Monteverde Independent Study Project

When we talk about Independent Study Projects, we often emphasize the Trimester 3 ISP most heavily. After all, this is the project that you spend Trimesters 1 and 2 planning and gearing up for. It’s the biggest taste of independence, and one of the most unique parts of a Winterline gap year. However, did you know that during the first trimester, you get an ISP, too?

In Monteverde, Costa Rica, our students get to participate in an ISP that’s a little more structured since it occurs so early. While no two students can participate in the same Trimester 3 ISP, students may work side-by-side in their Trimester 1 ISP. However, there’s only one student per homestay family.  That’s right; in Trimester 3, students find their own ISP accommodations. But in Trimester 1, students are placed with a local family. This allows you to become immersed in the cultural experience, connect with new people, and learn even more skills.

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Homestay family

There’s a long list of potential Trimester 1 ISPs that students get to pick from. Below we’ve highlighted just a few of the possibilities to give you a glimpse of how much Monteverde has to offer!

  • Coffee – Farm to Cup
    • If you can’t start your day without caffeine, you’ll love this experience. Students will learn and practice the process that coffee goes through from seed to cup. This includes fertilizing soil; picking, washing, and drying coffee; running sample roasts; and even preparing espressos!

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      Grinding coffee beans
  • Handcrafted Paper
    • We use paper all the time, but have you ever really considered how it’s made? Now, you can learn how to turn pulp into paper. Not only will you get to create the pulp and screen it into paper, but you’ll take it to the next step and learn bookbinding!

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      Screening paper
  • Horsemanship
    • Animal lovers, this one’s for you. Learn how to take care of horses the Costa Rican way. First, you’ll get a basic lesson in horseback riding. From here, you’ll tackle feeding and washing, checking and cleaning equipment, and even shoeing and training the horses! Once you’ve got this down, you can improve your riding skills on a horse tour.winterline, gap year, monteverde, horse
  • Medicinal Plants
    • Herbalism is both an art and a science, meaning this ISP can appeal to anyone. You can pick up botanical vocabulary and learn how to identify plants, as well as their medicinal properties and herbal actions. Once you know what they do, you can use them to prepare teas and other products!winterline, gap year, monteverde, plants
  •  Traditional Cooking with Local Crops
    • The best way to understand another culture is to eat their food. Not only will you learn to prepare Costa Rican cuisine, but you’ll do so using fresh and local food produce, like yuca, corn, and guava. Each day, you’ll learn about the ingredient, what you can make out of it, and taste its flavor.

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      Cooking in Costa Rica

Remember, these are just five of our 30 ISP possibilities! If you were going to Monteverde today, which ISP would you pick? Is there anything in Costa Rica that you’d love to get hands-on experience in that we haven’t listed? Let us know!

6 Things To Pack For A Gap Year That You Probably Didn’t Think Of Yet


In preparation for our gap year programs, we create detailed lists of things students should absolutely not leave home without. Our field advisors travel with our students through India, the Colorado wilderness, Costa Rica, and beyond, and never fail to come back with sharper insights.

These prep lists cover everything from technology, the bare essentials, safety protocol, travel bags, toiletries, daily wear, even swimwear and sun protection.

Here are six things we recommend if you’re heading off for what could be the craziest year of your life.

1. Ziploc bags.

Ziplocs can be a lifesaver. They serve the same purpose as waterproof stuff sacks, but they can be used for a wide variety of needs and stuff themselves into the small corners of your bag. If you’ve ever needed to keep something dry, fresh, or not spilling over all your other stuff, you’ve known the value of ziplocs. They’ll help you keep items like notebooks, medicines, cameras, high-calorie snacks, and other items dry. Pack 5-10 large ziplocs for your trip.


2. Immunization / vaccination card.

Too many people forget this item when traveling around the world. The thing is, you never know when you’ll need to show your immunization history. You could get stuck by a twisty barbed wire fence, or it could be a matter of getting a visa for a country on your bus detour. Your immunization/vaccination card will help expedite some of the most stressful situations you will hopefully never face while traveling the world. Never leave home without it!


3. GoPro Hero 4.

Inevitably, you’ll want great photos of your experience, something to remember all the crazy experiences you’ve had by. But if a camera can feel like it’s pulling you out of the experience, strap a GoPro to yourself and you’re good to go. You get to keep both your hands free and do whatever it is you’re doing, knowing you can look back on it and laugh someday.

A solid camera will capture your experiences while not making you feel like you’re walking on broken glass. The GoPro Hero 4 takes high quality video, photo, and timelapse, and won’t break if you drop it under water.


4. Rashguard Shirts

If you’re planning on doing any water activities, you’ll always be running the risk of rashes, as well as plenty of sun exposure. A rashguard shirt will guard you from rashes, obviously, as well as keep you from getting super sunburned or having to put on sunblock every 2 hours on every part of your body. Plus the tanlines look really cool.


5. Water bottles and bladders

Every time you leave your camp or hostel for the next place, as a rule of thumb, you’ll want to have 2L of water on you. You never know when you’re going to fill up next, especially if you’re in a country or region without a lot of clean water (it happens). Wide-mouth Nalgene bottles are extremely useful for a variety of contexts, from just water, to mixing in hydration salts, iodine, and emergency medicines. They’re also easy to clean. Bring two of them.

Nalgenes take up space, even when they have nothing in them. If you prefer a more flexible shape, a water bladder can be useful. It’s not recommended to mix things into them, and they’re less easy to clean, but they’re adaptability and size is definitely a strong point.

Either way, don’t go without water. 3 days without it, and “you’ll perish.”


6. Moleskin blister padding

Nothing will bum your day out more than blisters (besides no water). Bring the right socks and break in your shoes before any long treks and you still may need a little extra padding and relief. Moleskin padding can keep you going when your feet are dead, but your legs are fine. Heck, even the US Army uses it. But it can be hard to find in far off places, so don’t leave home without it.

Is there anything special you think we forgot? What’s the number one item you would want with you while traveling?

