The Gap in the Classroom

The "gap year," it seems, is here to stay. Along with gelato, 'Parisian chic' skirts and constitutional law, taking a year out before or during college is just the latest of many trends to cross the Atlantic from The Continent. The gap year comes with all of its own connotations and expectations of how it should be spent, and more often than not their proponents tend to value one experience above all others: travel.

But why travel? Why at this age and stage in life?

We've traveled for thirteen weeks down the Mekong River with an organization called Where There Be Dragons, one as "student" (Charlotte) and one as "instructor" (Caleb), though we hope this piece might question those roles. We like to think of our roles as interchangeable in different contexts.

Education in our society tends to present the teacher as knower and student as receptacle of information. Or rather, "teacher as subject, student as object." But we've both learned while traveling that these roles often become blurred and meaningless. The classroom is the whole world without walls and the student becomes an active collaborator in their own learning. In this model there is a refreshingly mutual exchange between teacher and student.

Charlotte: Two years ago, much less seven months ago, I don't think I imagined that I would embark on a journey that would lead me through China, Laos, and Cambodia. I didn't freely choose to take a gap year. Rather, my gap year found me through a combination of academic issues and fate that led me to Southeast Asia this past fall.

Caleb: I'm someone that could've really benefitted from a year off following high school. I'd never even heard of a gap year when I was thinking about college, so I dove in like I was supposed to. I had no idea what I wanted to study or why, and it wasn't until I spent a summer volunteering at a local NGO in Cambodia that some things began to come together for me. I found something that felt meaningful and worthwhile. And after that my whole academic life really changed. Being a facilitator of these programs now is really so much fun.

Charlotte: When I started my freshman year of college at Tufts I thought I knew myself all too well. I had considered taking a gap year during the months leading up to college, but got swept up in the tide of everyone rushing to their top choice. After the thrill of being a freshman died down, I found myself disappointed with the hype over college. Now what? I practically jumped through hurdles in high school to get myself into a "good" college, and now I found myself with the same repetition and mundane lifestyle in college all geared toward the future and not the present.

Caleb: Where There Be Dragons really seeks to provide an alternative to that mindset. Through deep cross-cultural engagement, the idea is to introduce students to the world in a wholly different way. There are so many different ways of being, but we're pretty often only exposed to a handful of these ways during our most formative years. But our programs are more than just a compliment to the traditional educational model. They're also just these journeys of discovery in which students are really challenged to question themselves and their worldview, to embrace discomfort to the end of learning more, and to think of their lives in a bigger context. Something like 98% of public and private colleges and universities allow students to defer their enrollment these days, so there's really no reason not to. Some studies are even showing that kids who take gap years outperform their peers academically across the board.

Charlotte: I've learned how to be a global citizen. I'm still figuring out what it means to be a privileged American in this world, but this trip has given me a start. One theme we've revisited over and over on this course is the impact our choices have on one another. Wendell Berry says, "Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you." This quote was particularly relevant to our group since we've been traveling along the Mekong River, starting upstream in China, and moving our way downstream through Laos and Cambodia. We've seen first hand the impact China's decisions on damming upstream will have on downstream countries.

Caleb: I love that quote, and I love Wendell Berry. What I love about it so much is that it's applicable to so many parts of life. If we take it figuratively, it becomes clear that in one way or another all of us are "upstream" people and that each of us is responsible for our "effluent". What are we putting into the water that's going to get carried down to someone else? How can we be more aware of the ways that our actions affect people all around us, or even around the world? These are just a few of the questions that we try to pose on courses like the Mekong Semester.

Charlotte: Back in the States, I learned and heard of so many issues in less developed countries, and I had this sense that these countries needed to be "fixed." Or, these countries clearly needed to adapt to Western ideology. So often, you see Westerners come into foreign countries and impose their socio-centrism. On this trip, we've done a whole lot of observing, which is almost counterintuitive to what my education has taught me: act immediately to alleviate future consequences. I slept on the bare ground for two weeks in the same room as 10 other family members. My first impression was "Whoa! We need to get these people some beds!" But I quickly learned that that was my superior self speaking. My host family actually preferred sleeping on the ground. It's all they've ever known. We didn't come on this trip to improve anyone's lifestyle or do a tremendous amount of community service, but rather learn and adapt to a new way of living. This trip has taught me to sit back, slow down, and observe. From there, a true dialogue can begin by acknowledging the real humanity of both parties and exploring possibilities for growth and change from the fertile ground of that mutuality.

Caleb: And this all seems especially relevant given the current global situation. The world is changing more rapidly than any of us can really understand. Our place in the world as Americans is really in flux, and that isn't altogether bad. There's a lot to learn from other cultures and traditions, but it takes real humility to be open to those things. And I believe that there's really no better way to begin learning about the world outside your bubble than really immersing yourself in it. It's by putting ourselves on someone else's turf that we begin to understand them better, to appreciate their situations and see our own more clearly, and to find those commonalities that remind us just how much we share in spite of our real diversity. That's a very reassuring and hopeful thing to find.

Charlotte: I have a semester left to explore this amazing world we live in called Earth. But more importantly I have a semester left to explore myself. I want to continue to give context to my Tuft's education. As my Dragons course comes to a close, I am aware that my travels do not end when I cross the U.S. border. I still have a lot of work to do during my gap year, but it's the ungraded kind. This year is for my self: to breakdown prejudices, understand injustices, and shed light on my biases and areas of ignorance before I head back into the classroom.

Caleb Brooks is an instructor for Where There Be Dragons, an organization that leads cross-cultural experiential education programs for students in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Charlotte Platt is enjoying the second half of her gap year, and will be a sophomore at Tufts University Fall of 2014.