Editor’s Note: For a few years now, the Norwich Times has been featuring our young people thinking, doing, and living outside the box. Rather than follow the traditional four-years-of-high-school onto four-years-of-college route, these adventurous souls are recognizing that there are many paths, and that some may lead to a whole new world to explore. Read about Ebben Whitehair, Gabrielle Alexandrescu, and Sarah Bibeau as they tell us about their exciting travels to distant lands and about their humbling experiences back home.
I don’t plan anything in advance. Just ask my Mom. I started out my gap year knowing that college immediately after high school wouldn’t work for me. I also knew that I had no idea what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I hoped that by taking a gap year I could figure that out.
To give some background, I’d never been on a plane before this year. Take that as you will, but other than two roadtrips south with my family, I hadn’t seen much of the world. I knew that I wanted part of my gap year to involve traveling somewhere. But I needed money to travel, so I had to do some work as well.
I’d gotten my EMT certification a few months before school ended and realized I could use it to make some money to fund my travels. I got in touch with some friends who worked at a local ambulance service and secured a job as a per-diem EMT. It made me happy; I had spent time and money earning my EMT and now I had a chance to use it.
On my first shift, I was lost. Working in the real world was so much different than learning things in a class. In class, we just worked on simulated patients in fake situations. In real life, people’s lives depended on our actions. But I liked it! Never knowing what was going to happen next helped me get through every day and made me eager to come back. I started picking up more shifts, earned some money, and my hopes of being able to see the world became more of a reality.
Later in the year, my friend, Nils, and I decided to make a trip to Chile; my first real trip out of the country. Nils has extended family outside of Santiago, so we decided to start our trip there. We purchased some plane tickets and in mid-October we set off. We had two deadlines: we had to be in Santiago 24 hours after we took off in order to use a borrowed car, and had to meet another friend two weeks later over 1000 kilometers south. It was the first time I’d been far away from home, just a friend and me, with a whole country to explore. We travelled all over, speaking extremely broken Spanish and trying to spend as little money as possible. We ended up in places I never imagined, and admittedly made some mistakes. One time, we misread some directions and ended up on a dead-end road, literally ending in the ocean. The whole trip made me feel free; and I wouldn’t have changed anything.
Back in the states from my Chilean travels, I longed for more adventure. But once again I was short on money. Winter had arrived and I was back to my ambulance job, and I had also returned to ski patrolling. While most of my friends were off at school, I was working between seventy and eighty hours a week. Admittedly, it may have been too much for me. But, once again money was adding up, making more traveling feasible.
Once ski patrol was over, I looked at my travel choices again. I was looking for a few things, but the most important was a place to stay for free. After talking with some friends, I concocted a plan to visit a friend in Germany for a few days, head to Holland and stay with some family friends for close to a week, and then go to London and spend a week with yet another friend who was studying abroad. This trip felt different than South America. I was on my own, going from country to country on my own. If nothing else, I felt like I’d grown up and found some courage to get out into the world.
I learned that college isn’t the only answer after high school. At this point, it doesn’t look like I’m headed off to a four-year school next fall. I hope to continue to do what I’ve been doing: help people through my ambulance work, find myself through some travel, and grow up into the person I want to be.
Taking a gap year has, without a doubt, been the best decision I’ve made. I made the decision quite late, about three weeks before graduation. I wasn’t entirely sure of what I would do with my year, but I knew that I wanted to make it meaningful. With that, I decided I would spend the first half working, and the second half traveling and volunteering abroad.
I learned a lot more than I ever imagined by working. The purpose was to give myself some real life experience, to see what life outside of high school is like, and what life without college would look like. I worked at my mom’s chocolate shop, My Brigadeiro, as a full-time manager. Being there was a positive experience. I thought it would be very difficult to ‘stay behind’ while all of my close friends went to college. If anything, it gave me a whole new outlook on life and the sort of person I would like to become. Working made me grateful for the opportunity to go to college, and eager to set and achieve higher goals than I had ever previously imagined. Along with all of that, it was wonderful to spend that much time with my mom we became absolutely inseparable. More than the work experience, I am most thankful to have spent that time with her.
