I am living in a small town called Imbaya in a northern region of Ecuador. My program, Global Citizen Year, placed me with a host family where I have a mom, dad, a brother and a sister who are all really involved in the community. I live with them and work in the afternoons with my mom at the Caja de Ahorro y Credito, which is a small credit union for the town. Right now the members are working to meet the requirements to become a Cooperativa, which is a larger credit union that has more benefits for its members. My program also placed me in the Caja. For about a month I didn't have anything to do in the mornings before the Caja opened so I was given the option by my mom who asked around to teach English at the local school, work at the health center, help at the local preschool or the local daycare. I chose to help at the preschool to be able to be active in the mornings since I spend most of my time at the Caja sitting, and because it allows me to be more involved in the community by meeting a lot of little kids and their parents. I've also come to enjoy it a lot because it's really interesting to see the first interaction Ecuadorian children have with their education and what the way they are being educated says about the culture. On top of that, I take Spanish class in the city that I live outside of once a week, and do a lot of activities with extended family of which there is a lot.
Why did you decide to take a gap year?
I took a gap year for a lot of reasons. For one, a lot of my interests that I'm looking into exploring in college are international relations-related: government, development, sustainability, and entrepreneurship. These are all things that I think feel really abstract and foreign if you only study them in a classroom. Especially for interests like diplomacy and development, it felt weird thinking about pursuing those in college, and then potentially as a career, without knowing what any of that actually looked like when all of these policies and negotiations and laws are made and people have to live them. So I guess more simply I wanted to see the effects of development initiatives, see how government interaction with citizens is different in a different culture, and gain a better understanding of what I wanted to study in college before I was learning about it in a classroom. This goal ended up working out really well because the Caja that I work at is one of many under a development organization based in our region, which also gets some aid from the U.S., so it's been really interesting to observe how that works and the pros and cons of that.
I also felt that throughout high school I had been overly-focused on my grades and getting into college and always kind of looked at everything as having to be a straight path. In a lot of ways that mindset has held me back so I really wanted to have time between high school and college to see who I am and how I react to things when there aren't grades, tests, activities, cliques, and the like involved.
I haven't traveled a lot before this year but the small amount I had taught me a lot about how the world is changing, the ways that we can all be similar but the ways that we are different depending on our culture and history, and a bunch of other ideas and questions that got me so curious and excited. Everyone tells you to travel while you have the chance, and I knew I would probably regret it if I didn't do it. I also wanted to be able to travel somewhere long enough to really get it. Of course, after eight months I'm not going to be Ecuadorian. There are still a lot of things about Ecuador I won't be able to understand. But the longer I've been here the more I realize how much I didn't know before. I wanted to travel somewhere and be there for a really long time.
Has this experience taught you anything about yourself? If so, what?
It's taught me so much about myself, but there are a few things that I think keep coming up for me all of the time. The first is that I shouldn't place so much importance on everything. That's not to say that I want to stop being punctual and bringing my hardest-working self to any work I do, but working this year and realizing I don't have to freak out and analyze so much after every time a supervisor says I did something wrong or anything like that is a big thing for me to learn. People's view of me and my reputation is built over time and I tend to forget that and over-analyze every little reaction someone has to my work. I'm still working on that but I'm glad to have identified that as a problem this year.
I also want to spend more time with my family and prioritize that more, because the work-family/life balance in Ecuador is much more focused on family and being around your extended family all of the time here. There are certain things about that focus here that I don't think are possible with how my lifestyle and a lot of my peers' lifestyles are in the U.S., but family as a bigger priority is definitely something I want to take away from this year.
You have to put in a lot of effort to get to know where you are when you're traveling (talking to a lot of different people, walking around, going to events, activities and all of that), but through doing that here I've realized I don't know that much about Seattle either. By this I mean I spend most of my time with friends in the same parts of Seattle, I don't prioritize making new friends too much, and I don't really try to learn about my city because I assume I know it having lived there my whole life. So I guess I've learned that it's really easy to become comfortable and assume you know a place, but you should keep trying to peel back layers so you get to know it even better, and then you get to be in your comfort zone in more places.
What have been a few of the highlights so far?
