Photo By: Benjamin Kilimnik

This same tactic also applied to interactions with my host family, whom I spent the majority of my time with. For the entire 8 days, I had the opportunity to stay in the cosy home of Señor Onecimo and his wife Señora Edith, together with 3 fellow Winterliners: Micah, Shayan and Noah. Despite our vastly different backgrounds and cultures, our host familia welcomed our mix-match group of two Americans, one Italian and one German with open arms. On the day we arrived, Onecimo, Edith and their eldest son Victor stayed up long into the night to talk with us – offering us fruits all the while – despite having to get up early the next morning. In my eyes, these gestures conveyed a curiosity and openness that really set the tone for my homestay experience.

How to Talk without Speaking

It was through interactions with my host family that I came to another realization. Although I expanded my knowledge of Spanish vocabulary and Panamanian slang immensely, I came to realize that – beyond some key vocabulary – communication took on another dimension. More often than not, I found that my actions did most of the talking. Be it while grinding coffee, playing card games, working on the farm or preparing dinner, each activity and interaction left me knowing a bit more about Panamanian customs and the lives of my hosts.

The most important phrase I learned did not involve the bathroom, food or any basic necessities; it was something far more general: “cómo puedo ayudar?“ or “how can I help?“. This simple phrase made it so much easier for me to take part in their daily routine. Instead of watching from a distance, I became personally involved in everything from cooking to woodworking, absorbing Panamanian customs along the way. Within days, my host family treated me less like a hotel guest from abroad, and more like a long-lost, inarticulate cousin. The more time I spent participating and being curious, the easier it was to connect with the family.

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Shayan, Micah and I decided to celebrate Edith’s birthday by baking homemade banana bread. (Or, as Edith’s 6-year-old grandson affectionately called it: “la torta gringo“) | Video By: Benjamin Kilimnik

The perhaps most challenging aspect of my homestay was overcoming the feeling of shyness that kept me from taking risks in social situations. Only by accepting the misunderstandings and awkward moments that inevitably arose when I tried to communicate was I able to truly rise out of my comfort zone and learn from my mistakes. A prime example: A few days into my homestay, I realized that instead of responding to explanations with “I understand“ in Spanish, I had been saying “me entiendo“ or “I understand me“ the entire time. If I hadn’t sought out those explanations and more opportunities to speak Spanish in the first place, that realization may never have come…

It is still mind-blowing to me that even though my Spanish skills were basic at best, I was able to interact with and learn so much from mi familia. Even weeks after the experience, I still feel indebted to these incredible people who welcomed me into their home while treating me with such kindness and curiosity.

What Not to Do on a Gap Year

For starters — Don’t pass up fried roadside spiders.

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And don’t take pictures like this…

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Okay, now we have our vitals covered, let’s get to some trivial topics…

Don’t try and save the world

Once in Cambodia, I remember getting off a bus, and heading to an orphanage for a day with some fellow backpackers.  We had a blast playing with the kids, singing songs, throwing them around like rag-dolls; Disney stuff, really.  Only later did I find out that those children weren’t even orphans — they were simply sent from the next village over, and essentially pimped out by their parents, in order to make money for their families. GULP.

You’re not going to be able to save the world.  And quite honestly, that’s not the point. It’s not even worth learning the hard way on this one, so trust me — no matter how many orphans you hug, you’re not going to fundamentally change the structural and systemic power dynamics that created the conditions that created that child’s life experience. That might sound harsh, I know; does that mean not to spread your love with everyone and all that you meet? NOOOOO!!!! Simply put — there are larger factors at play than you realize, and it’s a more valuable investment of time and energy, and considerably less ethically problematic when you decide to learn with the people you are serving rather than looking down on other folk and saying, “wow, these people really need help!” Sadly, that’s a lot of what today’s voluntourism culture proffers.

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On the flip side, nothing feels worse than getting to a place and realizing that they just wanted your money — people are exploiting this western notion of ‘community service’ in leaps and bounds, and ethical volunteering can be hard to come by unless you know what to look for. Now, that being said, I volunteered with such an organization, and still had an amazing experience, complete with everything that could have gone wrong (fights at the orphanage?  Ex-street kids dealing drugs?  You name it…). Many American students try to hammer out a certain number of service hours in order to pad their college resumes. If your heart isn’t in this, then you’re better off simply backpacking, taking language courses, or doing nature conservation work.