As for the second half of my year, I knew I wanted to go abroad, but it took some time to decide on where and what kind of experience I wanted. I finally determined that what was most important to me was to give my time and energy to someone else while immersing myself into a culture far different from my own. With that, I decided to spend time in Nepal, working with several different childcare initiatives.
I discovered Nepal through an organization known as IVHQ which connects volunteers with local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in countries looking for assistance. The thing that appealed to me the most about volunteer-based travel is that you are completely out of your element (culture, language, etc.), all while making a difference.
I spent my first two weeks in Nepal touring two different cities. The highlight by far was being able to ride and bathe an elephant, and getting an elephant trunk shower in return! After my initial travel, I was ready to start my volunteer work.
One of the best things about being in Nepal was being able to live with a host family. This truly allowed me to experience day-to-day life within the culture, rather than as an outsider. I lived a 20-minute walk from the tourist hub, in a suburb known as Masbar, entirely local with very few tourists venturing anywhere near. I really enjoyed this because it made me feel a part of the culture, and less like a tourist. After a while, I became very familiar with my neighbors and really felt like I was living there, not just staying for a period of time.
I have nothing but positive things to say about my host family: father, Dharma; his wife, Sandhi; and their two sons, Santosh (16) and Sabodh (13). The first thing that my host father said to me when I arrived will always stick with me: “Starting today, we are your second family and we will care for and love you as we do our own children. Welcome to your new home.” They were beyond kind to me. I can never thank them enough for all that they did for me.
I spent most of my time in a local orphanage known as Rainbow Children Home Nepal. The orphanage cares for 43 children and is run by a woman named Goma and her family who welcomed me with open arms each day. Although the orphanage itself is rather self-sufficient, it was still struggling. The children only had two sets of clothing; their school uniforms and one set they could wear when not in school. The living situation was not ideal. Eight children (ages 3-19) shared two sets of bunk beds per room. In other words, two children per twin bed!
Before I left for Nepal, I started a fundraiser through GoFundMe to help raise some money to donate to the orphanage. With the help of my friends and family, I was able to bring around $1000. One of my favorite days in Nepal was going with the orphanage owner to buy new school uniforms and bedding for all 43 of the children. I felt that the orphanage was the place that needed the most help, and the gratitude I received was indescribable.
In addition to the time I volunteered at the orphanage, I helped my host father who ran before-and-after-school tutoring sessions for the local village children. I also discovered and helped out at the Laboring Children’s School Project which focused on local children who cannot go to school because they, in fact, work to provide an income for their families.
I will never be able to fully describe my experience working with the children that I came across. Each one made an impact on my life and I can only hope that I did on theirs as well. The whole experience was nothing but a blessing. What was most amazing to me is that these kids, whose lives are more difficult than I could ever imagine, are some of the happiest people I’ve ever seen. All smiles all the time. They find happiness in nearly anything.
To round out my experience in Nepal, I was fortunate enough to join a trekking group and spend 20 days in the Himalayas. This gave me the opportunity to experience a whole other layer to Nepal, and a different kind of beauty that I had never seen before. Being able to see some of the tallest mountains in the world (Mount Everest especially) was one of the most special moments of my life.
I never intended on taking a gap year or gap. I wanted the typical college experience: get paired up with a roommate, decorate a dorm room, go on an orientation trip… When I got my acceptance letter to Colby College, there was a slight hitch. I had been accepted into their Global Entry Semester Program. Instead of driving up to Waterville, Maine, in the fall, I would be flying across the ocean to Dijon, France.
Summer quickly passed and then it was time to go. We reached the airport and I recognized one of the girls in my group. We said our awkward hellos and our parents introduced themselves. Soon it was time for us to say goodbye to our parents, and then it became real. I would be with these people for the next three-and-a-half months in a foreign country.
