Our new Director of Outreach and Recruitment, Ben Welbourn, was lucky enough to experience his own gap year after graduating from high school. In a series of blog posts, Ben will share some of the lessons he learned first-hand from his year exploring the world, uncovering his passions, and living life to its fullest before heading to college. This is the third entry of his series.
After hiking the Appalachian Trail and working a variety of jobs, chapter 3 of my gap year was teaching English in Peru. I did just enough research to convince my family I was responsible enough to buy a one-way flight to Lima, and hopped on the plane. The moment I walked out of the terminal, all of my intermediate-at-best high school Spanish disappeared. I was alone in a city of 7 million people after midnight, and had no idea what to do besides yell, “taxi!”
Two days and two buses later, I arrived in the town of Huancayo, Peru. The owner of the school I found with minimal research picked me up at the station, and brought me up to the school. I was told I would be teaching 12 students who were all 12 years old. Upon arrival, there were 35 students between the ages of 4 and 18. I was 18. I asked the owner what to do next, and as he began to walk away, he waved over his shoulder and trailed off, saying, “just teach English.” Clearly, this was not a legitimate school.
I debated for months beforehand what type of service I should do during my gap year. I thought about building houses, working at an orphanage, helping with environmental conservation, and teaching. I still did minimal research, but I agonized over my decision for a while. I wanted to help. Finally, I chose teaching because it scared me the most. Fear meant it was worth doing – especially in a relatively risk-free environment like a gap year (another lesson for another blog post). Having twelve months to fill with productive activity is a lot of pressure, and day one in Huancayo showed me that I had not selected the most beneficial form of service.
There are all sorts of debates about the value of “voluntourism”, but whether you plan on including service in your gap year or not, do the research. Unless you plan on working for twelve months or sitting in your parents’ basement (Not a gap year. Go do something.), you want to make sure you’ll be as productive as possible. There are entire organizations out there with teams of people and years of experience that work to build gap years for students like you. They have vetted each part of your gap year, and rejected organizations like the school I went to in Peru. Parents, programs have risk management plans that take all possible steps to provide a safe environment for your kids. Your kid might already be Smokey Bear. I was not. Some gap year programs also connect you with amazing partner organizations that are leaders in their field.
Your gap year, if done right, can help you become an expert in almost any area of interest. If you have an idea of what you’d like to do, check out these new field-based semester programs. Otherwise, your gap year can also help you become an expert generalist. Until then, you’re not an expert, and that’s ok. You can start planning now!