This is a guest post by Winson Law, a Junior at Middlebury College. As a first-generation college student, Winson participated in college access programming with Rainier Scholars, enrichment with the School for Ethics in Global Leadership and One World Now, and a gap year with Global Citizen Year. Winson created opportunities with MiddCORE and Thinking Beyond Borders to research why and how to make gap years accessible to first-generation college students.
My gap year was a form of college preparation that I didn’t know I needed. While it seems counterintuitive that a year spent away from school would actually add value to my college experience, my gap year did exactly that. It gave me a real-world perspective about global issues, allowed me to develop greater confidence, and catalyzed new questions about the world. Despite needing financial aid and my mom’s initial disapproval, I ultimately was able to participate in a transformative experience. Now, both my mom and I appreciate how valuable the experience was in priming me with academic and personal growth before entering college.
While looking at gap year programs online, I replayed the videos of Global Citizen Year Fellows introducing their host communities and families over and over again. Adam showed us the community where his host mother worked: wooden houses built on stilts above a water-logged dumpsite. Mike translated Portuguese with ease as his host father, Joselito, described what it was like to have his American host son around. Inspired by their ability to navigate a different culture in Salvador, Brazil and ability to speak Portuguese, I knew I had made the best choice in taking a gap year. I, too, would be able to immerse myself in a different culture, speak a new language with some degree of fluency, and challenge myself.
Before I found the inspiration for my gap year, I never thought I would take one. Throughout my life as a member of a college success program called Rainier Scholars, going to and graduating from college in order to give back to the community was always the trajectory. The idea of taking a gap year didn’t appear until someone from the organization visited the School for Ethics in Global Leadership in Washington, DC, where I was spending the spring semester of my junior year. At first, I was skeptical about the idea of paying money to volunteer – especially if I didn’t have many skills to offer. But as summer rolled around and the college application process truly began, my semester away and new experiences made me reconsider a gap year.
I began reading books and following blogs in order to learn more about taking a gap year. A couple things were apparent at that time. One was that a gap year would provide some beneficial maturity and experience going into college. Another was that it could provide a sense of direction in college. Combined, these two factors made gap years a way to get more value out of my college experience.
When I told my mom that I wanted to take a gap year, the first response was one of confusion. No one we knew had ever done one before. After I explained the concept, she was initially disapproving because it would mean graduating a year later and being “behind” everyone else. She feared that I wouldn’t actually go to college and that all of our sacrifice would be wasted. That’s when I recruited the help of my college counselor and mentors from Rainier Scholars to convince my mom that a gap year wouldn’t mean failure. She eventually agreed, so I applied to my program, with the hope of becoming a Fellow.
Gaining acceptance was in some ways more exciting than getting into college. It was a symbol of stepping off the treadmill of education to do something different in order to gain something different. I yearned for an opportunity to explore a different culture, to learn a new language, and to gain a better understanding of the world.
During my year, I got exactly that if not more. It was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. I faced internal struggles and encountered the real struggles that people in my community faced every day. These challenges made me grow up a bit more and empowered me with grit and perseverance. By the end of my time in Brazil, I gained a new set of questions that would guide my college experience and developed some personal experience that would change the way I would engage with the world.
Two years after my gap year, I still draw from the experience today. Of course, the questions I developed during the year informed my decision to become a geography major in order to study how space and place influence and are influenced by global issues. I seek experiences that challenge me and push me outside of my comfort zone. I have more purpose, direction, and focus while I’m on campus. In these ways, the gap year gave me the direction I needed to make the most of my college education. I arrived ready to hit the ground running, with a new language, grit, and set of experiences in tow.