Our group of fourteen and our program director/professor, Jon Weiss, arrived in Dijon after a two-hour bus ride. That night we stayed in a hotel and ate pizza in Jon’s apartment in the center of town while easing into getting to know each other. We made it back to the hotel and after almost twenty-four hours of traveling, it was finally time for bed. I just lay there thinking, “This is real, this is happening, this is my life.” I was excited and terrified at the same time.
The next couple of days consisted of getting settled and going through our orientation. After a couple of days, we finally moved in with our host families. Being an only child, I had asked Jon for host siblings, and he delivered. I had five host siblings under the age of fourteen. They were funny, cute, and kind and helped me feel more comfortable in my new home. My host mom, Éliette, and my host dad, François, were wonderful as well.
We began classes at the Université de Bourgogne. At first we were split into two groups for an intensive language course before we would start our normal classes. After one week of that, we took our first official excursion to two chateaus. The next week, we had another excursion to the south of France. We took a bus down with our history professor. We explored incredible Roman ruins, swam in the Mediterranean Sea, and danced until we dropped. It was an incredible week and brought our group closer together. We drove back to Dijon and resumed classes for a week.
Then the next Monday, we took off for Paris. We stayed in a youth hostel about a five-minute walk from the Seine. Each morning we would wake up to see whatever Jon had scheduled for us, and by noon we were free to explore the city for ourselves. It was a magical week.
After Paris and the Loire Valley, we traveled back to Dijon and got back into classes. Although I was in a classroom for a couple hours every day, my proficiency in French was growing exponentially outside of the classroom. Sitting at the dinner table, eating at a restaurant, just walking around the city… everything helped. We met people everywhere who were interested in our ‘American-ness’ just as much as we were in learning their language.
For the next couple weeks, we stayed in Dijon and before we knew it, it was our ‘fall break.’ We had a week off from classes and many people’s parents came to visit, including mine. We traveled the whole week. We started in Dijon and drove to the border of France and Germany where we spent two days exploring Vieux Charmant and Colmar, cities of my great-great grandparents heritage. We then crossed into Germany and then continued on to Bern, Switzerland. We finished our exciting week in Paris. Having the opportunity to share with my parents what I had been experiencing for the past six weeks was a gift.
The day my parents left, I caught a flight to Scotland to visit one of my best friends at Saint Andrews University. After I landed in Edinburgh, I was lucky enough to find a Saint Andrew’s student heading back to school who helped me navigate the bus to the university. As we chatted, the student revealed that one of his dreams in life was to hike the Appalachian Trail, which happens to pass through Norwich! Hearing this, I once again realized no matter how far you travel, the world really is quite small.
Classes resumed in Dijon for the next couple of weeks, and our group became even closer. The following weekend, my three closest friends and I hopped on a train to Switzerland. We were able to stay at a family friend’s house in the beautiful city of Lausanne. We walked around the city, I rode a horse, and two of my friends jumped in Lake Geneva. It was a perfect weekend.
After another week of classes, a large number of us planned a trip to Barcelona for All Saints Day long weekend. We got an AirBnB in the center of the old part of the city and made the most of our three days. After a beautiful, warm, relaxing weekend in Spain, we returned to Dijon where we once again dove back into our studies.
My last weeks in Dijon were incredible. The city had been decorated with lights and the Christmas markets were in full swing. For my last weekend in France, instead of traveling I stayed home and spent it with my family. I had no desire to add another country to my list; I was home, and it was perfect. The last five days flew by, and suddenly it was my last meal with my family, my last sleep in my bed. I said goodbye to each of my siblings, holding on as long as I could. I sat on my bed and burst into tears. I was excited to go home, but I was heartbroken to leave. The hurt made me realize what I had accomplished in only three-and-a-half months. I had become a part of a family. I fell in love with a city, a culture, and a language, and I had found a new home. If you had asked me what my goals were at the beginning of the trip, I would have said to become fluent in French, to travel as much as possible, and to make great friends. While I accomplished all of those, I gained more than I could have ever imagined. I will never forget my time in Dijon, and will be forever grateful for the opportunity I didn’t even know I wanted.