On Teaching Failure: Words from a Winterline Field Advisor

This came up for me some time ago as I sat on the edge of a bed with a dear friend. Her baby and my niece, 7-month old Sylvie, lay several feet away snoring as though the world were her protector and that bed were a cocoon of safety and light. I told Jenny that I constantly found myself in situations that push me beyond what I am comfortable with. It is not a conscious decision, but one rooted in some deep part of my internal landscape where growth and the desire to become fully awake and fully open in heart and mind are a driving force beyond my navigation skills. I crave comfort and stability, yet I embark upon a life of instability and sped up change

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When I reflect on why I constantly find myself in front of young people in tough places, acting as a self-declared mentor of sorts, I can’t help but ruminate on why I choose to take on such a bold task given how my life has unfolded thus so far. I find thoughts running through my head that there has to be someone more adjusted and better suited to such a monumental task. What I’m learning is that there is a massive thread of intention that guides me forward and across the paths of these young people. And it is that intention that is needed, not the illusion or allure of precise measurement or perfection.

There’s something enthralling about offering up a lifetime of experiences to someone who is still on the threshold of figuring out who they are and how they fit into the world around them.

That gift does not mean I have to have expertly figured out how to live, it simply means I am present and aware. The word “guide” has always felt more appropriate than teacher – the intersection of the monastic life and that of a teacher within one degree of separation upon a large sundial of how I fit within society.

Why work so hard on self, on increasing the quality of life for myself and those around me? There is this funny little f-word (no, not that one!) that has taught me more about being human and doing right in this world than any textbook or piece of quixotic internet advice ever has – failure.

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I stand in front of young people in the hopes of modeling the sort of behaviors and actions it has taken years of hard work to get to. I stand in front of youth because I envision a world where the practices, programs, and relationships that have created the best of being human within all of us, are part of our upbringing and part of the rhythm of our communal growing-up.

But then I come back to the f-word and I hesitate to create a world where all the answers are perfect and all the people are pure and wise. Somewhere I know this to be true, but it is the path forward, often laced with f-word breathing dragons that makes us whole and full of grit.

Thank god for my failure I think now. Thank you, with all the gratitude we little humans can muster, for the hurt, the shame, the failures of those around me to protect me from life and for the runaway emotions that threatened to drown me as sure as I knew the day would end. It is in that place, where I can accept myself in shadow and light, that my heart opens further and the thing I perceive as having the power to destroy me actually becomes the wisest teacher of all.

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What is this quality, and how can I stand in front of young people and teach them that failure is OK, but self-doubt is not? The decisions you make, what happens to you, is not who you are. What matters is how you move forward and the determination with which you fight to be the best person and create the best world possible. That is worth walking through the self-determining gauntlet of failure.  Attitude, then, fundamentally shapes how we perceive what comes to us in life, both good and bad. Our downfalls and shortcomings quickly become our greatest asset for empowerment and inspiration.

Fundamentally we are all sitting in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to become our biggest and best selves.

The perception of inadequacy or misappropriation a terrifyingly delicate and appropriate place from which we can let go and enter the current of our own lives.

The external, that piece that we claim as our personality and deeply personal aspects of our lives, is driven by choice and intimately linked with our egos that are designed to protect and serve at all costs. When then, does our creation of safety and familiarity become the aversion to the exact thing that will allow us move into deeper connection with self and other?

Go out of your way to take a risk, to engage the notion of failure within your world view. I promise you will discover qualities of yourself that you didn’t know and you will find a greater place from which to decrease the isolation of being a modern human being. The only thing separating us from our biggest selves might be holding our potential for failure in one hand and our potential for greatness in the other.

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There’s a Jesuit idea that has at its core that the place you will encounter the most growth – spiritually, emotionally, and communally – is that place you resist the most. It’s confrontation on a personal level where our fears and self-doubt meet the external stimuli that gives those darker or harder places within us life.  Thomas Merton once confided in his mentor his fears of entering the priesthood and his strong aversion to death and dying. In response, his mentor decided the best place for him to grow was to be of service within a hospital in a hospice ward.

Virginia Tech is Giving Scholarship Money to Gap Year Students

Imagine this: you got admitted to your top choice school, eagerly accepted, and then been told that too many others have enrolled. However, you can defer your acceptance for a year in exchange for compensation. This is the case for many hopeful incoming freshman at Virginia Tech: so many students accepted an offer of admission that there are $1,000 more students than actual spots in the freshman class. In an attempt to solve this issue, Virginia Tech is offering three options for students to reduce the freshman class size: take free summer classes, take classes at community college for a year and receive a guaranteed transfer, or take a gap year with guaranteed admission upon return.

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If students choose to take advantage of Virginia Tech’s offer, there is no shortage of programs like our own. In exchange, students will receive an additional $1,000 scholarship and priority for housing on-campus. The school also noted that students will “now have the opportunity to travel, work, engage in a service project, or any other endeavor that is important to you.”

This news may certainly catch students and families off guard and change plans. However, it’s not the end of the world. After all, no students are having their acceptances revoked, but rather reorganized into different semesters. While it may not have been students’ first choice, this incident actually offers students the ability to expand their horizons and experiences before settling into college life.

Why should students consider this option?

A common worry is that students will take this gap year and consequently lose interest in, or focus on, schoolwork. However, research shows that the opposite is actually true, and students can be reinvigorated by taking time off from a traditional classroom learning environment. There are a variety of proven gap year benefits. If students are unsure about their major, a gap year is a great time to try new skills, learn what you’re good at, what you like, and what you dislike. If students know exactly what they want to study, a gap year offers the opportunity to learn outside of that major without taking up space in a busy schedule.

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Learning robotics in Austria | Photo By: Alex Messitidis

For students realizing they want a longer a break, structured programs can range in length from weeks to months. For students who are itching to start their higher education, the Winterline program offers college credits, and other programs cater more directly toward educational experiences.

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Traveling in Thailand | Photo By: Meagan Kindrat

Students accepted to Virginia Tech who are trying to figure out their next step and students who have begun to think more about the future following this news, let us remind you: there is no right or wrong next step. Any path you choose will lead you toward your future and teach you important lessons along the way. This incident teaches us how plans can change at any moment. So why not embrace the unexpected and consider exploring the world on a gap year?

Discovering the World – and Yourself

Recently, we came across an article that emphasized a very important point: “gap years are really useful for two purposes: finding yourself and optimizing yourself. But both of these things take some intentional work – they don’t just happen automatically.”

