Consider Taking A Gap Year, Do Research…Now!

Jensine Raihan - Ecuador


March 7, 2017

Now that college applications are done, I want to talk about a door I did not even imagine existed, much less for me, before a trusted and beloved friend brought up the idea to me. Being a working-class student in a magnet high school, I was in two worlds: (1) expected me to go to a 4-year college once I graduated high school and the second world (2) expected me to get a job in order to support myself and my mother. These were the options, truth be told–the reality was that coming from the first-generation immigrant, South Asian household I did, I had to go to a 4-year college and have a job to raise money. A gap year was so absurd it didn’t even cross my mind as an option, much less a viable one. It would be like wasting time when I could be earning money or getting a college degree and thus have a professional job and be able to substantially support my mother sooner rather than later.

 

However, when my friend, Jahshana, suggested I take a gap year with Global Citizen Year it was at a time when that seemed like the solution to the issues I was dealing with then. I couldn’t imagine doing well in college when my last year in high school was a downward slope as I was trying to juggle grades, college and scholarship applications, my two jobs, and my first long-term encounter with anxiety and depression. Despite long anticipating going to college since I was in elementary school, I had a dangerous level of academic fatigue. I would run on an average of 2-3 hours of sleep during the weekdays and yet still not be able to complete all my assignments, study for exams, and take care of all my responsibilities–much less do any of that properly or as well as I was able to do them before. Taking a year off to experience something I might never have the opportunity to do otherwise and really learn experientially not only a new language but a new culture, people, and way of life seemed exactly like the right option, and still to this day–almost done with my gap year, I still think it was the right choice for me.

 

It is frustrating realizing that I am only able to have this experience because I happen to have a friend who chose a gap year with Global Citizen Year. No one–not any of my family members or my teachers and guidance counselor in school brought up that idea as an option. No one who I knew beside Jahshana has ever taken a gap year before. The people who make up GCY fellows come from wealthier backgrounds, in which gap years are suggested by parents or faculty of private institutions. This leaves out thousands of young people who can deeply benefit from a gap year, whatever that looks like for them, but just do not have access to the sort of community that would encourage them to take this kind of year.

 

This year has allowed me to heal from the mental illnesses I was dealing with only a few months ago and learn that I can learn deeply, meaningfully, and extensively outside of the classroom. I know more of the world than the limited community I grew up in in Queens. Why should this kind of learning experience only be accessible to those who are wealthy or lucky enough to know that gap years are a thing?

 

Although I would recommend every high school senior or college applicant to consider taking a gap year and finding affordable or paid, long-term programs, I would not necessarily recommend Global Citizen Year. Because I’ve never heard of gap years before GCY, I didn’t know of any programs besides GCY.

 

There are definitely merits to this program including the emphasis put on immersion in fellows’ host communities which results in fellows really living and being involved in their communities. Furthermore, GCY provides substantial monetary support coming in the form of scholarships, financial aid, and stipends that make it very affordable for working-class fellows. Additionally, the length of the program allows fellows to become a meaningful part of their families or at least provides fellows with an experience that isn’t just about being in a different country and traveling but also about being part of a family and a different community. GCY has placed me with a very loving family, in a beautiful community, and truly cares about and makes every effort to ensure that fellows are in a safe, healthy, and challenging host family and community.

 

Despite the merits GCY possesses, my overall experience in Ecuador has been very pleasant except when I interact with Global Citizen Year. The organization has become so large that they no longer treat fellows as thinking, opinionated, unique individuals but rather as commodities or at the very least just another participant. Thus, rules are strict and not flexible or able to consider events uniquely given the circumstances and the individual fellow. For the most part, I have felt like I have been treated like a child who cannot make sound and responsible decisions. When I’m interacting with GCY, I feel as though this year isn’t mine–despite the rhetoric that was perpetuated at Pre-Departure Training in August that this year was for us to be selfish and take the initiative to make this year our own–instead, I feel as though my year here is at the mercy of what GCY thinks is the ideal “GCY” gap year.

