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College 101

Reality Check: Biography of a Gap Year Participant
Article Type: Connect

It’s May. High school graduation was almost a year ago, and Kara has her final project deadline tomorrow. Are we talking about college here? Nope. Kara Van has spent the last 11 months traveling the globe with the gap-year organization Study Without Borders, which combines international travel, service learning, and a final presentation on global sustainability.

Kara seriously enjoyed her senior year in high school, although the AP classes combined with college applications made for some late nights. She was accepted into a prestigious liberal arts college, but chose to defer for a year to participate in a GAP program. Kara felt ready for college, but also believed that a year abroad would help her decide on a potential major.

After a summer spent hanging out with her friends and working to save money for spending, Kara met her fellow gap-pers for their training and orientation week in St. Louis. The week involved a series of workshops where staff gave courses in language and customs, discussed projects and rules, and review the year’s itinerary.

Before she knew it, Kara was jetting to their first stop on a five-nation tour: Vietnam. Until her orientation week, Kara had always viewed Vietnam through the lens of her history class and the stories of the war. Now she had the chance to live with a Vietnamese family in a small fishing village, and engage in community service helping to build more eco-friendly fish farms.

After two months, Kara and her peers—all of them smelling of Vietnam’s ubiquitous fish sauce, nước mắm—had to bid a tearful goodbye and fly to India, where she was introduced to her next home stay family who lived in the shadow of the Himalaya Mountains. She spent the next eight weeks volunteering in a clinic and participating in as many festivals as she could.

After India, the Study without Borders group traveled to Madagascar, where they didn’t meet Marty, Gloria, Melman, and Alex but where they worked with local park rangers to improve the protection of Isalo National Park, totally unique on Earth. High school French came in handy, and Kara and her peers spent their free time exploring various parts of the island by bicycle and searching for King Julien.

The next stop was Brazil, where Kara worked with an inner-city nonprofit whose mission was to engage children in art projects to beautify their communities. Kara and her peers were able, thanks to the organization’s connections, to meet with the mayor of Rio de Janeiro and hear how he was working to curb gang violence in his city.

Finally, the group traveled to rural Guatemala, where they lived with families and worked with an indigenous woman’s cooperative, promoting traditional textiles as crafts for visiting tourists.

During the entire program, the group was meeting with officials, conducting interviews, and taking photographs and video for their final project.

After returning to St. Louis, the group worked together for two weeks to distill their information into a 12-minute documentary about sustainable development around the world.

Kara knew what her major would be when she enrolled in college, and she knew she had spent her year wisely.

Now, don’t we all feel like lazy slugs?

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