From the Amazon to the Classroom: Takeaways from My Gap Year

One of the most significant takeaways I have from my experiences abroad is the learned difference between idealistic commercialized altruism and the actual capacity for one to help, if at all.
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August 31, 2011

Looking back to wave goodbye to my parents one last time, I realized that I had already ventured too far into the gate to see the line at the security checkpoint anymore. I paused for a second, overwhelmed by the independence of the moment. "This is it," I thought to myself. With a deep breath, I pushed onward to find a seat as I waited for my boarding information to be called over the intercom.

I would be boarding the next flight to new adventures, and it felt like I had waited my entire life for these next steps. I had just graduated from high school, but I could still remember opening the letter in the mail. Even after holding it in my hands and reading the inviting words, the enormity of the decision was still surreal. It felt like a dream, rather than my life, and I couldn't help but entertain feelings of apprehension and anxiety for the coming year.

As I settled into my seat on the plane, the gentleman next to me started a friendly conversation. He had seen me wiping away small tears of nervousness and offered some kind words in an attempt to make me feel better. "First time away from home? Don't worry ... college is a blast!"

"Thank you," I smiled waveringly. "But I'm just a little scared because actually, I'm not going to college. I'm moving to the Amazon rainforest."

Fast forward three years, and I have had that same conversation countless times with various individuals. As a typical teenager from Southern California, my unusual decision to take a bridge year between high school and college has always been an interesting topic with new friends.

I am deeply passionate about learning about our world and the people in it. As a child, I would spend hours at the library looking through maps and atlases, trying to piece together the landmasses and cultures in the jigsaw puzzle that is our beloved planet earth. I have a severe case of wanderlust that has often interrupted the traditional form of my academic instruction. Before beginning my studies at UCLA, I was blessed with the opportunity to travel, live, work, and learn within the geography of five different continents. My childhood was littered with trips back and forth to my parents' native homeland of Indonesia. I had traveled intermittently throughout high school to locations in Europe and North America. Mildly put, the travel bug infected me at a young age. So upon graduation from high school, I packed my bags and said, "Maybe later!" to college.

For a year, I was no longer just a student, but an explorer. I traveled to Rehoboth, Namibia in Africa to work with resource distribution and education in an underserved community. I relocated to the Ecuadorian Amazon in South America to apprentice under development leaders from the German International Cooperation (GIZ) and environmental authorities from the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment. I landed an internship in Washington, D.C. coordinating fellowships for nonprofit leaders from the developing world. And through it all, I recognized the value of an unorthodox education.

A common misconception in modern American society is that education can only happen within the four walls of a classroom. Don't get me wrong; classrooms are incredible places for enlightenment. However, in my opinion, some of the most valuable lessons are learned outside of traditional academia. Nevertheless, if you're expecting to hear about how my travel experiences transformed my life because I singlehandedly changed the world, you'll probably be disappointed. Instead, I can tell you endless stories about how I fell on my face and recognized the true scope of my limitations, but did gain invaluable relationships that span the circumference of the globe in the process.

One of the most significant takeaways I have from my experiences abroad is the learned difference between idealistic commercialized altruism and the actual capacity for one to help, if at all. Too often, I have found myself assuming that I know how to best fix a problem in a foreign country without realizing that I do not have the proper training, cultural background, or institutional capacity to impact positive, long-term, sustainable change in a specific community, and this idea that "the West knows best" needs to end. Or, more fundamentally, the selfish ambition behind some of our problem-solving methods should be addressed with more honest self-awareness.

My experiences abroad have cemented within me a personal desire to positively impact the lives of those around me. However, I think that international development work is a gallingly delicate and complex field due to the fact that your work is not composed of abstract facts and figures, but of relationships and communities. And these relationships and communities are formed by real people whose lives are not equivalent to playing pieces on a game board.

I remember preparing to return to the United States after immersing myself in Amazonian culture. My host nieces and nephews crowded around me as I packed my suitcase, pestering me with incessant questions.

"Are you going on a plane?"

"Will you come back?"

"How far is California?"

"Why are you leaving?"

I had expected a challenging goodbye. What I hadn't expected was the impact -- positive or negative -- my presence would have beyond my time in the country. My host sisters peered into my room from the door, silently watching as I folded clothes amongst their children. Abruptly, my oldest host sister left causing all of us to pause for a second. I followed her into her room, and she tearfully apologized for being emotional. As I reassured her that I was dreading the transition as well, she defiantly grabbed my hand and declared, "No, you don't understand. You come here and become part of our family, but then you leave and go back to your own family. You never come back. It's just an experience for you, but for us, this is our lives. I lose a sister when you go back to California."


In all of my travels, I'll never forget her words. I'm still passionate about people. I'm still infected with the travel bug. I'm still going to keep exploring. And I encourage you to do the same. But our actions do impact the lives of others, and I think that it's up to us to decide what kind of impact we will leave. I'm much more conscious of the way that I travel now, and instead of rushing in with presuppositions, I try to let my local friends and family guide me through the new terrain. I realize now that as much as I want to be, sometimes I'm not the one who can be the hero in every situation. What I can do is empower others who are more adequately equipped to step up and be that star. As humans, I believe that we are extremely relational creatures. Connections drive us, allowing us to do more than merely survive. Our ability to identify with one another and learn from the experiences of our peers gives us the power to thrive.

I'm still a student, and loving life as a UCLA Bruin. But my education doesn't just happen in a lecture hall. I'm not going to sit here and encourage or dissuade you from any potential journeys, but I do urge you to take a humble heart into any of the adventures on which you embark. As long as you're learning, you're growing. I know I still am.

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