Learning to Learn

Noemi Liebe - Ecuador


January 17, 2017

There is this misbelief about people who take a “gap”-year that I´ve repeatedly come across, and that for some time, I bought into myself.

“So I guess you just needed a break?”

“That makes sense, some people need a bit of time to figure out what they want to do with their life before going to university…”

“Don’t you feel like you’re losing a year?”

“I was also quite tired of studying by the end of high school”

…and the list goes on. Again and again, I encounter the idea ofbridge-years being a break from school and learning. While this may occasionally be true, and the quotes above indeed represent the reality for some students, I would like to offer the perspective of a different experience.

Although this is not the case for everyone, I started my bridge-year with a clear vision of what I want to study,feeling ready and excited for university. And so at some point during the first months of my time in Ecuador I went through a phase of doubt. Without really knowing the purpose of my bridge-year and unable to point out what I was learning by being here, rather than being at university learning something “useful”, it seemed hard to justify what on earth I was doing in a semi-rural community somewhere in Ecuador.

I have been incredibly lucky to have gone to a high school which in so many ways nurtured and challenged my curiosity and love for learning. Where opportunities to learn where so abundant that I never really had to search for them, and where my learning was structured by someone else in thoughtful and constructive ways. It is not until now that I can truly appreciate what a privilege today.

Somehow, I must have had an idea that moving to the other side of the Earth would be a similar learning experience and that through immersion only, my desire to learn and understand would be satisfied. While this held true for the first weeks, where there was indeed a steep learning-curve and much information to process, as life settled into a not very exciting routine with an abundance of time, I got restless and started missing school.

It took me a while to realize the true challenge of this bridge-year, the surprisingly difficulttask of truly taking learning into my own hands. So far I have learned that this takes a lot more patience, discipline and creativity than has ever been required of me in high school. I have also been made aware of the endless opportunities there are to learn independently if you only have the time.

And so I have come to cherish the abundance of time and view it as an opportunity to read all the books I never had time to read during high school. From re-reading Harry Potter, to diving into the worlds of behavioral economics and philosophy and reading about Ecuador´s history and indigenous resistance movements. I found the music school of the little town where I live, and on Friday´s I dive into the world of music theory and traditional Cañari violin music. For the most uneventful of days, I´ve discovered that there is a plethora of free online courses and so I´m learning about psychological first aid and teaching methods for English as a second language teachers.

Trying to learn about Ecuador and the place where I am has proven to a much slower process than I expected it to be. It is a one-question-at-a-time effort where answers and insights come sporadically and sometimes at the most unexpected of moments. It requires patience and has truly made me realize why it is necessary to spend months rather than weeks in this placeto learn about it in depth. There is the learning about human nature that is a result of the contrast between teaching English to children full of dreams who never do their homework in the mornings, and trying to take care of and listen to the stories of elderly people in a geriatric center, many of whom are depressed and spend their days waiting to die.

I am grateful beyond words for being in a situation which allowed me to truly appreciate the opportunities to good formal education that I have had. More than that, I think that this bridge-year has broadened my horizon and resulted in a sense of responsibility for my learning in a way that formal education couldn´t have.

Being able to spend a year taking learning into my own hands and pursuing whatever what I´m interested in is an opportunity which not everyone has, or which people might have at different times of their life. But I want to encourage those that do have this opportunity to take it, and to look at it not as a break from learning, but as an opportunity to independently explore your interests. And for those that can´t just take a year “off” right now, I want to challenge you to find the time to visit your local library and pick up a book about any random thing you have always wanted to know more about. Or to go to the incredibly boring looking and empty-of-other-visitors museum about your city´s history and learn about where you live. Download a podcast that you can listen to on your way to work or school, or find a documentary that really interests you. Go to that really random seminar and take a friend with you. The more we know about the things around us, however arbitrary this knowledge might be, the more interesting the world becomes.

Noemi Liebe