If you do want to volunteer, I would highly recommend teaching. Teaching will give you an appreciation for your own education that you’ll carry to the grave, and will place you in a position of authority; how you react in that position will teach you a great deal about yourself.

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Don’t just do the things that you’re already good at

Gap Years provide the perfect opportunity to stretch yourself a bit, in all directions — both horizontally and externally (out, and into the world), as well as ‘vertically,’ and internally (getting to know your depths). To grow the most, try picking up a new skill — maybe you’ve always wanted to learn how to play guitar, or to how garden, or to how build a house, or you wanted sing in a choir; pick something that lights you up, and commit to pursuing it on your gap year (shameless plug: Winterline is THE MacDaddy at this!). This is your time to explore and challenge yourself — a time to really test your human potential. If you fail — great learning experience. Most likely though, you’ll discover parts of yourself that will amaze you 🙂

Don’t NOT play with every baby that you see

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So cute! Until they….

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Commit for an extended period of time

Moving quickly from one place to another is important, and fun, and wildly stimulating, and will teach you some critical life lessons, but really digging into a culture, place, and people requires a longer commitment. That’s why Peace Corps does two years. Think long-term relationship vs. one-night stand — which is more fulfilling? Which matters? Which truly has an impact? Exactly. So try to stay in one place for half a year — you’ll come to understand the people and develop deep relationships, while also coming up against the inevitable conflicts that occur while living in a community (and have to face them without having the option to just book it the next day).

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[caption: How are monks and waterfalls different? One rushes, the other doesn’t HAHAHHAHHAHAHHAHAHHAHAHAHHAHAHHAHAH ]

Don’t run when things become difficult

Working in an all boys orphanage in Nepal, there were times when it seemed like everything was falling apart. My roommate, a Dutch fellow, who — atypically for Dutch folk, in my experience — was more interested in complaining and whining about everything than actually getting on with what we were there to do (work with the children), and it was a testosterone hive — the boys were between 8-14, and mass fights were constantly breaking out. They were largely unsupervised, and had no real role models or structures, other than school (which was laughable when I visited). It was complete chaos.

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[caption: okay, okay — complete chaos, and wicked fun]

I became a bit more in touch as a human being — these were kids, after all! Most interesting was to watch my reaction to want to leave the situation as soon as it became difficult. I highly recommend that when the going gets rough, you ask yourself whether you feel unsafe, or whether you just feel uncomfortable. More often, it’s the latter. And if you lean into that discomfort, you’ll grow in leaps and bounds — which is kinda what the whole gap year thing is about.

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Stay off the internet

Your favorite shows will all be there when you get back; Kathmandu will not. Similarly, save the google search → buzzfeed articles → pictures of cute kittens progression for a rainy day at home. Unplug from your electronic devices in general — constantly toting your smartphone so that you can ‘take pictures’ is an excuse; if you want to really take pictures, invest in a DSLR. The point isn’t punishment, it’s if you’re constantly sharing pictures of the delicious tapas that you’re eating in Spain, you’re not going to be savoring the taste, which is what you’ll ultimately remember the most — not the stylish photo.

Don’t just let your journey fade into the ether upon return…

During your Gap Year, you’re going to be transitioning from home to independence, high school to college, and adolescence into adulthood — –undergoing all three massive and pivotal transformations at the same time.  It’s unlike any other period of your life, offering the unique potential for a true rite of passage (hate to break it to you, but that’s something that college generally doesn’t offer you). Traveling will stretch your comfort zone and sense of the world and yourself like a hot air balloon, and coming back home can be a rather deflating experience (Really? Lame dad pun? #sorrynotsorry).

But don’t just let your experiences fade after sharing with friends and family — set up a talk at your school to share what you learned about other cultures, the world, and yourself. Share stories that will help people detect their own biases and the stereotypes that they are prone to making about the other parts of the world. Helpful would be to have a specific theme to your presentation — say you’re into archaeology and want to share a comparison between the bones in Mongolia, Africa, and Germany, and how that relates to mankind’s history, etc. Get creative! Apply to do a TEDx talk in your town! This will not only show college’s & /future employers that you take initiative and are a go-getter, but in working to articulate your experiences, you’re going to process your journey in a way that simply isn’t possible by writing about it or chatting with friends.

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[caption: I solemnly swear, to share my story upon return.]