We can wax poetic about how a gap year is a great way to find yourself, and it’s true! But it’s also very true that things won’t just fall perfectly into place without any effort on your own part. You have to be mindful about how your gap year is influencing you, and how you want it to influence you. One way to do this is to set goals, and keep track of their progress in a journal.

Journaling at Sunset Costa Rica

It’s ok if your goals aren’t super specific; it’s hard to know exactly what you’ll learn or like. So build that in when you’re forming them! You can set skills-based goals like: learn 10 words in a new language, and keep track of the ones you learned and how you used them, or find an outrageous skill that you’re really good at (maybe you’ll surprise yourself with bicycle maintenance or at clown school). You can set cultural goals: try 10 new foods and write about what they were, how they’re made, and whether you liked them; talk to people you wouldn’t normally talk to and write down their life stories; do a deep dive into the history behind 5 cities or locations that you felt a particular connection to.

Winterline Global Skills Paris Geolas

This approach has two purposes. First, by setting goals, you’re setting a base expectation of what your gap year will entail. Use your itinerary to form these, and you can always reach out to a staff member of your program if you’re unsure whether your goals are accurate or attainable. Setting goals will also give you direction and ambition: when a plate of food is set in front of you that isn’t what you consider appetizing, remember you made a promise to yourself to try it. When you have a free day and the options are to hang out around the house or explore the local scene, challenge yourself to take advantage of the new opportunity.

Second, by journaling about your experiences (can you tell this is something I’m passionate about?) you’ll be able to reduce the clutter in your head while preserving your thoughts, experiences, and memories as they are right now. By thinking of the future and reflecting on your experiences as they happen, you’ll be able to reconsider your expectations, your interests, your likes and dislikes – which will lead you down the path of self-discovery.

And of course, along with discovering your true self comes the opportunity to become your best self. Whether you’re headed to college or work after your gap year, there will be some unexpected challenges. But you can use your newly learned skills to help smooth the transition. When you’re quite literally traveling across the world, you’ll develop task and time management skills that will allow you to juggle a workload. You can cultivate these skills intentionally by familiarizing yourself with a planner or calendar – paper or digital, your choice! Scheduling will teach you to make time for what’s most important to you, therefore giving you the chance to reflect on your own passions and priorities.

Your gap year shouldn’t be all fun or all work, but instead a healthy mix of both. And don’t forget, they can (and will!) overlap! So don’t worry, because things will work out, but don’t let your trip pass you by without making the most of it, either.

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….


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–

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.


Hear Me Roar: ThinkImpact Director Gabriela Valencia

In October 2018, fellow Winterliners and I volunteered in the small town of Piedras Gordas, nestled in the mountains of Panama. Under the guidance of ThinkImpact instructors, each of us chose to work with one local entrepreneur: Señor Onecimo, Señora Edithe, or Señor Ernesto. During our stay, we embarked on projects ranging from constructing trails through the jungle to planting one hundred coffee shrubs. To gain a better understanding of the goals of the ThinkImpact program, I spoke with Gabriela Valencia, ThinkImpact Country Director for Panama.

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Gabriela Valencia

Could you tell me about yourself? What motivates you?

Gabriela: I was born and raised in Panama, specifically in Panama City. Like many Panamanians I am the product of a mixture of cultures. My mom grew up in Argentina and my dad is Panamanian. But I was born here, so I’ve known Panama my whole life. At the same time, I grew up in a household where influences from Argentina played an important role in my life.

I studied in Panama and attended architecture school. When I finished studying, I started working for different architecture firms. In 2007, I received a Fulbright scholarship and got my masters degree in architecture from Ball State University, Indiana. My studies really emphasized human-centered-design and more of a social approach to architecture.

When I came back to Panama it was hard to find social development projects that were very connected to architecture. So I started looking for other opportunities and ended up working for an NGO called Global Brigades. It’s a large organization that uses a holistic development model to improve quality of life for people around the world. They start with public health and then they move into things like economic empowerment, human rights, and environmental conservation. Global Brigades supports and focuses on university students. The idea is that you meet the interests of students and connect them with communities that have certain needs, but that can also teach them things. It’s a really unique chance for both the students and the community to learn from each other.”

Could you give me an overview of ThinkImpact and its mission? How is it different from Global Brigades?

Gabriela: Sure. ThinkImpact is centered more around social innovation, while Global Brigades is development. ThinkImpact focuses on shorter skill-building projects while Global Brigades focuses on more long-term goals.

ThinkImpact connects students with communities to develop solutions to local issues and improve the quality of life within the community. At the same time, ThinkImpact teaches students how to work with local entrepreneurs and utilize their assets to create lasting change. ThinkImpact provides an environment for students to learn outside of the classroom and apply their knowledge through tangible social interactions and hands-on projects.”

ThinkImpact in Rwanda

What is your role in the organization?

Gabriela: My role is to identify potential entrepreneurs and partners that match the skills that the students can bring to make it a positive experience for everyone involved.

How do you choose a community to work with?

Gabriela: Sure. ThinkImpact is centered more around social innovation, while Global Brigades is development. ThinkImpact focuses on shorter skill-building projects while Global Brigades focuses on more long-term goals.

ThinkImpact connects students with communities to develop solutions to local issues and improve the quality of life within the community. At the same time, ThinkImpact teaches students how to work with local entrepreneurs and utilize their assets to create lasting change. ThinkImpact provides an environment for students to learn outside of the classroom and apply their knowledge through tangible social interactions and hands-on projects.”

How was Piedras Gordas chosen?

Gabriela: Piedras Gordas was a community that was recommended to us by organizations that had worked there previously. We chose it because it met all of our criteria regarding the needs of the community and learning opportunities for students. Personally, I have experience working in Piedras Gordas with Global Brigades, so I knew the community quite well. I knew a lot of the overall needs of the community and could match them to learning opportunities for students. Piedras Gordas has a lot of experience from various partnerships in the past years and that knowledge is one of their greatest assets.”

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What do you hope we take away from our homestay experience in Piedras Gordas, Panama?

Gabriela: To me, human interaction is the most important aspect of the program. By coming to a place like Piedras Gordas, students move out of their comfort zone in a lot of ways. Students leave home and come to a place where they don’t speak the language; where they have to get used to new environment and a different culture. One of the most valuable take-aways is to always maintain an open mind to human interactions. Approaching homestays knowing that you’re going to be uncomfortable, but that taking chances while trying to communicate with people is a valuable learning experience. This openness is an important skill and mindset not only for homestays, but for life in general.