Last week I went with four of my friends to the Amazon for a week. I live in the mountains so the scenery was still way different from what I was used to, and the climate and how people who live there adapt to it is way different. We got to see a bunch of monkeys and snakes and other animals, swim in the lagoons in black water (to be clear: it was clean it's just known as black water), canoe a bunch, hang out with our really cool tour guide, hike through the forest, and wake up to the sounds of all the animals because we were sleeping in tents.
I wasn't placed in Imbaya immediately, first all of the Fellows in my program were in Quito, which is the capital of Ecuador, for orientation where we lived with temporary host families for three weeks and met every day to learn about culture, the education system and that type of thing. I remember getting into Quito on a flight super late at night, and just looking out the window and realizing I was going to be in Ecuador until April. It was one of those moments where you have no idea what you're looking at or what you're getting yourself into, but you know eventually you'll be looking at the same view or same thing with so much more understanding and clarity which was really cool.
On a day-to-day basis I most look forward to just talking with my mom Mayrita every day at lunch. My dad works all day and my brother and sister aren't home when I'm home for lunch, so I just eat with her. I've loved getting closer and closer to her as the weeks have passed and learning about her life and sharing about mine. Forming that relationship was tough at first because both sides have some trouble understanding each other (culturally and language-wise) and now it feels so rewarding being able to talk to her about so much and feeling so comfortable.
What have been some of the challenges? Have you overcome any of them? How?
All of my challenges have stemmed from being out of my comfort zone in one way or another. They range from small things like being laughed at on the bus if I don't know what stop to get off on, getting a spider bite or having to eat foods that I'm not used to. Those are challenges because no matter how good of a day you are having they remind you that you're in a place you aren't used to and that can be hard. The bigger challenges are more constant. It's seeing your friends all come home for winter break on Snapchat or Instagram while you're thousands of miles away from your family on Christmas and all you want to do is go home. On the day after the election I was really upset because I did not want Trump to win, and that was really hard because nobody really understood. I felt like I had to suppress my feelings and on top of that I didn't feel like I could fully communicate my needs or anything like that so it felt lonely and overwhelming. Things like that. You're kind of constantly stretching yourself and while that's great it also means there are going to be so many big and small challenges that come up for you when you're out of your comfort zone.
As far as overcoming them, I try to just think about why I came here in the first place and that helps a little bit. Like not look at what is happening or what I'm feeling in the moment as a bad feeling, but a feeling that reveals something about myself I wouldn't get to see otherwise, which makes it more of a blessing or something to be grateful for. Which is way way more easier said than done. When that doesn't do the job I facetime friends or family, listen to music, or just do something that reminds me of home.
Do you feel ready to jump into college next year?
Honestly, the fact that I've had a whole year without doing essays and math tests and all of that means I'll probably have a rougher first semester than most people academically, but I know once I get back into the swing of things it won't be a problem. But as far as navigating being away from home and having to take care of myself, I have so much more experience with that than I could if I just went straight to college. I also have more questions about the topics I want to study and more clarity on how I want to spend my time, so I think in that sense I'm also much more well-prepared for college than I would be otherwise.
If you had the chance to redo this year and chose gap year or college, which would you chose?
Gap year without a doubt. You'll never have the opportunity to travel somewhere for this long without having to worry about a career, or taking care of your kids or any of those things. I think a year like this allows you to go into college more passionate about the things you're studying because you've seen it in a sense, so you get more out of it than you might if you did it in your junior year of college when you don't have a lot of time left.
Overall pros / cons and recommendations?
Pros: You learn so much about yourself, you learn so much more about a different culture and a different part of the world than you could if you traveled for less time, and you make a lot of great connections throughout the year, with friends you're traveling with and the people you meet in your community. Also for those that aren't convinced it's a good idea just because of the personal growth stuff, you also learn/practice a different language, get internship experience in a field you're interested in, and take part in something that's becoming more and more popular and seen as more valuable to employers and groups that want to see evidence of travel experience and maturity.
Cons: It's super hard and while you adjust to where you are, it never stops being hard for one reason or another just because there are so many facets of it that are out of your comfort zone and you know that you won't be in your comfort zone for a really long time. That being said, the benefits and what you learn from putting yourself through a gap year are beyond worth the hard parts.