What led you to participate in the Global Citizen Year program?
Abigail: By the time I reached my senior year of high school, I really believed that there was something fundamentally missing in my education—I felt like I needed to experience something hands-on and do something tangible to make a difference before I went on to college.
What originally drew me to Global Citizen Year was its focus on leadership and community building; I wanted an experience where I would be immersed into a new culture, a different language, and a host family.
I also found the idea of having a “cohort” of other students on the same program very important, because this meant that I would have my own experience but I would also have the support network of like-minded friends from all over the United States to share the year’s joys and sorrows with.
I vividly remember the moment I decided to apply: a friend had given me an article from the New York Times featuring Global Citizen Year and I was walking home from school through a fresh foot of December snow, feeling overwhelmed by the inevitable approach of final exams.
Standing there in the snow reading that article I felt like a whole world had been opened to me. And when I explored the blogs of previous program participants, I knew immediately that it was an experience I wanted to have and an adventure I wanted to embark on.
What was the most memorable moment of the trip?
Abigail: There were too many memorable moments to count! Every day was a new adventure full of novel experiences and always something unexpected—a spontaneous trip to the river, being asked to judge in a school’s Christmas pageant, or getting lost in the jungle on my way home from work.
However, I would have to say that one of my favorite and most hilarious memories is one day arriving home to my host family and finding them in a state of panic because our fish pond, usually full of tilapia, was for some reason rapidly draining.
Without delay, my host mom and dad waded knee deep into the muddy water and began flinging fish to me and my little sister and brother from the middle of the pond, which we then had to catch, or pick up from the ground, muddy and wriggling.
For about an hour the air was filled with fish flying in every direction. And my brother, sister and I screamed and laughed as we retrieved the fish and put them into buckets. By the end we were all completely covered in mud and smelled terrible. But none of us could stop giggling at the thought of trying to catch fish after flying fish.
My other favorite experience was going with my little sister and brother to visit my aunts and uncles on the bus to the town nearby ours. We would show up at their house and just chat, watch our favorite Korean soap opera and perhaps have a dance party in their living room.
We would eat bread and tea before heading home. It seems so ordinary, but this experience with my family was a bonding one that I will never forget.
What did you find most challenging about the experience?
Abigail: Although I did have a fair amount of homesickness while I was on my gap year (especially during the first month), the biggest challenge for me was dealing with the machismo or male-dominated society present in Ecuador.
Every day walking to the bus stop or strolling down the street in my community I would be catcalled by construction workers and shop owners and honked at by bus and taxi drivers—all this was considered normal and most Ecuadorian women disregarded such uncalled-for attention with a dismissive wave of the hand.
However, I was very unused to this and to keep myself from going crazy I invented a daily game that consisted of me counting the number of catcalls or honks I got as I walked to work. Although this didn’t change a thing about the machismo I was experiencing, for some reason it allowed me to distance myself from it and let it go.
Although whenever I got the chance to let my male co-workers and my host father hear a piece of my perspective coming from the United States I did so, to let both them and my female friends know that things were different in other parts of the world.
Tell us about one person you met.
Abigail: My host mother was a truly amazing woman, and one I continue to be inspired by. Due to being the first of ten children in a low-income rural farming family, she was forced to give up her education to care for her younger siblings and did not finish high school until she was 28 years old.
After that she had a ten-year career before getting married and becoming a mother I feel like I didn’t really know the true meaning of hard work before I met her.
She began her day before sunrise making breakfast, getting my brother to pre-school, washing clothes by hand, cleaning, and working in the garden. And her busy schedule didn’t stop till after sundown.
Despite such an arduous workday, she rose to every sunrise with a bright smile on her face and was always ready to talk, laugh, and tell stories. Her determination, resilience, and optimism for the future reminded me—and still remind me—that for a good life, one only needs family, friends, food, and a roof over one’s head.
What insights/advice do you have for anyone considering a gap year?
Abigail: First of all, I’d like to simply say that if you’re considering it, take the leap and do it! I learned more during my one year in Ecuador—about myself, the world, and where I fit in it—than I ever have during a year of school.
Deciding to take a gap year is honestly the best decision I have ever made. When comparing programs, I think it’s very important to think about the kind of experience you’d like to have. There is a whole range of programs out there, ranging from long-term homestays like Global Citizen Year’s or programs focused on shorter stays in a number of countries.
Finding the best program to fit your interests and needs is vital so that you get the very best experience possible. There are options for gap years domestically, abroad...basically anywhere you can think of!