Reflections from a Gap Year Program Leader

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This is a guest blog post from Amanda Payne, a former TBB Program Leader. She led the Global Gap Year program for 2 years and has now joined our US staff to support student recruitment and programming.

“Because TBB does learning in non-traditional settings and places it encourages you to look at every space and person as a teacher.” Katherine Abrams ‘13

When I reflect on my time as a Program Leader with TBB and on how my students’ ideas of learning changed over the course of their TBB gap year program, I’m reminded of one of my favorite author’s, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, TEDtalk called the Dangers of a Single Story. She talks about the complexities of our human experiences and the dangers of reducing people to one story, in essence, a stereotype. When we reduce people to a single story

Chimamanda Adichie Danger of Single Story

that we have come to believe as true, we reduce our understanding of the world. It keeps us thinking in black and white terms and if we are seeking to find solutions to critical global issues, we need the ability to think in more colors. I think this concept is somewhat easy to grasp intellectually but harder to incorporate into the fabric of our being until we experience the world and form genuine relationships with all kinds of people.

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer I lived with a family in a small rural village in Moldova. They had a 20 year old son who lived at home and worked sporadically at a collective farm. I was just out of college and thought I knew everything. This translated to (I sheepishly admit) feelings of superiority when it came to Slavic, who only had an 8th grade level of education. But then one day I watched him build a motorcycle from spare parts with no manual using old rusty tools. There was no way I could even dream of doing that! I began to see Slavic for what he was – not a man with limited capabilities, but a man who was intelligent in ways I had never thought of before. What a humbling experience.

TBB students have moments similar to this all the time over the course of the program finding inherent value in multiple perspectives even when they differ from their own. Their ideas on what “smart” is become more varied. One of the many things that make TBB so special is how it creates space for students to make genuine connections: to community leaders and local families, to the subject matter we are studying, to their peers and — most importantly — to themselves. Through building relationships and having space to reflect on them with peers and Program Leaders, students begin to increase their capacity to listen more openly and in turn chip away at their judgments of others. Whether it be from the cultural leader of an indigenous group or the perspective of women in India from a host sister, a fellow TBBer who has different political views or a person living with HIV in a South African township, seeing people as more than the surfaced story has been a tremendous area of growth in learning empathy for TBB students.

Some TBB alumni had this to say about their learning upon completion of TBB:

“I’ve definitely learned to appreciate getting into the thick of things. Seeing and getting first-hand accounts opposed to reading someone else’s first-hand accounts. For example, Don Jose’s talk in El Poste, Ecuador. He spoke extemporaneously for hours as we toured the jungle about how they use the plants and surrounding environment in sustainable ways. The Tsa’chilas are an indigenous group that don’t have a word for “wilderness” or for “nature”.  Instead they refer to it as their pantry, backyard, medicine cabinet. This is an important perspective I gained.” Ben Krapels

And this:

“I’m more comfortable now looking at every person as a potential teacher and peer. I’m more comfortable now talking to someone and accepting what they say, listening to them and giving them legitimacy and not needing them to have a reference or a degree. I’m a lot more comfortable now just hearing someone and believing their story is a truth in the world. It may not be a definitive truth but it’s definitely a truth in the world.” Katherine Abrams

All my students on TBB were exceptional in their own ways.  It’s no wonder I learned something new every day and no wonder they eventually came to learn from each other as well:

“Some of my most important learning came from conversations with my peers; by challenging my friends’ ideas and them challenging mine. Sometimes I thought I should be taking notes on our conversations. I learned how you can learn with someone even when you are disagreeing with them.” Allison Aaronson

And this:

“I’ve come to understand that to learn the most you have to turn yourself on to people’s strengths. It can be frustrating at times when you are trying to understand why you should care about someone’s opinions, but if you think about where they come from or how they’re conditioned or what they’re good at you can actually learn a lot from them. Sometimes it is not what is said but the ideas and motivations behind it.” Karl Laubacher

TBB has reinforced for me the notion that our ideas are shaped by our experiences and that there are so many different ways to be in this world. We all cry, we all laugh, we are all tied to our families. We can relate to one another on these basic human levels and yet there is so much conflict and strife, so much poverty and degradation. How can we expect to understand the critical issues facing our world if we keep them at a distance, reading them only in pages of books, out of our realm of experience? And in turn, how could we then possibly know ourselves?

“TBB has enabled me to go off into my life as someone who will be a continual learner. I love learning again. Growing up I always loved learning but at the end of high school I hated it. I was stifled and lost sight of the purpose. The purpose wasn’t’ learning but some sort of success, like getting A’s. I am now motivated to learn for learning’s sake and not for the GPA.” Allison Aaronson

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