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Renovation in Piedras Gordas | Photo By: Benjamin Kilimnik

Something that I explain to students is that 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.

What do you find most rewarding about your job at ThinkImpact?

Gabriela: My role is all about connecting students with members of the community. I try to make sure that the community’s needs are met while providing opportunities for students to expand their worldview. For me there’s nothing more satisfying than when an experience is meaningful and enjoyable for both the student and a community member. Moments like that are by far the best thing about my job.

Kids Who Travel More Perform Better in School

Can traveling more actually lead to better grades? A survey conducted by the Student and Youth Travel Association (SYTA) suggests that this is true. So if you’re trying to convince your parents to take you on vacation, or better yet, are searching to validate your dream of a gap year, look no further.

The SYTA surveyed approximately 1,500 U.S.-based teachers to examine the social impact that international travel has on students. The survey found that 74% of teachers believe travel has a very positive impact on students’ personal development. 56% believe it has a very positive impact on students’ education and career as well.

In fact, teachers believe that travel has an educational benefit in the same way that Winterline does. We like to focus on learning skills hands-on, outside the classroom. Almost 80% of teachers agreed that travel is extremely effective as a teaching resource compared to computer-based learning. 45% of teachers also agree that travel is extremely effective compared to classroom instruction alone. There truly is no better way for students to learn something than by trying it themselves! 

The positive impact on students themselves is noteworthy, too: the effects of travel include an increased willingness to know, learn and explore; better adaptability and sensitivity; increased tolerance and respectfulness across culture and ethnicity; increased independence and confidence; better self-expression; and more. You can find the entire list of results on the SYTA website.

And finally, 76% of teachers said that they observed students wanting to travel even more after participating in international travel. So why not apply for a program that brings you on not just one, or two, or three destinations, but ten? Check out a Winterline gap year for all of these benefits and more! However, if you or your parents worry that all this travel will make you want to forfeit higher education and career entirely, don’t fret. The survey also found that students who travel have an increased desire to attend college. So what are you waiting for?


8 Ways to Have the Best Gap Year: Part II

Last week we posted part I of our tips for having a great gap year. Here’s the rest of our advice!


5. Pursue one (or more than one) potential career.

One reason many people take gap years is because they don’t know exactly what they want to study. This doesn’t mean they don’t have interests, but they may not be able to decide on just one major.

If you are considering a few different areas of study, try them all during your gap year. You may find you hate engineering, are bad at coding, but really enjoy marine biology.

Pursuing your fields of interest may help focus you for college, so be sure to structure your gap year in a way that you can try multiple things, check some off your list, and enter college with a good idea of what you want to study.


6. At least plan the first few months.

Starting a gap year is a stressful process. You are leaving your friends and family to do something that is not normal. This will be a lot less stressful if you at least know what you’re about to go do. After all, you have a limited time with just one year. You want to make it count. Still, you don’t want to over-plan your gap year to the point that you have no room for flexibility. Plan at least the first three months so that you have a reason to walk out the door and start your adventure.

Within the first month, you will get into a rhythm and have confidence in what you’re doing. Once you’re well into your gap year, you may be confronted with other exciting opportunities. You might meet someone who owns a ranch, and has invited you to come work with them. You might make some friends who want you to join them on their trek along the Inca Trail.

If you have committed to one twelve-month project, you have removed your ability to be flexible and say, “yes” to serendipity. A good way to solve this problem is to either commit yourself to a few months in the beginning, or to find a program that offers a full range of experiences.


7. Stop worrying about your peers.

You are about to accomplish more than they will in their freshman year. If you think about them while on your gap year, you will slow yourself down.

You are taking a gap year because you want to take a leap and do something big. Do NOT spend this time looking to what everyone else is doing.

If you are looking for guidance before embarking on your gap year, talk to someone who has taken a gap year – not someone who has had the same experiences as you, and who is choosing to go straight to college. If it helps, please feel free to get in touch with me at I love talking about this stuff.


8. Be prepared to learn (don’t be prepared to teach).

Many people spend their gap years teaching at a school in another country (myself included), which is awesome, but you’ll likely learn at least as much from the experience as your students do.

Your students will teach you about life in their hometown and in their country. Be a sponge. This is your year to soak everything up that you can. You are not yet halfway to the average human life expectancy, which means the average person you’ll encounter on your gap year is older than you, and has more life experience than you.

You have more to absorb than you do to share. This is not meant as an insult, but as a motivator. This is exciting! You have so much unfinished business. So defer for a year, and go do it all.

8 Ways to Have the Best Gap Year: Part I


1. Defer for a year.

Before you graduate from high school, apply to college along with everyone else. You may be anxious about college, which is why you want to take a gap year. But if you don’t apply to college while you’re in high school, you will spend your entire gap year stressing out about what comes next. Even if you defer for a year, you can always change your mind and go somewhere else. But you will at least be set up to start your education.

From the college’s perspective: While colleges do encourage gap years, they want to see that you have a plan. Getting started early (or on time) shows that you are serious, and intend on having a constructive, productive gap year. This tip is huge. Nobody wants you to spend your gap year sitting at your parents’ kitchen table, stressing out about college applications.

Before applying to colleges, check in with each school’s admissions office to see how they treat deferrals. Asking will not hurt your chances of getting in, and it is crucial that you find schools that are encouraging of your decision to take a year, and will honor any scholarships you have been awarded. We live in a wonderful time, when most universities understand the value of a gap year, and will honor the scholarships you were offered during your time in high school.


2. Confront your weaknesses.

This one’s exciting. This is a time in your life when you should acknowledge your weaknesses, and confront them head-on. Figure out what you are afraid of, and do specifically that.

Your gap year is a relatively risk-free time. You haven’t made a substantial multi-year investment; you likely don’t have a mortgage, kids, or accountability to other people. This is a rare chance to jump into the deep end and do what makes you nervous, without any serious repercussions or lost opportunities; college will still wait for you.

Are you bad at speaking French? Go to France. Have you always wanted to get SCUBA certified, but are nervous about deep water? Go to Cambodia and jump in the water with a dive instructor. Are you interested in business management, but are nervous about public speaking? Join a business program and enter a public speaking boot camp.