 

Most importantly though…

Don’t let naysayers talk you out of going

I remember when I told most people what I was doing, hearing things like, “Oh, you’ll never go to college — that’s a terrible choice.” Hmm. Well… maybe I’ll just do it anyway, I thought. GOOD BOY — 90% of students who take a Gap Year return to college within a year. That’s almost 30 percentage points higher than the national average. The Gap Year has attracted a mythological skepticism bred from irrational fear. Don’t let other people get in the way of you making a decision to radically alter the quality of your life — let the haters hate, and go for it. Because if you don’t, chances are you’ll never look like this…

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Which is clearly what we all want out of life, am I right, or am I right?

Okay, MOST most importantly — this has been a lot of “don’ts.” What about the “Do’s”? Well there’s only one on that list..

DO let any and all monkey’s into your pants

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Have a wonderful journey 🙂

You can track Kevin’s footsteps on Instagram @voiceinsight, and on his blog–polychromasoul.blogspot.com.

The Precarious Art of Singing An Eleven Part Harmony

In music theory there is a term called a polyrhythm: when one hand uses a two count and the other hand counts in three. They are independent beats that carry well on their own, but when intertwined, they mix the way chilies and chocolate do.

In my head, I can draw a line between polyrhythms and love. I’ve been of the belief for a long time that love is not two puzzle pieces of a whole, rather, it is two hearts that beat in time with each other.

I fondly refer to my arrival in Estes Park as a crash landing. The girl who showed up there was desperate for friendship, and trying to speak the languages of twelve other people all at once with no prior learning experience. Smoke and ash filled the air as I smothered people with my presence, and I emerged from the wreck to find myself alone in a crowded room.

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Students at NOLS | Photo By: Leela Ray

I felt that way for quite a while. I missed my home, I missed my friends, I missed my ex. Every once in a while I would dip a toe into the waters of our group, only to recoil as I was scalded by my own mistakes. I stopped dipping my toes in.

I was lonely. My postured state left me unapproachable and callous, which only made me posture more. I had little to lean on save for an electric fence of a person whose touch made my chest numb and brought the taste of metal into my mouth. When I finally pushed him away, the lack of feeling still persisted. It spread into my arms, my head, my legs, my heart… I became a rippled reflection of myself, an unclear image of insecurities and doubt.

I’m what I refer to as a “stress-baker,” the graph that compares anxiety to amount of cupcakes produced is a line with a slope of one. In Costa Rica, at the end of our first trimester, I was assigned to work in a bakery for a week. It became my refuge. My jaw began to unclench, and my shell started to crack. That was the first time I saw Her.

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Leela in Belize

It was early one morning, I rolled over and sat up to see Her walk in on the sunlight that shone through my bedroom window and perch at my feet. She was a mirror image of myself, but something was off. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it was as if She was formed from the dough I’d been rolling, or the dense clouds that fed the forest of Monteverde. It might’ve been the way She stood tall, Her spine straight and strong next to my crippled one. I could feel Her heartbeat as She stood in front of me: jauntily skipping triplets dancing around the dull defeated thud my own two count had taken on in the past months. She reached out, and I felt my own hand raise to meet Her’s. She stood, and I did too. She smiled, and I felt the near forgotten tug at the corners of my chapped lips. Then like a puppet master, She slipped into my shadow, and I watched as my shoulders relaxed and my chin lifted. I didn’t feel so alone.

The last two weeks of that trimester passed in a blur. I was at peace in the company of Her, and for some reason, that brought me closer to the people in our cohort. I went home no longer dreading my return to Winterline, but longing for it. Yet as the winter holidays passed, the proverbial “cuffing season” seemed to be ending. I saw less and less of Her, and more and more of someone not quite who I was, but not quite whom I wanted to be either. I felt abandoned by Her. I knew better than when I started this whole thing, but I also had a long ways to go, so I arrived in Cambodia with a new idea: stop thinking, start doing.

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Cambodian temple | Photo By: Leela Ray

Tired of constantly being stuck inside my own head, I set out to really immerse myself in the countries we visited, and consequently I fell in love. It was painful at first, being alone. My heart was heavy with it’s hollow pulse. But as with every breakup, the more time that passed, the less I thought of Her.

I fell in love so many times I’ve lost count. I basked in the embrace of the Thai sun, Cambodia’s history stole my breath, India whispered secrets in my ear late at night and Venice made my knees weak with its beauty. Germany was a tease, its cold touch sending shivers down my spine, and Austria showed me that a second chance over good drinks can change your perspective. I became un-numb. With every new experience I grew, and with every day I woke up feeling a little fuller, and little more independent, a little less lonely for Her.

