I remember visiting my college last year. I was walking on the campus with some friends, just taking it all in, when we ran into this extremely peppy, extremely overbearing girl. She asked us, “Are you guys going to be students here next year?” Expecting to make a new friend, we responded, “Yeah. We are. How about you?” This girl, completely ignoring our question, goes into this long rant about how she took a year off. “It was the best year of my life. It was amazing. I think everybody should take a year off. We did so many interesting things…” and on and on she went. She practically forced all of us to give her our emails so she could us send more information about what she did. She was like one of those missionaries that go door-to-door to convert you, and all you want to do is slam the door in her face. I can’t tell you how put off I was. This girl was awful. She almost convinced me not to take a year off. Luckily, I was already thinking about it way before I had the unfortunate experience of meeting her. So learning from her, I’m not going to tell you that everybody should take a year off, or that my “bridge year” was the best decision of my life; because truthfully, that’s not true.
Taking a year off, or in GCY lingo, a “bridge year”, is an alternate path. I’m not going to say it’s better, because how can I say that taking a year off is better than going straight to college, when I chose one over the other. In my opinion, taking a year off is different for each person. People go straight to college and love it. People go straight to college and hate it. People take gap years and regret it. And then there are people, me included, who take gap years and treasure it. And on top of that, if you do take a year off, who’s to say that going abroad is the best choice? And who’s to say that GCY is the best program? I really believe all these decisions are personal, and for you, not your parents, not your friends, not GCY, and not me, to decide. The best thing I can do for you is tell you about my experience and why I enjoyed it so much.
When I applied to GCY, I actually didn’t think I would do it. And when I got accepted, I turned them down. It wasn’t until months later did I change my mind. I said”no” because I thought I could create my own itinerary that would be better than GCY. I love planning and making order out of chaos. But when I sat down and thought about it, I realized that I definitely could not do this myself, both with planning and with finances. So I contacted GCY and they kindly accepted me back.
The following fall, the “US Training” in California began. I could not believe the things I learned there. I never knew about social entrepreneurship. I never knew about micro-financing. And I sure as hell never met the founder of KIVA or Room to Read. Stepping in, I felt like I was a kid living in a bubble. Stepping out, I felt like I had just taken a crash-course in global development. And by the send-off, I was pumped to go to Senegal and make a difference; building schools, educating kids, giving out medicine, doing anything and everything I could.
I was completely wrong. My experience in Senegal has been the exact opposite. Instead of me making a lasting impression on my community, my community has made a lasting impression on me. I’d like to believe that working at the local clinic, cleaning crazy injuries that leave you asking, “How in the world does that happen?!?!” or helping give vaccinations for illnesses that we never even think about, has made a big difference. But in reality, if I weren’t there, the entire operation would keep on functioning. The best I can hope for is that I will have made a lasting impression on my family and my friends in Senegal by the time I leave. Living with my host family, speaking their language, learning the nuances of their culture, learning about issues that really hit at the hearts of the Senegalese; now that’s what the experience has been about. And putting into words how rich of an experience that has been for me is impossible.
But not everything has been as “enlightening” and “eye-opening.” Seven months is a long time and I have definitely had my fair share of homesickness. I thought of ways I could go back home without people thinking I chickened out. The best thing I could think of was breaking a rule and getting sent home. Who thinks like that? Apparently I do. I have also experienced long periods of complete frustration. I wanted to do so much, but I had no tools at my disposal. I didn’t have the language skills and I didn’t have the cultural know-how. That would come later. There have also been points where I felt bored to death. But as time went on, I have learned how to deal with the bad, and turn them into good.
Even now, I am making less of an impact on my community than I thought I would be, but learning more than I thought possible. I’ve learned not just about Senegalese culture, development, economics, health, myself and so on, but also how to think. Probably the most I’ve gotten out of the experience is not how to ask questions, but how to ask the right questions.
So the right question isn’t whether you want to take a “bridge year” or not, but what kind? I have a friend that bought a ticket to Europe with no plan at all. I have a friend that worked for a software engineering company for six months and ran the Boston Marathon. I have a friend that worked on Capitol Hill. I have a friend that went to New Zealand to work with kiwi birds. But those were all the types of “bridge years” they wanted to take. If want a cultural exchange that teaches you more than just culture, that transforms not just your thinking, but you as a person, then you should consider GCY.