How my gap year prepared me for college

As I packed my (many) bags to head off for an eight months in Senegal, I wasn’t sure what the long term impacts of my gap year would be. I figured I would meet new people, practice new languages, eat new food, and experience new cultures, but I never thought it would so deeply affect the way I learn and how I now view my education.

I am proud to say I’m a Global Citizen Year Fellow. Global Citizen Year is an immersive eight month program takes recent high school graduates to India, Brazil, Ecuador, or Senegal. Fellows live in home stays and have apprenticeships in their local communities. I am currently living in Pambal, Senegal, a rural, Serer village in the Thies region of Senegal. I am speaking French, the national language, Serer Laala, a language spoken by 10,000 people, and learning Wolof, the most spoken language in Senegal.

Growing up in Chapel Hill, NC, I didn’t exactly imagine myself in Senegal, or going on a gap year in general. If you grew up in Chapel Hill, or if you go to UNC-Chapel Hill, you know that tar heels are academically driven. Throughout my years in the Chapel Hill Carrboro City School System, I always felt pressured to achieve exceptional grades, even if I didn’t truly care or wasn’t actually learning the material being taught. By my junior year, I was more than aware that I could not go on in such way. I began to take classes I enjoyed, I pushed myself to learn  instead of just memorize and forget, and I allowed myself to take time to take care of myself instead of constantly being focused only on school.

During my junior year of high school I began looking into gap year programs. Several people I knew had done Global Citizen Year (I am one of 40 Fellows from North Carolina!) and as soon as I looked more into the program I knew why. Global Citizen Year  incorporates so many aspects of learning that I find to be so important. We are pushed to be curious before judgmental, to see how developed countries still play a huge role in the demonization of developing countries, to learn new languages, to write down our thoughts, to discuss sensitive issues, to learn how to deal with problems in responsible and sustainable ways, and to learn for the sake of learning.

I now know just how much my gap year has prepared me for college. First, it has made me aware of my privilege in a way I never was before. Not only do I live in a country where access to higher education is basically expected of everyone, but I live in that country as a white, wealthy person. And while I do experience some stigma for being a woman, many women where I live here in Senegal do not even finish high school before they are married and begin working in the home. It has been a personal struggle for me, to accept the role of many women in rural Senegal, but I am grateful to see and encouraged by the many organizations working to push women to finish their education and to enter the workforce. Being aware of my privilege will help me take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way and will ensure I don’t take for granted my access to education.

Second, I am now entering college with a newfound excitement and urge to learn. I have learned that I want to take advantage of my privilege of access to higher education and my experience here, and learn how to work internationally, specifically in the realm of family planning service development, in a way that will create sustainable and responsible change. While living here, I have seen the negative effects that international organizations can have when changes are made exclusively from the  foreigners viewpoint. In order to truly make wanted and needed change, one must work directly with the affected communities and learn how they believe the problems should be dealt with. I am not going into university burnt out and excited to live away from home, but instead I am going in with a driven mindset, ready to reach my goals.

Third, while I know what I want to study, I also know how much else there is to learn about. And I am hungry for more knowledge. Living here has taught me the importance of curiosity. I find so much beauty in the unknown. The fact that there is way too much information in the world for one person to know all of, is exciting. I’m eager to learn about subjects that interest me, or that I simply know nothing about.

Finally, I now also have a new perception of the developing world to bring to my life inside and outside the classroom. Instead of looking at people from other countries as the “other”, I now realize that we’re not all too different and that missing out on an opportunity to learn from each other is an opportunity lost. When you live with people whose lives you once only saw as a stereotype, you learn that judgement is incredibly dangerous. If we continue to live our lives with a nationalist mindset, we will miss out on learning from so many amazing people. I will now be aware of the danger of judgment.

While taking a gap year is a big commitment, I wouldn’t have wanted to do this year any other way. My mind has been opened, my heart has grown, and my love for learning has been rekindled. I will be leaving Senegal to return to Chapel Hill soon, but I will never forget what I have learned here, and the fact that while I am returning home, I will also be leaving one.

This piece was published in EdNC on March 14.

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