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Gap year will fill pocket with experiences

Staring at the chaotic packing spread of toothpaste, batteries and antibiotics, it hit me. I was going to Ecuador. Of course, I logically knew of my departure before having to decide how many pairs of underwear to bring, but nothing hits home like separating the necessary pieces of your wardrobe. And I knew that along with choosing things to bring, there were things I could not. For instance, I couldn’t pack Raleigh. Or my family. Or my boyfriend of two years.

As I sifted through the product wrappers and general assortment of colorful paper, I considered trying to fit all these things into the two checked bags I was allowed to bring into the next year of my life. That humorous thought quickly dissipated into ones of what I’d be doing at that moment had I accepted enrollment to Warren Wilson instead of delaying college for a year to work in Ecuador. Selecting classes, getting to know a roommate, maybe packing a different pile of supplies. Those activities seemed much less intimidating than the path I had chosen for myself. I will be living and working in a small community in Ecuador, becoming integrated into an entirely new society. I’ll be working in the public health sphere, mostly likely in a clinic, observing experts and contributing what I can to a local solution.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that taking a gap year is for procrastinators. Even while others were applying to colleges, I was doing that and applying to gap-year programs. And now instead of worrying about classes, I’m worried about the isolation I’ll suffer as I learn Spanish through immersion. However, the entire process is absolutely necessary for success in my future. I knew I couldn’t go off to college just yet without any experiences in my pocket. I didn’t think I could learn as wholly.

Because, in my experience, branching out of the books helps me understand academics more. For instance, my freshman year in high school, my grades were atrocious. We’re talking failing math and German – atrocious. If you’d asked me then, I would’ve said it was because the teacher was too tough or I wasn’t smart enough, but the truth is, my experience of the world was too small. We all learn best in association with things we already know. As my base of knowledge grew through my interactions with the world, I had some medium to learn through. Somewhere between navigating wary social waters and plowing my way through mountains of books, I became a person. As a person I grew, learned study habits, practiced them nightly and applied what I was learning to my life, and vice versa. I don’t want to reach college and skim the surface but not understand the weight of learning. When I take a history course, I want to know what those places are like now, and there is no doubt in my mind that my experiences in Ecuador will make the lesson stick stronger and become more meaningful.

I may be leaving much behind. But I plan on bringing much more back with me, not by my two suitcases but by the experiences in my pocket.

Sarah (Kip) McMillan, a fresh graduate of Raleigh Charter High School, will work this year as one of about 100 Global Citizen Year Fellows selected from across the country. Kip will share her experiences through an occasional guest column. Find more regular, detailed updates on her blog,