I wish I had a booklet in my pre-departure preparation with some advice on practicalities encountered on a gap year. This might be limited to my own (and other fellows experiences), though potentially useful for everyone considering a gap year.
1. Be a curious observer. Curiosity before judgment. Be open to cultural relativity to unlearn your biases
Curiosity before judgment will be your life motto. The exposure to unpredictable situations will be constant and the strength of overcoming those resides in the willingness of being open and welcoming to the “different” (within safety boundaries). People in your host countries will have different ways of living, eating, cleaning and being. Physical contacts might be a barrier for some cultures or a way of connecting in others. Seeing the world you’ll live in through the lenses of your community (rather than your own), making use of cultural relativity as a way of assessing your surroundings, will help you thrive in a different socio-economic, political and cultural context. If you find something intriguing, actively make the effort of researching more about it not being afraid to ask and deepen your knowledge. For instance, I found very weird the Brazilian costume of trashing the toilet paper in the litters, instead of flushing it. Through asking and researching (and also comparing this scenario to a previous one I had in Greece) I was able to understand that it was indicative of a much larger problem: the excessive papers dumped non-properly would make the environment even worse. Also, being a developing country, many systems are not good enough to support such a high consumer demand (and the sewage system would be damaged, in most cases). This is just an example of how enriching can your experience potentially be if you’re actively making the effort of knowing “what’s behind”, instead of judging situations on a superficial level. Never assuming and always asking is an efficient way to check your prejudice.
2. Be humble. Be kind. Always assume you have more to learn than to give.
It is often possible to fall in this trap: I’m the foreigner, I have had a solid educational background, I want to help and solve problems in my community. As heroic as it might sound, I am unfortunately going to tell you that this does not happen. The success of the gap year should more be evaluated in terms of personal growth, rather than direct “help to those in need”. We all were at that stage at the beginning of the year, with a clear purpose in mind: helping our communities out. However, it is often hard to be actively useful from the beginning, without a clear cultural context and linguistic mastery. It is therefore important to keep in mind that we are on a trail, which will eventually lead us to a definite purpose and solid plan to help out the most vulnerable ones. Throughout your experience, always remind yourself that you’re on a learning process and every day, every small thing is something you should take with you, and reflect upon. I will give you my example. Once arrived, I knew I wanted to give out some trainings\courses\presentation on the benefits of a plant-based diet in terms of environmental sustainability, health, and consciousness to children. However, while working, I realized that the area where my NGO is located needed a safe space for children often left on the road for several hours. For this reason, I started a dance and arts course for them as a way for them to feel guided and safe, preventing them from being trapped in critical scenarios. I know I will eventually be able to continue my project on environmental sustainability, but I am taking my time to learn more about the environmental issues in Brazil (from people, my job and secondary resources) and potentially turn my thought into a bigger project. It is important to have smart goals and long-term goals.
If I have advice regarding this it would be: adapt yourself to the community needs, understand its cultural context, and have the mindset to learn daily as a way to reach your final goals.
3. Commit to your actions and hold yourself accountable
Time, during your gap year, will be definitely available. It will be the way you’ll make the most out of it that will lead you to some achievements rather than others. You will definitely have to fulfill certain requirements. You will be a volunteer, which might feel at times “not the most useful figure in your working environment”. However, you will have to try to hold yourself accountable, be on time to your work, commit to your actions and be professional. Language will be an obstacle but time will be the solution. On a general level, demonstrate commitment regardless of your reward.
I saw at my job, during the office days, that my time was not being used efficiently. I was doing what I was meant to, but I used to finish it beforehand. Feeling that my time was not being gratefully spent, I asked the NGO if in my remaining time I could start working on a project (related to environmental sustainability) that would potentially fundraise them. The project definitely needed time to be planned. Now, I’m on my way to finalizing it and it does feel rewarding. I knew how to transmute a “lack” into a “possibility”.
I would say: make a schedule and make the most out of your time. Don’t be shy to ask and use your time efficiently. You own it, use it!
4. Be willing to fail. Failure and successes come from surprising places.
You will be both the spectator and main character of your theatrical performance. You will be seeing yourself changing and developing as an outsider. Successes will be found in small places, and failures will be the most meaningful conjunctions for constructive reflections. Success will be: your first conversation in another language, getting on the moves of the Samba (or other cultural dances), learning to step back and appreciate the time you have, becoming resilient, and developing a better sense of perspective. And failures will mostly constitute the backbone of your successes, the underlying layer which will challenge and motivate you to improve. I failed. I did fail. I failed when I was not meeting my expectations, when I realized I was not consistent, when I could not get the Portuguese ão sound after a million of attempts, when I told my family I was not comfortable in the house because I wanted my independence. I failed when I focused on my future rather than living the present, when I pretended too much from myself. But I succeeded, too. I succeeded when I first had my political viewpoint got right across in perfect Portuguese, when I got into my daily habits, when my family called me their son, when I felt more responsible and independent for my own actions. I succeeded when I paused in front of an orange sky and admired the beauty of nature, while feeling immensely grateful to have had the opportunity to be standing, in that exact moment, in that exact place. With myself, my failures, and successes.
5. Don’t have expectations and live the present. Be in the moment.
Whether this sounds yogish or hippie, living the present is the best solution for your daily life. Days sometimes feel long and bad, others short and beautiful. But what’s more important is to make the most out of both. Have the tenacity of tackling your daily routine with the awareness of your time, your actions, your thoughts. Eating healthy, exercising, hydrating, doing meditation and listening to your body will be small things which will contribute to a more physically and mentally better year.
6. Ask the right questions. Who are we serving? How are we serving? With what purpose?
7. Be an effective listener and start learning the language of your country as soon as possible.
8. Be willing to get uncomfortable and dirty, out of your comfort zone
9. Be ok with the mundane. Lacking excitement is something you’d go through wherever in the world.
last, but not least,
10. LIVE THE YEAR YOU NEED.