Making the Case for a Global Citizen Year

Bihotza James-Lejarcegui - Ecuador

September 26, 2018

I don’t remember exactly how I heard about the idea of taking a gap year,
but I do remember that once I learned about it, I felt a sincere need to do
it. I grew up in an international household, speaking multiple languages
and having family in various parts of the world that granted me access to
travel and communicate. The confidence I had in my language ability allowed
me to delve deep into the politics and lifestyles of other people and
cultures, and this gave me the motivation and confidence to learn more.

My parents have both taken the initiative to leave home and travel on their
own, and so there was never really a question of whether or not taking a
gap year was a good idea. My parents encouraged it, and I felt that there
really wasn’t an alternative for me. I realize this is not the case for
everybody. I realize not every parent is going to be on board with this
idea, that financial situations may make this seem impossible, and that as
much as people may like the idea of taking a gap year and living abroad, it
may not seem like that path is actually right for them, especially not
before going to college.

However, I do think most everyone can resonate with the fact that we all
wanted more out of high school. The public education system was not the
right one for me, and I feel confident in the fact that it is not the right
system for anyone. Like most people though, I learned how to be successful.
I took hard classes and studied for hours. I joined multiple clubs and
strived to achieve all that I could. I excelled in sports. I did everything
possible to make the most of high school– for my own sanity, and also to be
accepted into a good college, which seemed to be the main, if not only, way
of having a bright and successful future.

When I found out about Global Citizen Year, I was ecstatic. GCY opened a
million possibilities. It made me realize that college was not the only way
into a future that was right for me, and that I could give myself time and
experiences before throwing myself back into the swing of studying and
stress and focusing on my future instead of my present. When Abby Falik,
the founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, looked across the auditorium of
2018 fellows and described what so much of us felt but couldn’t put into
words, that we were human-doers, instead of human-beings, I got emotional.
I felt an intense feeling of frustration and disappointment for putting
myself aside so many times throughout my life. There were so many interests
and passions I had just ignored because it didn’t fit into my perfectly
scheduled life. So much of my creative spark, the imagination that comes
with childhood, had been completely shredded. When I thought about this,
and what the decision to take this gap year meant, I felt like I could
finally breathe. This was a year when I didn’t have to prove anything to an
application, or interview, or anyone really, except myself. Coming to the
realization that it is possible to take pauses in life, to completely
remove yourself from everything you know for a while, was freeing.

Global Citizen didn’t ask for my grades, my ACT score, or my resumé as part
of my application. It asked me to think. The application consisted of
either creating a video or writing a few short essays, and then have a
couple of phone interviews. Unlike the essays required for college
applications however, where most are just a way to either boost up yourself
or the college, these essay prompts were about critical thinking, about
understanding social and cultural differences, and putting one’s own values
and views into perspective. Fellows are accepted not by how well they
succeeded in school, but by what they can offer the world, by their
capability of understanding and empathizing with others, and their visions
for improvement and unity. After the heavy and relentless race to finish
applications and be accepted into a “good enough” university, the
application to Global Citizen Year was a dream come true.

I’ve spoken with many different people about gap years, and I tend to get
similar responses. One popular response has been; “I know myself, and if I
take a gap year, I don’t think I’ll go back to school, so it’s best for me
to go straight to college and get it over with.” To me, it seems like the
answer to those concerns are in that statement. If you are so turned off by
the idea of going to school, so uninspired and uninterested by taking that
next step and advantage of everything it provides, then why are you going?
It’s unfair to whoever is paying the tuition, it’s unfair to the time you
will spend stressed and anxious and lost and uncertain, and it’s unfair to
your own development and life. College should be refreshing, it should be a
time to take everything you’ve learned about yourself and turn it into
something meaningful and powerful, not another four years to just follow
the crowd and wander aimlessly because that seems like the only way to go.
You owe yourself more than that.

The other response I tend to get is “taking a gap year can be expensive,
and I can’t convince my parents (or myself) to pay for a gap year on top of
four years of college.” When it comes to financial hardships, I understand
completely. Gap years and college and so many other programs seem to be
only available to the rich or the poor, as they can either pay the full
amount or receive financial aid. To those left in the middle, decisions
like gap years may seem like luxuries. But there is another part to this
response, and that is the part that assumes taking a gap year is not as
productive or beneficial as going to college. Depending on what you choose
to do with your gap year, of course that can be true, but if it is with
Global Citizen Year, a program that immerses you into families and
communities so that every moment is a learning opportunity, a time to be in
tune with yourself to explore and try new things, a time that will expose
you to history and customs and ideals that will never be taught in a
classroom, then you will learn just as much, if not more.

In some ways, Global Citizen Year is not for everyone in the sense that it
is hard. It’s hard to leave behind your family, your boyfriend/girlfriend,
your security and comforts and almost everything that makes your life
yours. But, in other ways, those are the exact reasons why Global Citizen
Year is for everyone. Everyone can learn more about the world. Everyone can
benefit from time focused on themselves and time given to others. Everyone
can take the leap and learn to rely on themselves, their own sources of
happiness, their own courage. No matter your grades, no matter your
upbringings, no matter what your parents or your counselor or society seems
to think your future and who you are does or should look like, Global
Citizen Year lets it all be up to you. So make the most of it.

Bihotza James-Lejarcegui