 

Although I truly value the immersion aspect of this program, I feel as though GCY gets caught in that version of what this year should be and is not flexible with what fellows may want from their gap year if it does not perfectly fit that vision. For example, I was punished (2 months after the fact, due to GCY’s lag of follow-through) for going to a UN conference on urban sustainability that takes place only every 20 years. The conference brought many activists and organizers from around the world to Quito, the country’s capital, to think critically of urban cities and the way the UN and the Ecuador government interacts with and exploits the environment and how that influences overpopulation and migration to urban cities. Despite the conference being held only 2.5-3 hours away from 2 cohorts’ hub cities, fellows were not allowed to go because it was not during permitted independent travel. I was punished for attending despite these kinds of gathering and people is the very reason I applied to GCY, I wanted to learn from the social movements in Ecuador and the organization knew that very well due to the fact that this desire was written all over my application. In August, during PDT staff and alum alike encouraged fellows to seek out and take advantage of opportunities that meet their interests, but I was punished for doing exactly that.

 

Another time, fellows were celebrating 3 birthdays and it got late (about 8pm) after conversations, eating, and family customary Christmas traditions and our GCY team leader demanded we do not spend the night because it would intrude on immersion if we stayed over our friends’ house whose birthday we were celebrating. One thing to understand in Ecuador is local buses end their service at 8pm and traveling whether on bus but especially taxis during late evenings could be dangerous. Despite knowing this, our team leader demanded we return home at 8pm in the evening because staying over would interrupt the immersion experience.

 

Thus, the travel policy is constraining, often at the expense of meaningful experiences, and could be dangerous. I understand the importance put on immersion but when a program is dealing with young people, who want to experience different things with people who they care about and love, the program needs to be flexible and understanding.

 

If this program was truly invested in the young people participating in the program it would listen to the young people in the program not just berate them with pre-written rules made by people mostly consisting of U.S.-born middle-class white Bay Area-based people and what they think makes the ideal gap year. GCY staff and fellows should sit together to talk about what the fellow wants out of the year, discuss options continuously through the program, and make collective decisions about what is best for the fellow–not what will make GCY look the best or a what an ideal bridge year is in the eyes of the organization. However, this is far from how the organization is run. It does not run like it is truly invested in the young people it is supposed to serve but rather indebted to making the organization and program look the most marketable as possible. It runs as if the young people participating in the program don’t know what would provide them the most meaningful and valuable experience, but people in Oakland, CA who aren’t living the day-to-day experience do.

 

Furthermore, the program does a terrible job facilitating conversations with fellows about the discrepancy of socioeconomic status we see here in-country versus back home. Instead, we read, “The Blue Sweater,” which promotes micro-finance and financial enterprise to deal with poverty in Global Southern countries that Western imperialism, globalization, and colonialism are responsible for. Essentially, they offer up the solution to the poverty caused by capitalism with some more “micro”-capitalism.

 

Global Citizen Year does a good job of promoting curiosity among fellows and encouraging fellows to ask questions, listen to local community members, consider their perspectives and understand them but does a poor job of facilitating critical thinking about systematic problems that exist to create the reality we see in-country and how we, as people from the Global North, benefit from the problems we see in the Global South. Thus, failing to foster creative and critical thinking global leaders but rather encouraging fellows to think about how to fix the norm by using the norm.

 

During Pre-Departure Training in August, GCY staff facilitated conversations around poverty and race but it was facilitated in such a way that made it seem that these problems just suddenly existed or appeared rather than being intentionally created and built to privilege certain people at the expense of others, creating systems like white supremacy and capitalism. When we had conversations on race and poverty, we did not discuss the why or how just the fact that they exist. This, to me, seemed lazy and empty because without knowing the root cause of problems such as racism or poverty, how can one begin to think about how to solve it?

 

We played “World Hunger” which sought to show participants that income inequality exists but there was not a mention about the systems that exist that allow and, in fact, cause income inequality. Similarly, we talked about privilege and #BlackLivesMatter but not white supremacy or capitalism that create these systems of power and privilege. If we do not name the system how can we dismantle it? For me, it was not enough to just say inequality and privilege exists because it does not get at the question about why it does and therefore how we can create a world without global issues.

 

Furthermore, I was frustrated by the ways in which capitalism was unapologetically promoted during the week without acknowledgement of the ways in which it has been detrimental to countries across the world and creates the poverty that we are supposedly so desperate to help. During the “World Hunger” game the facilitators did not mention capitalism. How can we talk about poverty and economic inequality without talking about capitalism?

