This experience was the perfect start to my gap year. I was hesitant about what to choose as my first program/activity, and decided to apply for the Fall Gap Semester in Asia. Asia was my first choice because I had been interested in meditation and Buddhism, wanted to get lost in the language barrier, and the east vs west cultural differences. I was not disappointed! ARCC does an amazing job of balancing cultural immersion, backpacking, and service learning. I realized on this trip that I am a city person. Our days in Beijing, Hanoi, Saigon, Phnom Penh, and Bangkok were my favorite. The guides that ARCC uses have their itineraries planned very well. We did have time to explore each city on our own, going on morning runs(unforgettable and a great way to see a city) and walking through countless night markets. We also spent a fair amount of time in more rural areas where we did service projects such as constructing water filters and teaching students. What I greatly appreciated is that we got to interact with these people in a way where we call each other friends. You can't escape the reality of it all. The most striking example for me was in Meile, a village in the poorest region of China. Our guide, Alex, gave us a talk right as the school children were exiting their classes for recess. He told us how one of out every twenty of these kids would make it to high school. We then played games with the kids and had a lot of fun, but the nagging thought of limited opportunity stuck in our minds long after.
In terms of safety, it needs to be said that Asia is incredibly safe from what we saw. We felt comfortable walking in groups in night markets, or even on night runs there was little concern of any danger. It is ARCC policy to have students remain with at least one other member at all times but this was not a big deal.
The personal development I experienced on this trip had surprised me in ways I was not expecting. A piece of advice I received before going on this trip was to buy into everything, team building exercises and cultural engagement specifically. I can trace fundamental changes in myself back to specific places.
One last thing: I journaled for at least half an hour every night simply because we had so many meaningful experiences each day. The only negative is that normal life will pale in comparison once you return home. :)