If there are real risks to any of your interests, just be sure to pursue them through a reputable program. Other than that, your gap year will be the perfect time to overcome any fears you have about pursuing your interests. You will become a stronger, more confident, more interesting person.


3. Travel.

This may seem obvious, but there are countless benefits to traveling that go beyond seeing beautiful places and doing cool things. You are likely just graduating high school, and have spent your childhood at home with your family.

Families are more than a group of people with the same accent and nose. They are a group of people with similar values and experiences. When you travel, you meet countless people from different families – with different values, and different experiences. With this, come different opinions on politics, religion, the economy, and even on Justin Bieber (his “Purpose” album was actually pretty good).

Traveling will introduce you to totally different experiences and perspectives – some that you never thought of. You may try a food that is considered disgusting at home, but is actually pretty good. You may hear an opinion about your home country’s political leader, and you might find out how your government interacts with the rest of the world. In some cases, traveling may help you appreciate the way things are at home. Either way, it will give your thoughts more perspective, and your opinions more bases for legitimacy. Traveling creates well-rounded global citizens, and fosters empathy. Everyone should try it.


4. Work.

You have a high school degree. Congratulations! You’ve worked and studied for most of your life, so your degree really is a huge accomplishment. A college degree may be your next goal, but do you know what that degree is worth? I don’t mean how much it costs, but rather what its value is.

Spend part of your gap year working at a job, and you will quickly discover the value of your high school degree. Most likely, you will be able to get entry-level jobs that require little skill. You may get a job in customer service, data entry, or manual labor, but it is extremely difficult to get a job in your field of interest right out of high school.

I myself spent part of my gap year doing data entry in a factory that makes fluorescent light fixtures, I worked as a telemarketer, and I worked in customer service. Working during your gap year will quickly show you the kinds of jobs you can get with your new high school diploma, and will be a huge motivator to go to college and get a higher level degree.


Using Technology while Traveling

It can be hard to find the perfect balance of using technology and living unplugged while you’re traveling. All of these amazing gadgets exist that give you the power to capture every moment of your adventures, and you can find WiFi in almost any corner of the globe. However, do you know when to put the phone away and just live in the moment?

Winterline Blog Safely during gap year

Technology is great…

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for technology. It’s revolutionized the way that we travel. With a phone, camera, or other device of your choosing, you have endless abilities. You can take photos and videos that are so high-quality and immersive any viewer feels like they’re seeing the sights with you. You can maintain contact with anyone around the world, whether that be friends from home or others you’ve met on your journey. You can get directions and recommendations for what to see, what to do, where to go, at any time.

Even more so, technology allows us to be safe and responsible travelers even on our own. For those who travel solo, having a phone means you can contact people when in need, figure out what areas to avoid, or find your path if you’re lost. Along with all of this, technology allows you to cross a language barrier. Whether you need help contacting emergency services or reading a map or sign, translation is available at our fingertips.

Image result for google sign translate

And of course, this feature doesn’t only help us in worrying or dangerous times. This ability to transcend language differences means that we can connect with any and everyone we meet along our journeys. You can have conversations, written or verbal, with someone of any tongue using apps even as basic as Google Translate. This is incredible progress and can truly help bring together different people, people who you may not have ever had the ability to understand before.

…But we don’t need it 24/7

All of that said, it’s good to take a break from your phone. Take out your headphones and listen to the local sounds of chit-chatter. Close the Yelp app and follow your nose to whatever restaurant smells the best. If it’s safe to do so, turn your GPS off and let yourself get lost. You might discover something unique that you would have overlooked otherwise. Don’t just focus on getting to your destination; make sure to take a look at everything you pass along the way.

And of course, the camera. I love to take pictures and videos of everything I do, because I always worry that one day I won’t remember it. It’s a valid fear, but I realize that it takes away from my experience at times. The way that I’m trying to remedy this is only allowing one picture at each experience. Sometimes I follow this rule and sometimes I can’t stop myself, but at the end of the day, I don’t need 80 pictures of every beach I go to. I’d rather take one, if any, and really use my other senses: smell the ocean air, feel the wind on my face, dig my toes in the sand.

Spencer enjoying the sunset at a local beach
Spencer enjoying the sunset at a local beach

Technology isn’t bad, and it’s ok to use it. Just make sure that looking through the camera doesn’t keep you from seeing the world head on.


Panama: The Bridge Between Two Continents (mostly) and the Connector of Oceans

It’s an extremely humbling thing to take control of your life by completely letting go of the details. We didn’t know each other three months ago. We didn’t have any idea how we would get from place to place. We didn’t know the foods we would put in our bodies or the people we would meet, but everyone in the Winterline program had at least one thing in common.

We want adventure. Actually, let’s rephrase that… we crave adventure. We need something in our lives that can completely change the direction of the paths we will take in our futures. Whether it was climbing a mountain in the tiniest community with no air conditioning, partying in Panama City for days on end, or just relaxing at the beach with a couple (but just a couple) margaritas on a rest day, we kept chasing after each day for new experiences. We valued our nights just as much as the days, either too excited for the next day to fall asleep or passing out, exhausted, in one of our many different beds. Sometimes it felt like we haven’t slept in years because of how hard we tried to learn about the new communities and cultures. After living in Panama for about a month with my best friends, I can confidently say that we found a consuming adventure, which marks the beginning of our expedition traveling the world with one another, through Winterline.  

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First, we traveled to the Panama Canal to learn the history of the beautiful country we were living in. We went through a museum of the canal’s building process and watched a documentary on its purpose.. After exploring the area for a bit, we were informed there was a ship passing through and had the opportunity to watch the locks in action as we enjoyed the wonderful weather and sipped on iced coffee. Pictured above is our field advisor, Jeff, watching how the water levels rose and fell while delivering the cargo ship on its way into the Pacific.

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El Cocal marks our first home. We were briefed shortly on the special drinking water and lack of service and air conditioning. After embarking on what felt like a lifetime of driving, we found our homes in this tiny, relatively unknown community. In pairs, we were welcomed into homes of community members for our home-stays and given a quick tour of the area. I walked 15 minutes every day to get to the meeting area for work and food. We interviewed locals, played futbol with the teenagers, and we even climbed a mountain. We spent nine days here and it was the best way to commence our travels of Panama. Pictured above are the children of El Cocal, who welcomed us into their homes with a traditional dance ceremony.

