10 Things I Learned On My Gap Semester
By Gap Africa 2016 Alumnus Abby Fournier
During the fall of 2016, I traveled to Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania on ARCC’s East Africa Gap Semester program. After living 90 days of adventure, learning, challenge, and so much newness, all I can say that will do it justice is that it was the experience of a lifetime. The things I learned on my gap semester seem endless, but these are the ten that impacted me the most.
1. You don’t need to speak the same language
During one of our homestays, the majority of the family didn’t speak a word of English and we didn’t speak a word of Maasai; we’d only learned a teeny bit of Swahili! So when our 12 year old homestay brother translator was in another room, the grandmother and I had some interesting conversations. She would speak non-stop Maasai, and I’d occasionally throw in some English comments. I had no idea what was going on for that entire conversation and it was one of my fondest memories. Language is overrated, while presence and a smile are so valuable.
2. New foods aren’t so scary
I am characteristically a picky eater (I don’t think so, but that’s what I’m told (:), so I was a bit hesitant to try all the new foods. With some nudging, begging, therapy, and loving encouragement, my group gradually expanded my palate. I started going out of my way to try new foods just to prove them all wrong, but I soon discovered it could be an adventure. New foods aren’t scary – they’re an authentic way to get to know a place!
3. Every moment is a chance to turn it all around
I learned that happiness is something you choose. I didn’t need to be constantly homesick if I chose not to be. If I gave a project, relationship, or discussion everything I had, I could think about home as something I’m grateful to love and miss, not something that will debilitate me. I eventually learned that when I’m down I have two choices: be consumed by negative emotions and end up with negative experiences, or be grateful, think optimistically, and treat everything as a lesson. One of the great things learned on my gap semester was how to turn it all around.
4. There are more feelings than the English language has words for
The last 48 hours of the semester I experienced all of these English language emotions at the same time: love and wholeness with the group the moment before we split, the sadness of knowing how much I’ll miss them, the anxiety of what the next few weeks will bring, the anticipation and excitement of seeing everyone at home, the frustration from jet lag and stressful travel logistics, the happiness to be traveling with my group (with free in-flight entertainment!), the despair of leaving the familiarity of the group behind, and the extreme gratitude for everything I’d experienced. And this all felt like one feeling. The English language certainly does not have a word for that.
5. Real, ethical volunteering causes real, genuine feelings
None of us were certified teachers or had any classroom teaching experience, but what the teachers at Kongoni Primary School needed most was a break, for in Kenya public school teachers are extremely overworked and underpaid. This week was the hardest week for most of us, and it was hard to stay motivated when we didn’t feel like we were making a difference. The kids’ learning didn’t change in a way that we could see, which was discouraging. But we did make a difference. The teachers needed a break so they could come back to teaching rejuvenated, and the kids practiced their English and learned to study with a different teaching style. We didn’t have the cheesy “I just did a good thing and I feel great” feeling. What we felt was real.
6. It’s fun to plank in a ceiling
Sometimes you just do things you don’t expect, like plank on ceiling beams in the attic connecting electrical wires despite your claustrophobia and fear of spiders. Never could I have imagined that doing electrical work in a cramped ceiling would be one of the highlights of the semester. I’m not even sure why I enjoyed that so much. During the Solar Energy project, I learned that I will never fully understand myself; getting to know who I am will be a lifelong journey. I’m apparently full of surprises!
7. Music changes lives
One of my favorite memories of the entire semester was when I was assigned to teach a 7th grade class the last period on the last day of our time at that school with my fellow music-loving friend. I’m not sure what we were supposed to be teaching, but we decided to teach music. Rather than teaching them an easy song like the “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” we taught them a song I sang in choir, “Give Us Hope.” Hearing those innocent, excited little voices singing a song that pleads for innocent voices to be heard, changed my life. I was touched in a way I will never be able to express.
8. Our opinions are very western
When I first learned about female genital mutilation at the Academy in Kenya, I was ready to fight against anyone who supported it. I couldn’t believe that girls were being harmed, mutilated, in such way. But what I didn’t understand is that in many tribal cultures, female circumcision marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. Many girls anxiously await this rite of passage. Who are we to say that that is wrong?
9. There is no right answer
It was so hard for me to learn about all the evils in the world that I had been in the dark about. Each time I learned about one, I agonized over what could be done to fix it so there would be less innocent suffering. Wouldn’t an easy fix for poverty in Africa be to give people money and food? Yes, the receiving people are happy because they have the means to survive, but this creates a culture of handouts, and people may be less likely to work hard to earn money when they know foreigners will provide for them. One of the things I learned on my gap semester is that there are countless perspectives and solutions with complex effects, and whichever one you think is right is just an opinion. There is no perfect way to solve a problem.
10. You grow without realizing it
On the plane home to my family, the last leg of my semester, I read the letter I wrote to myself on the first day. And I cried. I had no idea how much I’d grown throughout the semester. I felt like I was reading a letter written years before, not 3 months before. The way I thought and processed everything had completely changed. I was happier reading my letter to myself than I was reading any of the compliment/appreciation letters each member in my group had written to me. I have never been more proud of myself.
I expected to learn a lot about myself and the world during my program, but I had no idea how much it would change my life. I now travel with intention and passion, and have a more genuine appreciation for vastly different cultures. My gap semester was hands-down the best decision I have ever made.