 

There was also a presenter that talked about how great and socially responsible Tom’s mission was—buy one, give one. The presenter said this in his conclusion despite people bringing up that when Tom’s provides its shoes to different communities it harms the local economy because it takes local shoe businesses out of business and therefore stagnates economic growth due to forcing a decrease in money flow, and so continues the cycle of poverty.

 

I did appreciate the way in which Global Citizen Year emphasized curiosity and an open mind. Many gap year programs fail to do that despite it being a vital component of engaging people who are going to foreign countries. However, I did feel like they emphasized it at the expense of objective moral truths. There was one speaker who actually had Indian heritage and she said that the fellows who were going to India should not be surprised or upset if they walked out in public with a DD cup size and a tank top and had men gawking at and harassing them and that the men would obviously be staring and harassing because girls should absolutely not go out like that in India. She further went on to say to not be shocked when parents hit their children because it is the norm there. Under no circumstances should a woman be made to feel uncomfortable or scared in public based solely on what she is wearing. Men are not made to feel uncomfortable or scared when they are wearing shorts or are shirtless. Her stating that obviously men would be gawking at and harassing women if they wear a certain type of clothing promoted rape culture because she was saying that women are at fault for the violence they face by men because they should not be wearing certain types of clothing. Furthermore, under no circumstances is violence against children acceptable either, no matter how normal it is. Slavery was normal in the States, that did not make it acceptable.

 

During a discussion on how to deal with sexual harassment in-country, an alum talked about how normal it is for there to be “creepy” uncles in India and how normal it is for foreigners to be street harassed and that it is just part of the culture and to grow accustomed to it. This was particularly offensive to me because as someone with Indian heritage, I felt like the alum was singling out and generalizing an entire culture, people, and country. Street harassment is common in almost every urban area, including the States, because of how pervasive patriarchy is. If you, as a non-male identified person, tell me that you have never experienced older men being creepy in the States I would be very surprised. I mean which country has a president who PUBLICLY said he would date his daughter if only she wasn’t his daughter and that “pussy-grabbing” is perfectly acceptable? Not to mention, India has one of the most strongest and radical movements led by women against patriarchy and gender-based violence, but the way in which the alum painted India it seemed like everyone was okay with sexual harassment and fellows would have to be “curious” and accepting about the culture of street harassment in India because its all part of the experience! It was alarming to hear how, essentially, the alum and the speaker promoted getting accustomed to injustice.

 

So, would I recommend taking a gap year? Yes! A gap year provides young people with a unique, extensive, adventurous, non-traditional learning opportunity that is rich with life-long valuable lessons. Would I recommend  a gap year with Global Citizen Year? I would encourage you to seek out programs or funding that is truly invested in young people and their leadership, because I couldn’t find that in GCY but that is something I would have a million times over appreciated and would have made my year here in Ecuador so much more enriching. But because GCY is so enormous it has the resources to make gap years accessible to working-class youth and is able to place fellows in working-class families and communities, which I also value and needed enormously.

 

Truth be told, GCY is an organization that is run by a business woman like a business. Participants aren’t treated as people but in a very ageist manner and there isn’t any sort of participatory or collective model in the way it is run, making participating in the program endlessly frustrating. Instead, participants are used to further the marketability of the organization by requiring fellows to post blog posts promoting the GCY experience, requiring fellows to fundraise $2,500 for GCY regardless of economic status and access to money (people whose families are struggling to make meets end are expected to raise the same amount as people whose families make 6-digit figures and have a network saturated with other people with 6-digit figures) and basically award people for having a wealthy network, and requiring fellows to promote GCY in their communities in order to graduate from the program. GCY greatly benefits from the fellows in its program but does not offer fellows the courtesy of allowing them to make this year their own.

 

GCY or not, I would encourage you, college-applicant/high school graduate, to really consider taking a gap year and seek out a program or a plan that fits you. I know it might seem insane or irresponsible, but it is so worth it in the long-run for your own personal development, mental health, ambitions, leadership, and the potential you see in what you can do.

 

Jensine Raihan