Why Global Citizen Year and What I Already Learned From It

Ana Gvozdic - Ecuador

August 25, 2016

When I was 8 years old, I told my mom I want to be a nun because I wanted to help people.

At the age of 9, I was thinking that if I ever win a monetary prize, I could get 10 000 energy bars for 10 000 BAM (approx. 6000 USD). I wanted to give them to the “poor kids in Africa” that I have seen on TV. I started thinking how many “poor kids in Africa” there are, how many meals per day they need, and how much energy they get from one energy bar. I was so disappointed to comprehend that a big action on my side – money measured in toys, clothes and trips I would give up on – was completely useless considering the scope of the problem I wanted to deal with. I felt helpless and learned to drive away the negative feelings by reminding myself that I am just 9 years old. Thinking about this experience now, I find many things that can be learned from it – from recognizing the importance of sustainable contribution to admitting that a 9 year old child, a perfect symbol of an unskilled altruist, is not the best person to do something.

When I was 11, I read about a missionary somewhere in Africa (and I apologize on behalf of an 11 year old me, who knew Africa is a continent, but did not know all of the countries in it). I checked out the webpage and learned that he was helping build schools, but needed funds for it. I immediately came up with the plans of making a poster for his program, putting them up in my school and urging schoolmates to donate. Setting aside how difficult it is to motivate people, this plan was significantly better than my energy bars idea, but it still had large flaw. This flaw was in the gap between me and those kids, who have no idea about each other. What I failed to learn from this experience, is to critically approach “helping” those I do not know or understand. I continued being excited about all of the programs aimed at those in need (as decided by the media) and haven’t questioned if they were making any impact and whether their method was maximizing the impact.

Supporting others who were “helping” was not enough – I wanted to be the one helping directly, fostered probably by the Christian ideology I was brought up with or a mere need to feed my ego. Looking back, I am happy that my first experience volunteering started with a request of an organization working with people with disabilities, which needed people to help out by doing simple tasks such as drawing or helping rehearse a poem. I must admit I got a lot of satisfaction out of doing this work, and considering the feedback I received, my contribution is something I would approve of now, having read many criticisms of volunteering. However, I still wanted to do more and influence problems I found more important.

I believe all of these things influenced to a large extent my desire to join Global Citizen Year. For those who are not familiar with it, here is a small introduction to what I’ll do in the next year in Ecuador. It’s an 8 month long bridge year, not gap year, program in India, Senegal, Brazil or Ecuador, during which high school graduates live with a host family, do an apprenticeship and get immersed in the local community. It seemed as a great opportunity to experience a different culture, learn another language and gain skills and independence, as cheesy as it sounds. When I tell people at home (Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina), I mostly say that I will volunteer in Ecuador, as that seems to be the easiest way to explain it. I admit that I have thought of it as volunteering at first, and one of the motivations for applying was to “give back”, get rid of this individualistic, self-focused life in UWC and find a way to deal with all of the money that has been invested in me through scholarships etc. This mindset was an obvious continuation of the experiences with volunteering and helping I’ve had before.

However, over the last year I read quite a lot about the white-savior complex and “voluntourism” and was grateful that I found a bridge year program with a stronger level of critical thinking and global awareness than of an arrogant UWC alumna (read: me). Realizing that Global Citizen Year shaped its program with these criticisms in mind, I did not regret a bridge year program I have already committed to, and was glad I managed to learn from it even before my actual departure to Ecuador. I also had a discussion about the word “self-less”, or to be more precise the lack of existence of such concept, with a very close friend of mine, who surprisingly enough is doing almost the same program as Global Citizen Year in Senegal. As my time in Ecuador approaches, I am aware that I should not (and won’t) go there to help. I am not going as the superior one. I am not the kid pitying the ones it sees in the media. I like to think that I am going there to learn – by listening, observing and immersing myself into the community. As my summer alumni coach advises, I am taking a selfish year – a year of self-growth and self-development – which could help fulfill the wishes of a 9 year old me in the long run, by building my understanding and skills.

Even though I am certain that I have overcome the flaws of the young me and escaped the mistake of going to Ecuador with the mindset of helping, when I sit down for a moment and think why a girl from Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to go all the way to Ecuador to learn, I get a bit scared that I could discover a neocolonial aspect of the program in the approach of “learning from” the people in Ecuador. So far, I justify this to myself through the idea of a cultural exchange, in which both sides learn from each other. I am certain that I will question the possibility of a neocolonial Global Citizen Year during my time in Ecuador, where I definitely hope to see positive reactions from the local community, signifying that I am wanted and beneficial there, as much as I want to be there and benefit from being there.

And so now, at the age of 17, I’m starting my Global Citizen Year. Here I am writing a blog with hopes that in less than a bridge year away, I will look back at it and criticize everything I wrote with no feeling of shame for what I used to be, but just silent pride for what I’ve grown into. (Probably criticizing this sentence as well. And this one. And this one. You get the point.)

Here I am packing my bags to move to Ecuador, confident about my intercultural understanding, celebration of diversity and respect, backed by my UWC RBC diploma and two years spent in an IB Anthropology HL class, hoping to recognize the beauty and importance of going to a different continent and spending 8 months immersed in a different culture. (And hoping to be able to talk about this experience with less of a “gap year advertisement” vocabulary.)
Here I am, trying to get into a Civic Engagement and Social Activism course, as a person used to learning about anything in a closed, and more importantly structured and organized classroom, because I can’t even think of a different way I can prepare myself for utilizing my agency in an Ecuadorian community. Here I am, hoping that I will look back at my class notes and smile the way a parent looks at a child. (Okay, I’m totally romanticizing my bridge year program now).

Here I am not going into this year pretending I know what I will learn from it. I know I will learn something, and I am stepping into it with excitement and a pen (okay, keyboard) ready to pinpoint some of the moments in this process of change. I’m looking forward to where I will get to, and the walk towards it. But for now, here I am.

Ana Gvozdic