Alumni Spotlight: Paulina Personius

Paulina Personius is from California, and is currently doing an undergrad in Latin American Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She has a strong interest in advocating for food justice and indigenous community sovereignty, particularly in Latin America. And she loves long conversations with friends over a good glass of wine. Her gap year took place during the 2011-2012 school year.

Why did you decide to do a gap year with Global Citizen Year?

Paulina working with a women's agricultural co-op that she interned with.

Paulina: I was originally planning to do a solo backpacking trip in Central America during my gap year, doing shorter term volunteer stints with a few different organizations. I was encouraged by a counselor at my school to go hear what a GCY recruiter had to say about the organization.

During the presentation I heard, I was very attracted to GCY’s focus on complete immersion in the community fellows are placed in. I also liked the program’s balance between complete independence and support.

Specifically, I liked that you have the option to be placed alone in a community, but still meet up monthly with all the other fellows in your country to reflect on your experiences, and discuss your successes and failures.

I also liked that GCY places a strong emphasis on making gap year programs accessible to people from all socio-economic backgrounds. I thought this was important, not only because the program gave me a scholarship that made it possible for me to participate, but also because the program was more diverse than many other programs of its type, something that I greatly valued.

What was your most memorable experience?

Paulina: It’s funny, I think that this question would normally make someone think of some epic, or outrageous moment. But for me, my most cherished moments were little everyday happenings.

These seemingly mundane things range widely from hushed conversations with my sister before falling asleep in our shared room, to daily swims in the river near my house, to making tea for my family every afternoon with my brother, to my walk to work in a clinic a few kilometers away, to my younger sister constantly trying to fit into and borrow my clothing, to long chats about religion with my imam neighbor.

I think I value these moments most, because to me they represent my ability to form a daily routine, and carve out a place for myself within my family and village’s life. It was during these everyday interactions that I felt less like a visiting stranger, and more like a member of this new community. When I think back on Senegal, it’s these little actions that became part of my daily routine that I miss most.

Describe one person you met.

Paulina: One person that I met who really made my experience was Sega. He was a guy my age in my village, who became one of my best friends. To me he was a great example of someone open-minded and patient.

He showed me around my village and introduced me to everyone. He always gave me great advice whenever I encountered any difficulty. And he simultaneously laughed at my butchered attempts to speak Wolof, while teaching me important vocabulary and grammar rules.

He became someone I could talk to for hours and joke around with. In such a different cultural context, it was great to have someone I felt I could be completely myself with.

For me, I learned a valuable lesson on how to connect with someone, despite the fact that we had grown up in such different circumstances. Even though almost 2 years have passed since I was in Senegal, we still keep in touch, and I still consider him one of my best friends.

I will also say that I met amazing people who were doing the program along with me. Going into GCY I don’t think I realized the lasting connections I would build with the other fellows, but I am now really thankful for the strong support network we created for each other.

If you could go back and do something differently what would it be?

Paulina hanging out with some of her siblings

Paulina: If I had the ability to go back, I would push myself to get more involved in the broader area I was in. One thing about being in a small village, is it did create some feelings of isolation, and I wish that I had explored more organizations and events happening in my region, and gotten involved in them.

Something I realized in hindsight, is that the sphere that I saw myself in was a lot smaller than it had to be. I think I would tell myself to broaden my scope in order to discover new learning opportunities.

While I did sometimes feel “stuck” in a sense in such a small community, it did teach me that it is up to me to define my community, and that can be as large or as small as I want.

In this case, I think I would have benefited from looking for more opportunities and responsibilities to take on elsewhere, but it has taught me not to allow myself to feel “stuck” in the future.

How has your worldview changed?

Paulina: I think my gap year not only broadened my world view, but also broadened my understanding of myself and how I operate. My gap year made me think much more critically about development, and gave me real world experience to work off of when studying the subject in university.

I think that during my year I came to the conclusion that underdevelopment is much more complex and multifaceted than I thought. My world view was broadened by my gap year, in that it made me realize that there were many things I didn’t yet fully understand about how we view and interact with the underdeveloped world; something that I took home with me, and that created questions in my mind that now fuel my course of study and my interests.

I am also a strong believer that anytime someone is immersed in a new culture, and is forced to confront their culture’s norms in comparison to another culture’s norms, it is an invaluable learning opportunity that allows you to deepen and expand your worldview.