Every country gave me a piece of it, but Hungary was a place that made me want to give a piece of myself back. Something about the way the wind pulled at my hair by the river, and how the people spoke to my soul made me want to stay forever. Budapest grabbed my hand and dragged me to places I never expected to see; it held me up when I felt like I couldn’t stand, challenged me to see in new lights and brought me soup when I had a fever of 102 degrees. Hungary ripped off my blinders and helped me see beyond myself, I was alive. 

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Leela and friends celebrating Holi

On my last morning there, I dragged myself out of bed and into the bathroom. Blinking in the harsh light, I kept my head down to brush my teeth and wash my face. I was resistant to leave, to pack my things and return to the noise of my group, but I knew my time in Budapest had taught me all it could. I paused for a moment, feeling the water drip off my chin, and reflected on the person I’d become. I felt stronger and more competent than I ever had before, and despite my want to stay, I knew I was ready to step out into the world. With a new resolve, I grabbed my towel to dry my face, and when I finally looked in the mirror, I felt my breath hitch in my throat. Someone else was looking back at me. Graceful and confident, eyes ablaze with passion and courage, slender yet strong fingers holding the same towel I felt in my own grasp. I raised my hand to touch my face, and so did She.

 

Tuktuks and Tourists

A roundtrip tuk tuk ride to the Cambodian Landmine Museum for the seven of us, which will need to include two carts and takes about an hour each way, costs eighteen dollars total. The leather on the seat is cracking and worn, but comfortable. Our tuk tuk drivers speak enough English to negotiate prices, but not to answer any questions that we have about the ride there. We don’t even know enough Khmer to say “thank you” yet, so we resort to smiles and grip the hanging handrails as we begin the journey. My tuk tuk pulls ahead slightly when the second has to pull over to get gas, a process which involves pouring something close to gasoline out of an old Fanta litre bottle into the fuel tank. Gas pumps are few and far between outside the city.

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View of the road outside the Landmine Museum | Photo By: Paris Geolas

We weave through the streets of Siem Reap, and I can’t keep my eyes in one place. Half the drivers are on motorbikes, some with up to two other passengers casually perched on the back. Most of the motorbike drivers are Cambodian, ranging from kids on their way back from school in their white and navy uniform, to people in street clothes, which consists of solid colored pants and shirts. The only people in tank tops and shorts are tourists. They, like us, are lounging in the backs of tuk tuks, hiding behind pairs of Ray-Bans and shielded from the heat. Tuk tuks and motorbikes make up most of the vehicles on the road, but there are a few cars and buses in between.

The traffic patterns remind me of being a kid and dropping a chip on the ground and slowly watching ants engulf and extirpate it. It’s a system, but impossible to understand as an outsider. To my ignorant eyes, it seems like utter chaos. Lanes are nonexistent, everyone drives like they own the road. Even at a standstill, motorbikes swerve in between cars and tuk tuks to be the first to turn. I have yet to see a single traffic light. Yet there is a method, and they do own the road. The drivers look disinterested in what is just their daily commute, as I am completely engrossed.

As we head out of the center of Siem Reap the shops and buildings begin to thin out, and road stands take their place. They boast of discounted brand apparel, mostly knockoff Supreme and Adidas. Huge Chinese lantern stands gleam red and gold, almost spilling into the street. The dirt from the road turns from a gray brown to orange the further out we get. I initially try to move my hair out of my face, but eventually give up completely. The strands of dirty blonde flying in front of my eyes add to the experience. Nicole sits in front of me, her red backpack strap wrapped around her ankle. Motorbikes have been known to fly by tuk tuks and snatch bags. We yell to each other to be heard over the motor, but I don’t have much to say.

Now twenty minutes outside the city, road stands have snacks and piles of simple button down shirts and the infamous “elephant pants”, loose enough to fend off sweat stains, respectful enough to wear to temples, and trendy enough to pull off, all for only a couple dollars. These stands are made for tourists. There are also huge pots sitting low to the ground with billowing smoke. When we ask what they are, James buys us a sample of the contents, palm sugar drops. He tells us they also make palm wine, something that we shouldn’t try in our time here because there’s no way we have the alcohol tolerance. The palm sugar drops are smokey sweet with a grainy texture. I don’t want to eat any more but I can imagine that it would taste great wedged between the back of my cheek and my molars, laying underneath the sun in a hammock staring up at the leaves, as I see a lot of the people we pass are doing. We pass rice fields being burned to bring back the nutrients, one of the reasons that the sky is perpetually gray. It makes the palm trees look even more green. A shirtless teenage boy stands in a puddle a few feet deep with a fishing net. The kids on the side of the road smile and wave to us. We wave back.

