Looking back at my time on the South America gap semester with Thinking Beyond Borders (TBB), I realize how much we accomplished, how many varied experiences I had, how many new and different perspectives & experiences I was exposed to.
The overarching theme of the program is international development, and we broke this down into a more specific focus in each core country (education in Ecuador, sustainable agriculture in Bolivia). In order to explore these themes, we had an extensive reading list and ten seminars in each country (20 in total). The readings included high-level development theorists, articles about current issues, novels, and more. The seminars were all question-based and the intent was to ask more questions & delve deeper, never to come up with definite answers. (The questions ranged from, "What is development?" to "Does education oppress or liberate?") This is very consistent with TBB's philosophy overall, which is to instill curiosity & a passion for learning in its participants.
I decided to take a "gap year" for a lot of reasons but always resented those people who said it must be because I "wasn't ready" for college; in retrospect, they were exactly right. I don't mean that I wasn't ready to live away from my parents, handle the work load, or navigate a new social scene. Rather, I wasn't ready to make every element of college (from personal relationships to required classes to choosing what major to pursue) meaningful for me as a unique individual. My experience abroad with TBB gave me the time I needed to feel refreshed and motivated after high school and the tools I will need to make education relevant to my life.
As well as readings and seminars, we spent our time working on projects in each of the core countries. During the education unit in Ecuador we worked in small groups in local schools. Most of these schools had just one or two teachers for all students from kindergarten to 7th grade. We taught English, computers, math, geography, whatever the teachers felt was needed. Though we all formed relationships with the kids and loved spending time with them, we did discuss feeling unqualified or underprepared, and, consequently, working in the schools might not have been the best form of "aid." Regardless, I know we learned a lot from it (about what it means to teach, especially with limited resources; about what an education system very different from our own experience is like; about what to do and what not to do within a service project so as not to impose one's own values on the affected community).
In Bolivia we studied sustainable agriculture and worked on a reforestation/beautification/community garden project at a community center in a poor, peri-urban area with no electricity and limited water. Again, we had a lot of fun with the project, and, I think, really did accomplish something, planting more than 100 trees, painting several murals, and working with kids taking classes at the community center to fix up playground equipment, water gardens, etc. Initially, however, there was a lack of communication between our group, the Bolivian organization we were working with, and the community, that led many of us to feel concerned about what would happen to the project in the long-term because we didn't see evidence of community buy-in.
Yet another element of TBB is media projects. In small groups and pairs, we worked throughout the course of the entire trip on projects that answered, or at least pursued, a question we chose and we communicated our findings through whatever media we chose. In my group, there was a photojournalism project about the environmental implications of development, a bilingual podcast about what it means to be a woman (featuring interviews with women we met throughout our travels), a slam poem about stories and representation in mainstream culture, and more.
We presented these projects to a few staff members at our partner organization in Bolivia and then to our families during the final week in Washington, D.C.
Of course another big part of the program is living in homestay families in both Ecuador and Bolivia. In Ecuador we lived in a rural farming community of just about 100 families: 24 de mayo. For many of them, it was their first time hosting volunteers. In Bolivia, we lived in Cochabamba, the fourth largest city in the country, and our families there were notably better off than our families in Ecuador, and most of them had also hosted many volunteers before us. In Bolivia some people lived on their own with their families and others lived with at least one other volunteer. I think everyone had pretty unique relationships with their families, and faced different challenges with living in a foreign culture totally immersed, but it was definitely overall positive for the group. In my experience, my Ecuadorian hosts really made me feel like part of the family. In my (limited) free time, I was always with my siblings or parents, learning to cook, learning to dance, feeding the chickens, going to a discoteca, walking around the finca (farm). There was also an awesome sense of community in 24 de mayo, so many of our host families were close friends and it was easy to get to know your neighbors. In Bolivia, I also spent a fair amount of time with my family and enjoyed talking to them about current events or comparing our experiences in our two different countries. My mom and 97-year-old grandma (!) took wonderful care of me, cooking yummy food and making sure I was healthy. In both countries, I found that homestays were as valuable as you decided to make them; at first, in Ecuador, I was very nervous and didn't really reach out to my family but as soon as I asked them to help around the house or learn a new skill they were ecstatic and excited to teach me and spend time with me. A few of the kids from my group will be trying to go back to visit our families in Ecuador this summer!
The final element of the program was Spanish language classes, which we had several times weekly in Ecuador and just once in a week in Bolivia. They were in smaller groups broken down based on skill level (which, in our group, ranged from 0 Spanish experience to a much more advanced level). The classes were a great time to ask questions about things we heard in host families that we didn't understand or work on grammar, as well as practice speaking and writing. We often had discussions about current events and culture in the country we were in or had homework to write short essays about a topic of our choosing.
Between Ecuador and Bolivia we had an "enrichment week" in Peru, where we stayed in Cusco for a few nights and then trekked to Machu Picchu. It was a lot of fun, as well as educational, and summited the trek was so satisfying. In each core country we also had a few excursion to beautiful and interesting locals like Otavalo, the largest indigenous market in South America, and Toro Toro National Park, where we had the opportunity to see dinosaur footprints and go caving.
The final week in D.C. is another thing that makes TBB really unique. We had a busy schedule and met with many organizations, from the Peace Corps to Oxfam to the World Bank, had a few final seminars about re-integration to the United States and reflecting on our experience and what it had taught us. I think this was a great way to sort of sum up because we met many people in all stages in their lives and careers who were working with the issues we had discussed. Prior to TBB, I wasn't exactly sure how to pursue a career that would allow me to travel, get to know other cultures, and do "service" of some kind, and it exposed me to tons of new options that had never occurred to me before. This week also put our experience in perspective for me; I thought a lot about what it means for me to be a U.S. citizen, and obligation that I have to leverage my privilege to make disempowered voices heard.
Overall, Thinking Beyond Borders gave me the space to do a lot of personal exploration, and guided me through exploration of other cultures and complex ideas about my power as a consumer, my identity in a global context, and more.