Why I Am Taking A Gap Year With Global Citizen

Bihotza James-Lejarcegui - Ecuador


August 19, 2018

Growing up, my family has prioritized and valued traveling and learning languages. Though we enjoy relaxing vacations to the beach, almost every trip we have been on has cradled the purpose of learning. These trips have included visiting ruins of Indigenous pueblas, drives through the badlands and learning the pros and cons of herding buffalo instead of cattle, and walking through the Redwood forests to learn the impact such trees have on the environment. Travel for me has always carried the connotation of learning from the people, cultures, and histories of each place, and the more research and time I spend in one area, the more I want to continue.

My parents have been travelers their whole lives. My mother comes from one of the most historical towns in Spain, and possibly all of Europe– Gernika in the Basque Country. She grew up with the importance of keeping her culture, language, and people alive instilled in her, and spent each summer living in Ireland or France to learn English and French. My dad lived in Jamaica when he was a child, attended high school at Interlochen, a school of the arts in Michigan, and since then has lived all over Europe and the U.S. These upbringings make my parents constantly yearn for more experiences, and they raised my siblings and me with the expectation that we will take advantage of the world and opportunities around us as well. One way I have done so has been by staying with host families for a few weeks at a time each summer, which has taught me how to adapt to different family environments, as well as different cultures entirely, and has prepared me to take a gap year.

My biggest influence to look into gap year programs was my service trip to Mexico. Over the past few months I have read articles and talked with others about the purposeful and unintended impacts on host communities during service trips abroad. While there can be plenty of benefits that come with volunteering in a foreign community, a false sense of “doing good”, can form as well. Reflecting on what was meaningful and impactful in positive and substantial ways about my trip to Mexico has helped me search for the right gap year program for me– one that enhances what I believe to be appropriate work when traveling and working abroad.

I went to Mexico over spring break twice with the Rotary Club. Rotary has been traveling to the town of Xicotepec for years, and so friendships, and therefore mutual respect and understandings, have flourished over time. This trip was not just a drop by, plant some flowers, and leave, type of trip. When Rotarians go to Xicotepec, they communicate with the townspeople as to how they can assist them best, and work together to improve situations, so that it is not the “white man's job” to “save” the town. The two times I went, I rotated between working with the University of Iowa’s pharmacy team, dental team, and Xicotepec’s construction crew. I gained immense admiration and respect for the people of the town, reevaluated the privileges, excessive, and unnecessary items that surround me at home, and felt accomplishment and better understanding of another part of the world. However, there were two other observations that stood out to me the most.

The first one was the shocking realization of how much I could learn and grow from being in an Aztec town in the mountains for only one week, and how little I still know. This lead to the shocking realization of how much I have yet to learn. An overwhelming sense of excitement, and then desire, overtook me, and I spent the rest of my junior and senior year desperately searching for ways to expand and quench this desire. I felt a click in my body when I decided to take a gap year. For a while it seemed like a possibility that would be cool to do but that was also so easy not to do. It was so easy to be comfortable and follow the regular path, and I was completely ready and capable of doing so, but I knew that I would not be satisfied with that decision. I was restless, and I needed more. Once I made the decision to take a gap year, there was no turning back.

The other thing I learned from my trip to Ecuador was how many passions and interests I could fall in love with that I had never considered or didn’t even know about. For example, I’ve never liked going to the dentist. Nothing about being a dentist has ever interested me, and even less so when I found out how much studying and stress goes into becoming one. While in Xicotepec, though, one of my favorite things to do was help the dental team.

Teeth mixed into sociology, as I saw how having good teeth or not having good teeth can literally change lives. Teeth mixed into environment, which corresponds with nutrition and poverty. Cleaning teeth provided instant satisfaction, and talking about the importance of maintaining them clean gave a hope that perhaps, I really could make a long-lasting difference. It is absolutely joyful to realize that I am forever changing, that my interests now may not be my interests tomorrow, much less in 10 years, and that those interests may be something I don’t even know exists right now. When I realized this, I knew that I could not dive into college without exploring myself more. I could not go back to studying at my desk for hours without having tasted other options, without having indulged myself in a different lifestyle completely.

Throughout high school I have dedicated myself to helping others. I have been a part of multiple clubs and organizations that work towards change and reform and going forward. I was on an LGBTQ task force with my school district and implemented gender neutral bathrooms in my school. I founded the Welcome! Program, which taught immigrants and refugees English and helped them integrate into society better. I spent the second half of my senior year marching through streets and contacting legislators demanding gun control. I am always looking for ways to help and do better, and dedicating nine months of my life to doing so sounds like a dream.

Global Citizen Year embraces everything I have talked about. I will stay with one host family for the entire year, which allows me to become a part of their family and form meaningful connections with them. I will work within the community in an apprenticeship, a term I appreciate because it shows how strongly Global Citizen Year believes in working with the community, using the resources available, rather than providing. Ecuador is rich with opportunities to learn, whether it be about the vast and marvelous nature and Amazon, or the various Indigenous communities spreading across the regions. I am excited to fully dedicate myself to my apprenticeship, to my host family and community, and most importantly, to myself.

Bihotza James-Lejarcegui