When we reach the Landmine Museum, it’s tough to walk around. Founded by Aki Ra, a former child soldier during the Khmer Rouge, the museum doubles as a safehouse for children seeking an education. There are rooms full of the children’s paintings right next to the rooms full of thousands of disabled landmines. It makes you feel something you can’t quite describe, but it’s nothing different from what you felt on the tuk tuk drive over. After spending a few hours at the museum, we walk to the shake stand next door and drink out of coconuts. You can even get an Angkor (the local beer) if you want. I sit there watching, and something in the road catches my attention.

A motorbike rushing by hits one of the street dogs crossing the road. The dog starts howling and the bystanders stand up, some of them rushing to the side of the street. The driver falls, screaming, and the bike skids across the road. The woman who gave us our tickets rushes away from the scene with her now crying child. A couple people rush to help the man up, and he pushes them off and grabs his bike. The dog is nowhere to be seen. He wheels the bike over to the side of the road, dusts himself off, and doesn’t respond to the people shouting at him in Khmer. A couple minutes later, he gets on the bike and drives away. 

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View of truck on the drive | Photo By: Paris Geolas

I used to call myself a driver but now I no longer feel entitled to that name. The tuktuk drive to the Landmine Museum is beautiful, I never for a second wanted to close my eyes. But there is something else that eats away at you, something you do want to close off. It’s the feeling you don’t have a name for, not guilt, not empathy. It hollows you. It would be impossible to travel to a place like Cambodia and not check your privilege. You see it in your hotel mirror, in the thread count of your jeans, in the plastic cards filling up your wallet. The tuktuk drive has left me with orange dirt on my T shirt, a shirt which cost more than the entire drive. I am more thankful for the clothes I wear. I am thankful for the knots in my hair from the wind on the drive.

Lesson #2 from My Gap Year: Try Everything

A follow up of Ben’s first post about his gap year.

A Gap Year is a fantastic way to get some answers. Typically, more important than finding what you want to pursue, is finding out what you absolutely don’t want to pursue. Prospective gap year students should seek the greatest breadth of experiences possible in order to check off potential areas of study, and pursue the short list that remains once in college.

Designing my own gap year is still one of my greatest accomplishments. I take pride in the fact that I turned “I’m not ready for college yet” into one of the most productive years of my life. I hiked the 2,174.6-mile Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, worked in a variety of industries, and taught English in Peru. In looking at potential interests that I pursued, however, I was only able to check off a few. I learned that I didn’t want to work in telemarketing or light fixture manufacturing (no surprise there), data entry, or retail. But these were the jobs that I could get straight out of high school. The good news is this lesson made me really want to get a college degree, so my first semester in college yielded my highest grades yet. The bad news? I still didn’t know what to study.

I came away from my gap year interested in education, but my lack of breadth throughout the year meant my examination of other disciplines was far from over. I started majors in communication, economics, psychology, philosophy, and anthropology. I waited until the last possible day – halfway through sophomore year – to declare my major as international relations. I wandered through more than a third of my college education. J.R.R. Tolkien was right when he wrote that, “Not all who wander are lost” – in fact, I had a pin stating that on my backpack for the entire trail that year – but when the financial stakes are as high as they are in college, it’s best to have focus.

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My advice to you: don’t treat your college tuition money like the entrance to a buffet. Instead, spend your gap year doing as much as possible in as many areas of interest as possible. You will become a well-rounded person, a greater asset to your school and future employer, and a more interesting person!

A skills-based gap year is the best way to ensure that when you step on campus as a freshman, you’ll know what to do next.

A Lesson from My Gap Year: Relax, You’re Awesome.

High school students receive drastically different messaging than I do as someone in the field of experiential education. They’re asked every day what they want to be when they grow up, where they are going two months after they graduate from high school, what they want to study, and what they want to accomplish. Most of the adults who ask that probably don’t even know what they want to be, do, or accomplish, so they’re asking pretty unfair questions.

My favorite thing about getting out of high school and college is that I now hear a completely different philosophy. My colleagues consistently say that there’s no way a high school student should be expected to know what they want to study, let alone what they want to do with their life. My life goal is to make sure high school students receive similar, more supportive messaging.