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At the end of our stay in El Cocal, we were reunited with Squad 2 for an educational experience at the farms outside the town. Here, we took a tour around the sugar cane farms, learned to squeeze juices with old fashioned machinery, and learned about natural building. The picture above shows us preparing the mud to build up the walls. To do so, we jumped around in the mud and slowly added straw to help strengthen the house. Everyone working with us was extremely excited to teach us very knowledgeable about their town’s history.

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Taking to the water, we jumped in some kayaks to paddle our way out to the Caribbean Sea. After a brief instruction, we made our way to the historic area of Portablo, Colon and learned about how pirates attacked the port during the Spanish Empire. When we were still, we could hear howling monkeys throughout the jungle and feel the sun shining down on us on from the clearest blue sky. We finished our journey on foot through the trees to the battle ground,where we could see the ocean go on forever into the horizon. Pictured above are Josie and Becky taking a little break on our very physically demanding, but rewarding, trip.

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Next, we headed inside to learn about creation with our hands and were introduced to the educational work of the FABLABS. They showed us how 3D printers worked, how to use heavy machinery, and told us to use our imaginations to build anything we could think of. Pictured above is our friend, Katie, learning how difficult it is to cut a straight line with a hand tool. This was a great way of being introduced to wood work and getting a taste of how hands-on we can be, whether we want to make a simple keychain or build furniture for our home.

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After our day in the FABLAB, we put our skills to the test as we built house 2.0 which is the idea of building houses with reused materials for a very low price. This project started in efforts to end homelessness around the world. We bolted together large pieces of wood that we had cut out in the labs and spend hours in the heat working on. Becky and Josie were nothing but smiles as they held up the large beams while others inserted g the foundation pieces to keep our house up! We learned so much about teamwork and communication as we put up this house.

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In the streets of Panama City (literally), we teamed up with an urban innovation team to try out an idea we had. After noticing how busy the streets were around a preschool, we realized there were no crosswalks, no signs, and no speed bumps. We wanted to improve the safety for children seeking an education, so we grabbed some paint brushes and tape to create a combination of the three missing features.. We themed four streets of the sea to remind drivers of the school across the street and to keep kids from wandering too far from the sidewalks. Above are the whales we designed being painted by our friends of Squad 2, while others worked on bubbles, starfish, and sharks. We wanted to bring attention and awareness to the fact that this was an area where young kids were learning and we did just that with the bright colored paints and designs of the cities newest crosswalks!

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Across the street from our crosswalks, we found ourselves in a small bakery known for their Venezuelan empanadas. We were taught how they were originally made, how they are made now, and how they are different from traditional Panamanian empanadas. We took turns making our own personal empanadas filled with our choice of beef, chicken, fish, and, in my case, cheese and beans (plenty of great vegetarian options in Central America). Pictured above is Jason demonstrating his new skill of shaping dough before it’s filled and fried to perfection. After trying all of their specialty condiments and eating way too many empanadas, we left the bakery feeling even more connected to the community of Panama City through food.

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After a long days work, we did one of our favorite things: pile into one of our tiny rooms and listen to the stories we all had to share. Coming from all different places, New York City to Colombia, California to Kansas, we loved hearing about where each other came from. After spending every day and night together for weeks, it truly felt like I had known my squad for years, yet I still am learning new things about everyone every day. Fitting so many people into our small but comfortable living spaces sometimes lead to us being way too loud for the hostel and having to hang out outside, but we all loved staying up all night just talking to each other. Hostel Amador was the perfect place for getting to know each other while watching movies, playing ping pong and playing with our pet goat, Luna. (Our friend, Brogan, really loved that goat).

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Another interesting workshop we did was stopping by a famous Panamanian rum distillery. Here, we sampled the beer and rum they made and walked through the ways different drinks were created. We toured the machinery, which had many different processes of creating various alcohol flavors. Pictured above is our field advisor, Jeff, explaining to Tyler how the rum is transported through pipes from machine to machine.

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Sneaking away to Casco Viejo, Lydia and I enjoyed one of the most amazing helpings of Carbonara we had ever had. The food culture of Panama was something we all enjoyed and deepened our appreciation for the new and inviting places we traveled to. Some of our favorites (besides the endless supply of carbonara) were rice and beans (of course), empanadas, the pizzas and (veggie) burgers delivered by Uber drivers at all hours of the night, the Colombian crepes, delicious coffee, gyros, and anything from Cafe Niko’s.

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We stayed in many places in our travels around Panama, from hotels and hostels, to home-stays, and even our transport bus with Eduardo, driving from city to city on the scariest roads with the most intense drivers I have ever experienced. We never stayed in the same place for more than two weeks but somehow we were accepted in every community with open arms. Everyone showed patience with our horrible (but improving) Spanish and our loud nights that kept everyone awake. We enjoyed time with the locals who made us way more food than we could eat and taught us about the most important values of their culture – family. That’s how Panama impacted me in ways I will never forget. My family. I started this 9-month long adventure as an individual with thirty-one other young travelers and five loving field advisors and somewhere along the way we went from strangers to family. We take care of each other, we have fun together, we sometimes cry and get upset but I know they always have my back. The fifteen amazing people in my squad showed me the importance of living fully and completely but will never let me forget where we all began.

Somewhere in Panama, we found a home. This home wasn’t just in the city or in El Cocal or any one specific place. It was carrying all of our stuff on our backs, in the rain and scorching heat, together, as a group. My family is my home and that is how Panama is still with us, forever.

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Halfway There: An Interview with Ivan Kuhn

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Wilderness rockstar Ivan hiking through the Gila National Forest, New Mexico | Photo By: Benjamin Kilimnik

In a little under 2 months, we have trudged through the desert on a wilderness hiking expedition, lived with host families in the mountains of Panama, toured an MIT Fabrication Lab in Panama city, learned about permaculture in the jungles of Costa Rica, and became certified PADI divers off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica – just to name a few things. We have experienced so much in so little time, that it’s refreshing to take a step back and reflect on our experiences. As the first trimester drew to a close, I asked fellow squad member Ivan Kuhn to reflect on his experiences and to recall why he embarked on this journey in the first place.

