One Year Later: Class of 2019 Gap Year Reflections: Five-day Treks and Underwater Caves: Living in Latin America
"How was your gap year? Did you have fun in Ecuador...or...wait, where did you go again?"
"How was your gap year? Did you have fun in Ecuador...or...wait, where did you go again?" Ah, the dreaded gap year question. It's not that I hate talking to people about my gap year or that I don't have much to say about it. It's actually quite the opposite. I couldn't possibly capture the essence of my gap year or the depth of the impact it has had on me without wandering into a Hamlet-style soliloquy. I think the purpose of this reflection is largely to answer that question in a coherent and meaningful way, and I suppose the "why" is as good a place to start as any.
While I first floated the idea of taking a gap year in the Spring Term of my IV Form year, I only seriously considered pursuing this option my last year of high school. After four years of rigorous coursework under my belt, I needed a respite-a time to regroup and reflect-to ensure I put my best foot forward in college. I also realized that a "year off" would allow me to experience the kind of learning that eludes traditional classroom settings. My friends constantly reminisced about their time at School Year Abroad (SYA) and The Island School, and I enjoyed a taste of experiential education when traveling to Tanzania with Lawrenceville's Harkness Travel Program two summers ago. During my time at MainSprings-an educational center and home for Tanzanian girls living in poverty-I relished the opportunity to learn about the country's culture and customs, not merely by reading about them, but by experiencing them firsthand. Of course, the value of formal education is indubitable, but college would still be there even if I put it off for a year.
Fresh out of my beloved Improvisaciones class (shoutout to Mr. Cuniff!) and determined to hone my conversational skills, I narrowed my countries of interest to Spanish-speaking ones. Intrigued by Bolivia and Peru's rich cultural history and Mexico's remarkable diving sites, I decided to spend my gap year exploring these nations. In the fall, I climbed the treacherous Andes Mountains and trekked through the Amazon Rainforest, constantly pushing my physical and mental limits. Upon returning, I traveled to Mexico, where I picked up scuba diving, started working at a dive shop, and explored the largest underwater cave system. Needless to say, this past year presented me with unimaginable opportunities.
To say my gap year pushed me out of my comfort zone would be an understatement. I suppose "catapulted" is a more appropriate word. Before setting foot in South America, I had never hiked-not the most comforting feeling when our first trek in the Andes was a daunting five days long, consisting of up to 10 hours of hiking each day! How hard could it be? It's just walking. In hindsight, it's truly quite comical how much I underestimated the sheer pain and exhaustion of "just walking." By the first day, my right knee, which I assumed had perfectly healed from a meniscus surgery a year earlier, throbbed intensely as I climbed almost 90-degree angles. While other students in my group experienced only mild nausea or shortness of breath, I wheezed, vomited, and all but passed out when we arrived back at the campsite that night.
Astonishingly, the true height of my misery didn't come until our last day. Hail stinging my face and the summit approaching, one instructor insisted I ride the emergency mule; looking back, she did have a valid point. I felt like I could fall over at any moment from the exhaustion. But, ultimately, the choice was up to me. This is no more painful than 800 meter repeats with the distance squad, I told myself. No harder than pushing through 90-minute games on the Girls Varsity Soccer team. It was the grit and perseverance Lawrenceville taught me that motivated me to keep walking. As I took my first step onto the 20,000-foot summit, I was overcome by a mixture of relief and gratitude. I'd made it, but only because of the constant support and reinforcement from my teams-both in Bolivia and thousands of miles away at Lawrenceville-encouraging me at every step.
This camaraderie was sprinkled unsparingly throughout my time abroad. My cooking teacher Gabby, who was accustomed to preparing traditional Bolivian dishes full of red meat and cheese, always bought ingredients to make vegetarian alternatives. As she taught me to prepare these authentic meals, I helped Gabby with her English. In the Amazon, my host family, who usually bathed in the river, constructed a makeshift shower for me out of a few boards of wood, a large towel, and a hose. Two other students and I humbly attempted to express our gratitude by gifting the family the Uno game we had taught them to play as a parting gift. Through these small gestures, I came to understand the depth of human connection; while I intended to primarily gain new perspectives through my interactions with the locals, I recognized that, at some point, they were bound to learn from us too.
Although in dramatically different settings, many of the lessons I learned while abroad were extensions of what Lawrenceville taught me. The lasting bonds I formed in the House and the insightful conversations I witnessed around the Harkness table helped me understand the power of meaningful connections-the ability to truly know someone beyond the surface level. Ultimately, it was not the place, but rather the people, that transformed me.
Returning to the "dreaded gap year question" now, I'm still convinced that only a Hamlet-style soliloquy would do my experience justice. With that said, I've come to a new conclusion: While I embarked on my gap year travels looking forward to some time "off," in the end, it proved to be an incredibly humbling and rewarding year "on."