I Learned to See Things from Different Perspectives

Claire Mai, a 2012 Global Gap Year and Stratford High School, is a student at Washington University in St. Louis. In this interview, she discusses how her gap year pulled her out of her comfort zone, and how she is using the same methods to impact other freshmen in college.  

What significant event shaped you during your gap year?

The first media project assignment stands out in my mind. Three other TBBers and I decided to do our project on ecotourism and what it meant for Atahualpa, our host community. Our work project was in part about increasing access to Atahualpa’s beautiful nature trails for future ecotourists. I started the project with an idea of what I was hoping to discover, an idea that was utterly destroyed after our first feedback session with the program leaders. Our group wrestled hard with our ecotourism project. As hard as it was for me, I think that the media project was the first push I needed to change my approach to learning. Our group’s long struggle to unravel the meanings of ecotourism proved to me the value of not accepting simple answers, and of pushing myself to look for other parts of the equation that I hadn’t considered before. Since TBB, I have continued to try to approach my learning with a similar attitude.

What factors inspired you to study International and Area Studies?

I took a big variety of classes during my first year at WashU, trying to get an idea of what I was most interested in. For the first two years I thought I would be an Environmental Earth Science major, but ultimately my physics and chemistry classes felt too defined in some way – too scientific, I guess – whereas my classes in environmental issues were a little roomier, more inclusive. I think that TBB introduced me to environmentalism as a topic that is still totally developing and changing; a topic that needs to be looked at from many different perspectives in both specific and global contexts. In the end, I switched to International and Area Studies because I’d like to use the skills I learned in my earth science courses in a broader context, and to continue questioning how those skills can best be applied.

Are you involved in extra-curricular activities in college, and were any lessons from your gap year useful?

Yes. For example, during my first few years in college I was very involved in the Wilderness Project pre-orientation program, which takes freshmen camping and exploring around St. Louis before the start of the school year. It also includes social and environmental justice activities, and it’s a really cool chance for freshmen to think together about those kinds of issues. As a Wilderness Project leader, I tried to channel the feeling that I got in TBB seminars, that is, a really comfortable and supportive space for people to exchange ideas and opinions and to challenge their beliefs. Also, the opportunities I had on my gap year to work with different partner agencies gave me a huge sense of respect for local experts and people with experiential knowledge of an issue. This was really useful during my recent work with the NGO Amigos de las Américas, when I got to collaborate with a Costa Rican youth organization.

You are nearly through with college, do you know what you want to do next?

Not exactly. I’d like to spend the next few years gaining experience in one of the fields that interest me – agriculture and environmental sustainability or international collaboration. I’m summoning up the confidence that I gained over TBB to explore and be comfortable not knowing exactly what’s coming. It’s kind of scary but also kind of exciting to have all doors still open.

Who are your heroes?

I recently visited a Van Gogh museum and got really excited to learn about someone who discovered his passion in his late twenties (who needs to know what they’re doing post-college!), and even though he wasn’t very successful at first, he totally committed himself to his painting. And it turns out he was super great – it gives me hope. Other heroes would be all the incredible people I have had the opportunity to meet and work with over my gap year and through Amigos de las Américas. These people have truly amazing energy and passion for their work. Also, our program leaders who ask all the good questions.

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