Where are you from? Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

Ivan: I’m from Petoskey, Michigan. It’s a small town in northern Michigan about an hour south of the Mackinac bridge. It’s very cold there – almost always. We have very mild summers; the high this year was eighty nine degrees. I like it there.

Why Winterline? Why get out of your cozy town?

Ivan: I am not what you would call ‘good at school’. I’m not stupid, I just don’t enjoy learning things that I don’t like. Math classes especially are really hard for me. I would just keep thinking: why am I doing this homework for 10 points when I really don’t see the point of what I’m learning. Soon enough I stopped acing tests and my grades started slipping… Eventually, my family got concerned about it and questioned whether I would do well in college.

My grandma was actually the one who suggested a gap year. In her own words: “yeah, you’re not going to do well in college next year with the grades you’re getting. You need to find something to do; maybe a gap year.” I do want to go to college eventually, but I figured taking time to explore and figure out what I want to do in life would be a better opportunity.

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Ivan diving off the coast of Playa Flamingo, Costa Rica | Photo By: Ivan Kuhn

I am a total nerd when it comes to media. I’ve watched Lord Of The Rings, I’ve read the books, I’ve played the games – you name it and I’ve probably seen, played or read it…. Basically, I’ve been watching movies and thinking, “Wow, I wish I could do that. I wish I could go out and have my own adventure and make my own story.” When I got accepted to Winterline, it seemed like something out of fantasy. Honestly, I was kind of terrified at first. I have been playing all these games and pretending to be this character that goes on crazy adventures and now I’m actually doing it. This is my adventure. This is my chance to get out there and destroy my one ring.

What is your favorite skill so far?

Ivan: I really liked working in the Fab Lab (MIT Fabrication Laboratory) in the City of Knowledge, Panama. Getting to take a tour of the place was super cool, but going back in my own time to build something useful with the equipment there was even better. Especially because that is the kind of stuff that I have enjoyed doing back home – I mean, building things using 3D printers and all that jazz. Having access to great equipment and the unaided creative freedom to make whatever I wanted was really fun.

What is your takeaway from the past 2 months of traveling? Has it changed your perspective of yourself and others?

Ivan: At lunch the other day, we were looking at pictures from day one and it was hilarious. We look so freakin’ young. We look like children. We’ve just grown so much since then. As far as differences go, I feel way more independent, and more grown-up. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a kid on the inside; I’ll still fight you for a bag of Goldfish crackers, but I also feel like I’m out exploring the world and living my own life. It feels foreign and a little bit lonely, but mostly it’s awesome.

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Ivan contemplating the big blue pond (of life) | Photo By: Benjamin Kilimnik

Señor Ernesto’s Farm


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The Gate which sits just outside the entrance to Señor Ernesto’s Farm | Photo By: Maria O’Neal

Señor Ernesto’s farm sits at the top of a steep gravel road just outside of Piedras Gordas in rural Cocle. The walk up is nothing different from what we have seen so far, flanked by thick tropical forest, a few stout and brightly colored houses appearing every now and then. Most houses are one story, made of cement and plaster, and have a few hammocks and community members always decorating their porch.

Señor Ernesto is waiting for us at the end of a dirt path at the crest of the hill. He sits at just above five foot three but is undoubtedly stronger than all of us put together. Winterline has partnered with an organization called ThinkImpact to cultivate social innovation in the Piedras Gordas community. As we’re all unskilled workers with very limited Spanish, labor is our best method of communication. The farmer my group will be working with is Señor Ernesto. He leads us up without words, and he’s trailed by around twelve dogs all ranging in color and size, as well as a few kittens. He invites us to sit on his porch, and starts speaking. He’s quiet but holds a heavy wisdom is his words. Through our translator Felix, begins to explain the history of his farm.

It’s been a work in progress for the past five years, starting with a few plants and expanding into one of the largest and most impressive natural farms in this part of Panama. It serves three main purposes, one unspoken. It is most obviously a source of much community food production, and is one of the main sources of tourism for the rural and very out-of-the-way town. What became more clear to us in the week to follow was that the farm serves as a huge inspiration to other community members to work with permaculture and natural farming. Another farmer we spoke to, Señor Ornecimo, has worked on his own farm for seven years, and says that Ernesto’s farm still far surpasses him in size, production, and creativity.

After the introduction, Señor Ernesto takes us into the center of the lower half of his farm. It’s split into two main sectors, with his home and animals sitting in the center. In addition to the array of dogs and cats we saw, Señor Ernesto has chickens, pigs, and ducks. They are mostly free range, and occasionally pecked at our shoes as we headed down the hill into the farm. It’s about a ten minute walk along a windy and muddy path.

We finally reach a gated area which separates into two paths, one leading to a natural gazebo made of canopy and several handcrafted wooden benches, and another which snakes deeper into tropical forest. It’s clear immediately to my group that this is not like any farm we have seen before. The land is not flat, clear, or organized. It’s impossible to separate natural growth from crops except for what’s been designated with signs, clearly put in for tourists like us.

winterline, gap year
Señor Ernesto showing us how to measure an appropriate distance between coffee plants | Photo By: Maria O’Neal

Señor Ernesto takes us further into the dark while we take in as much as we can. Along the way he shouts out the names of plants as they appear. Banana trees, orange trees, coffee plants, cacao trees, and this is only a small section of his farm. As we walk, we begin to see how it works. New trees and plants have been integrated nearly seamlessly into existing forest, with a few sectors popping up here and there. Some open chicken coops, toolshed, and a fertilizer shack. After a brief tour of the farm, we’re instructed to come back the next day with questions and ideas.

We return the next day armed with curiosity. We’ve been sent to provide physical labor, but what we’ve truly come for is to learn. The farm is already incredibly impressive, but Señor Ernesto explains that he has far greater plans for it. We’ll be working on repairing trails and planting coffee sprouts, but he hopes that soon he’ll be building bunkhouses and bathrooms along the trails of the farm. When asked why, he describes his desire to make this a huge tourism hub in Piedras Gordas.

The farm will one day be able to house up to twenty people in the bunkhouses, enough for school and other groups to come stay for up to two weeks at a time. In addition to being able to explore and potentially work on the farm, Señor Ernesto wants to install a zipline on another sector of his land, and has a large boulder that he thinks tourists could use for climbing.

