Traveling abroad for your gap year not only offers rejuvenation, but a unique and powerful learning environment for personal development and growth. It’s exciting to think about the people, places, and cultures you’ll visit and learn from. But, just going somewhere doesn’t mean you’ll have these kinds of experiences. If you’ve ever travelled as a tourist, you know it’s easy to end up in a series of “tourist traps” without any meaningful opportunities to engage with people. Here are three keys to keep in mind to ensure your gap year travel plans meet your expectations.
Engage with Local Communities
Engaging with local communities is a powerful channel for learning. By working within a community you can gain insights about the complex realities of other cultures and build meaningful relationships that last a life time. This video of Thinking Beyond Borders Global Gap Year student Emma Rockenbeck gives a great sense of the deep understanding you can gain.
Prioritize Cultural Immersion
Homestays are an integral part of immersing yourself in a culture unfamiliar to you. They challenge you to navigate the local customs and social systems, and embrace diversity. If your plans permit, engage with multiple cultures – rather than just one – in an effort to learn how different cultures can be and about what is fundamentally shared across humanity. Sarah Moratz’s (TBB Global Gap Year ‘15) homestay was an illuminating experience for her: “My stay in the village of Don Jiang proved to be my favorite homestay yet. Beauty was everywhere: in the people I met, in the luscious green of the land, and in the laid back tempo of life. It was very interesting to watch the family go about with their daily lives; the pace is so much slower and relaxed than my own lifestyle back home. In Thai, the phrase ‘sabai’ translates to ‘happy’ or ‘relaxed.'” Successful immersion helps you to be culturally sensitive therefore encouraging tolerance and humility in your relationships with people who are different from you. This will be useful in college where you will meet people from around the world.
Invest in Learning
Focusing on learning is another important element of quality gap year travel. Find resources – written materials, books or online resources – that will give you a stronger understanding about local issues. These resources will compliment your experiences and enable you to shape your perspectives on these issues. They will also help you relate personally to the human experience in the community and how it relates to the rest of the world. Haley Montgomery (TBB Global Gap Year ’14) had this to say about the importance of learning: “I have had this opportunity to question so many things, to discuss issues that can be controversial. I’ve had this opportunity to begin to develop myself, and I only wish others to have the same chance. Develop yourself, take advantage of the ability to question and to build yourself, open yourself up to new ideas. Have the tough conversations about the topics that affect you.”
Planning Successful Gap Year Travel
While you can sometimes stumble upon local organizations that are open to volunteers, you’re much more likely to have a fulfilling experience if you plan your gap year ahead of time. Gap year programs offer a variety of levels of community engagement through service, homestays of various lengths, and support for your learning. Look carefully at each program to ensure that the offerings match your expectations. The gap year travel program reviews on GoOverseas.com are a great way to learn about the actual experiences of past students. You can also plan individualized experiences by researching service organizations and community based tourism providers. Be sure to speak directly with the staff before finalizing payment to ensure that the details of the experience they are providing match your expectations. Consider asking questions including:
- How long is a typical homestay?
- How often does each family host a visitor from abroad?
- What support is available if something goes wrong or is unsafe?
Finally, be sure to prepare yourself for your gap year travel. Review any health concerns at your destinations through the Centers for Disease Control. Also, check with the US State Department for any travel advisories or warnings. You should also consider this alternative packing list for gap year travelers to be sure you have everything you need in your bag, head, and heart for a successful journey.
Through gap year travel you can engage with the world, learn, and empower yourself to take the next leap in college and beyond. There is no better way to learn about the challenges and potential of our world than by living within a community and working alongside those seeking solutions.