If you’re thinking about taking a gap year, you’re probably feeling pretty vulnerable. People probably ask you “why?” Because you have guts, that’s why. If something doesn’t quite feel right about going straight to college, listen to your gut, and figure out a responsible plan of action. People will understand – even if it’s after the fact.

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Senior year, students at my high school consistently asked me why I wasn’t going straight to college, and they asked the question with both curiosity and a palpable tone of confusion. A few weeks into my gap year, I was a couple hundred miles into the Appalachian Trail when a Facebook group popped up: “I wish I was Ben Welbourn.” Front and center: a photo of me conquering another mountain. It was created by our class president/football captain/lacrosse captain/resident stud. That was my first positive reinforcement from a peer, and it happened over a year after my decision to defer from college. After that, I got more and more support from high school friends and complete strangers from the college I was yet to attend. Be patient!

A week before graduation, my high school Spanish teacher asked me what my plans were post-high school. When I told her I was about to start a gap year, she told me “Yeah, that’s probably a good idea.” Initially, I took that as an insult, as if she was telling me, “Yeah, you’re a mess, so you’re probably not ready for college.” I’ve kept in touch with her long enough to know now that she just saw a gap year as a great opportunity for me to find focus.

Stick to your guns, but put in the leg work to make sure that once you do take your gap year, you’ll come out with new skills and experiences that everyone will appreciate.

How a Gap Year Can Add Value to Your Career

While taking a gap year has become an increasingly popular trend among high school seniors for various reasons, there are many benefits to doing so for those who are in the workforce, too. Whether you’re about to don your cap and gown — or already among the employed — taking a gap year offers specific advantages that can positively affect your career.

 

What a Gap Year Is All About

In a recent post by Counseling@NYU, which offers an online masters in school counseling from NYU Steinhardt, titled “Gap Year Basics: How Taking a Year Off Increases the Ceiling for Students,” looks at the dynamics of a gap year. Although some may view such a choice as a luxury, individuals take gap years for various reasons — such as saving for college, working, traveling or for religious purposes. In an interview for the article, Ethan Knight, executive director of the American Gap Association (AGA), noted that serious gappers dig deep to learn more about themselves. He says they: “… confront limits they didn’t know they had, succeed more frequently than they would have thought before, and are exposed to new and different ways to lead this thing called life.”

5 Ways a Gap Year Can Benefit Your Career

There are many advantages to taking a gap year. In addition to the positive results of its own 2015 National Alumni Survey, the AGA highlights data across a variety of studies that show what benefits can result from making this choice. This and other resources demonstrate the advantages that are possible, including the following five:

 

  1. A better sense of self and deeper multicultural understanding — which helps individuals learn how to cope with new challenges in a creative manner.
  2. The acquisition of new skills and knowledge for career enhancement — many of the attributes that employers look for can be gained during gap year activities. Many take a gapyear to learn a new trade, or do a short course that enhances their skills.
  3. Increased job satisfaction and employability — studying abroad during a gap year has been shown to have a big impact on getting both jobs and promotions.
  4. Expanded networking potential — made possible both by extensive travel and the ability to shed the pressures felt back home.

When Your Gap Year Is Over

Although it may seem daunting to re-enter the workforce or school after the gap year is through, there are specific things you can do to ease your transition. If you’re headed to school and your admission has been deferred, be sure to contact the institution involved and let them know you’re ready to hit the books. When it comes to getting back into the workforce, it’s important to let your current employer know you’re back — and to rework your resume if you’re looking for something knew. The AGA offers the following tips for doing so:

  • Communicate the value of your experience clearly.
  • Focus on the skills you acquired, rather than the experiences you enjoyed most.
  • Structure your resume correctly, with gap experience under the right section, like ‘Volunteer Experience’
  • Know your audience and what role you want, and align your resume accordingly.
  • Use specific metrics to be concise and communicate the value of your experiences.
  • Remember that a gap year is seen by many as a choice made by the privileged, which is not always the case. Clearly articulate why you took the gap year and emphasize the well-rounded experience.

Knight expounded further in a recent interview for Fast Company, offering the following recommendations:

  • Treat your experience like a job and include it in your application materials.
  • Be clear about why you took a gap year.
  • Know what the employer is looking for and show how the gap year has helped.

If you plan your gap year strategically, embrace the experience fully, and communicate its benefits clearly — you can enhance your self-growth while adding value to your career.

 

Colleen O’Day is a Digital Marketing Manager at 2U, based out of the Washington DC area. Colleen supports community outreach for 2U Inc.’s social work, mental health, and K-12 education programs