With so many things to do, Señor Ernesto will undoubtedly be bringing people into Piedras Gordas, but the dreams he has for the future of his farm all come back to one thing. Education. We ask why he wants so badly to bring new people in, and Señor Ernesto looks at us. He tells us that everything has has comes from the land, and because of that, everything he receives, he gives back. When he was first growing up in Piedras Gordas, he told us that all farmers cleared their land in order to farm. He felt the air become different from the lack of trees, and vowed never to cut down trees when he began to farm his own land. Now, he doesn’t cut down trees other than trimming branches, and he doesn’t import fertilizer. All fertilizer he makes himself using a composting toilet that a peace corps volunteer helped him install a few years back. In there, solid and liquid waste are separated, he mixes the solid waste with banana leaves and sawdust to make something better for the soil, and the urine becomes a natural pesticide.

He also shows us to his other source of fertilizer, his large compost bins. He recycles all of his food waste, paper, cardboard, and cartons back into the soil. While recycling is very difficult in this community, he fights back by reusing all plastic and glass containers. In a place where people have no choice but to burn their trash, these steps are monumental in building a more sustainable life. Señor Ernesto tells us that since he has made these practices public, community members are making their own composting bins, reusing their plastics, and clearing less land.

By bringing in tourists, Señor Ernesto believes that he will be able to not only show them the importance of natural building, permaculture, and sustainability, but prove that it is something anyone can do. Contrary to current belief, living an environmentally conscientious lifestyle does not have to be modern or expensive. Groups like us who come through his farm can see that it is achievable, and it is important.

Over the next two days, we will help build trails and plant crops, but we’ll take away new perspectives. It doesn’t seem like a fair trade for what we’ve learned and the generosity we’ve been shown. ThinkImpact sent us here to cultivate social innovation, but it feels more like this has something which has been cultivated within us.

Why You Should Sign Up for a Home Visit

We hope that to you, a gap year with Winterline sounds appealing. 9 months of traveling to 10 countries, learning new skills, meeting new people, seeing the world, re-energizing yourself for whatever waits upon your return? To many of you, it sounds like a dream come true, and it can be! But sometimes the hard part is getting your parents to see why it’s right for you. Our alum and former intern Anna wrote about how she got her parents on board. Luckily, Anna’s parents understood her reasoning, but it’s not always so easy. Which is why we want to help by talking to your parents ourselves.

Our Director of Outreach and Recruitment wrote about how excited she is to travel to some of your homes for a family visit, but we wanted to emphasize how uniquely beneficial these visits can be for you and your parents or guardians. We don’t want there to be any misunderstandings or unanswered questions about the Winterline gap year. And what better way to clear these up than to sit face-to-face with one of the staff who knows and embodies what our program stands for?

Caroline and Erica celebrating Holi at MUWCI | Photo By: Dini Vermaat
Caroline and Erica celebrating Holi at MUWCI | Photo by Dini Vermaat

Students, the first step is on you. Have a serious conversation with your parents about what taking a gap year means to you. Explain to them why you think this is the next right step for you, instead of college or work. Once you open this door, we can help you with the rest. Parents have their concerns about sending their children off around the world for 9 months; we understand that. So we want them to know that we’ve curated this program to be as safe, eye-opening, and fun as possible.

We can respond to the questions that you might not know the answers to: how our risk management and safety protocols work, what your tuition money goes to, or how we find our partners. We can tell them about the benefits of a gap year, in the educational, professional, and personal realms. We can show them the passionate faces behind the program and remind them that we truly care about making sure students and guardians alike benefit from a gap year. We can show them what makes Winterline special.

I’m Erica. I was a Field Advisor during the 2017-18 gap year program. Just like students, Field Advisors endure the highs and lows of the program: the excitement of new skills and the onset of homesickness, the moments of alone time and the feelings of togetherness, the elated feeling of scuba diving and the unfortunate feeling of eating a food that you probably shouldn’t have bought from a street vendor. We experience it all while making sure that students get the most out of their program by supporting them, having fun with them, and ensuring their safety.
Erica in Belize while a Field Advisor for Winterline.

The staff at Winterline are real people, just like you and your parents. We have a real interest in making sure that every single student ends up on their right track. So if for you, that track is a gap year, let’s make it happen. You can schedule a home visit with Erica by emailing and we’ll be in touch to figure out a date that works for all involved. Or if it’s better for you to do a video “home visit” we can do that too! Just let Erica know that is what you prefer.

Location Spotlight: Estes Park, Colorado

Blue Cohort having fun at Orientation | Photo by: Dini Vermaat

Our Gap Year program kicks off with orientation at YMCA of the Rockies located in Estes Park, Colorado. We begin our adventure by introducing students to Winterline while laying the foundation for the rest of the year.

It’s amazing that we get to learn and play in such a beautiful place. Surrounded on three sides by Rocky Mountain National Park, YMCA of the Rockies offers an environment inspired by nature where friends and family can grow closer together while enjoying the natural beauty of the world around them. During their stay in Estes Park our students participate in group discussion, games, and team building activities to strengthen their bond before they embark on their 9 month trip.

Green Cohort playing morning games
Anna and Lex during team-building
Green cohort working as a team
Elk hanging out at YMCA of the Rockies


Do you want to learn more about Estes Park and YMCA of the Rockies? Here’s a great guide to the Rocky Mountains, including the very best hikes to take during your free time.
Check out our fast facts listed below.

  • YMCA of the Rockies has more than 860 acres of Colorado beauty.
  • Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park are home to around 3,000 elk.
  • The national park covers 415 square miles of wildflowers and mountain views.
  • The town of Estes Park is one of the highest-rated family destinations in the United States.
  • While staying at the YMCA our students have the opportunity to hike, roller skate, do yoga, observe wildlife, build campfires, and play miniature golf and other outdoor sports.
  • There are over 300 miles of trails to be hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park.
  • Elk, big horn sheep, marmots, squeaking pikas, and the iridescent broad-tailed hummingbird all find their home in Estes Park.
  • The national park is great for climbing with peaks ranging from 12,000-14,000 feet above sea level.
  • YMCA of the Rockies sits at an elevation of 8,010 feet.
  • Rocky Mountain National Park has more than 265,000 of acres ready to be explored.