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A tale of two gap years: from Thailand to the Middle East before college

   /   Sep 22nd, 2010International, News

It’s becoming increasingly popular to take a gap year either before college or between college years. Many youths are choosing to use that time to make a positive impact in the world. Here, Doni Bloomfield (right), an incoming freshman at the University of Chicago, and Aaron Flaster (left), a rising sophomore at Lewis and Clark College, talk about their gap years (between high school and college) and explain what they gained from the experiences.

Bloomfield: Aaron, what spurred you to take your gap year?

Flaster: My parents were the ones who suggested it [laughs], which I still find to be a little surprising. My immediate response was, ‘Oh no way, I’m dying to go to college.’ But when I thought about it, it seemed like I would be passing up an opportunity that might not come around again.

Bloomfield: So it was pretty easy to take the year off?

Flaster: Actually, my dad has a good picture of me in the San Francisco Airport twiddling my thumbs with a fairly nervous look on my face before I set off. It was a little unusual to take the year but it was the best decision I’ve ever made, and I’m grateful I had that opportunity.

Bloomfield: I definitely got a huge amount out of my gap year, which I spent in Israel. But it was probably a somewhat easier choice on my part: something like 80% of my grade went to Israel after their senior year in high school. What did you do during the year?

Flaster: For the first three months I joined Seamester, which is a four-month stay on a 112-foot sailboat. You work as a crew-member and take four classes at the same time. We went from Northern Australia up through Indonesia and Malaysia to Thailand – scuba-diving, touring the islands and learning how to work a ship.

Bloomfield: Did you stay in Thailand for a while?

Flaster: I stayed in Thailand for two months, teaching English to novice monks, and I lived with a host family. Afterward, I lived in the monastery for two weeks and practiced meditation four times a day. That was my first introduction to Buddhism and it’s still something that is a very integral part of my life today.

Bloomfield: From there, where did you go?

Flaster: I came home for a few weeks and saw my family and then went down to Argentina with the Foundation for Sustainable Development, a small NGO. I worked with a sewing cooperative;  three local women started the cooperative with one foot-powered sewing machine in 2006 and have since improved to five industrial strength sewing machines. I basically helped out where it was needed because the women couldn’t leave the community – there was a lot of patriarchal dominance. That was an incredibly realistic look at development work and it is still motivating what I want to study, what I want to do in the future. What’d you do in Israel, Doni?

Bloomfield: I was at a Yeshiva for the year. Yeshivas are Jewish learning programs where one studies Jewish texts in depth. Often when religious kids go to Israel for a year, one might expect them to become ultra-Zionists, but it was actually a very different experience for me because I was in the West Bank.

While I was there, the problems of the Israeli presence in the West Bank really hit home, of the disparities between Israelis and Palestinians. For example, across the road from my Yeshiva there was this Arab fruit stand set up, and it was astonishingly beat up. Often, villagers would ride past on donkeys while sleek modern cars zipped down the highway. I could see firsthand what the occupation meant to Palestinians in the area. But I was also able to see the complex problems that pulling out of the West Bank would cause, as friends of mine lived in places that would need to be demolished if Israel pulled out.

I think what our experiences illustrate is how powerful the tactile experience of traveling and seeing other cultures can be – how they can bring home something that isn’t easy to express in any other form.

But I think it’s fair to say that you don’t need to go to Thailand or the Middle East to get a full gap year experience. Probably the best way to economize is to stay right within this country – a country of 300 million people, a country the size of half of Europe or more – I mean, the United States is huge.

Flaster: I think of that a lot as well. I think the stigma that  you have to travel to a Third World or remote country for it to be a ‘gap year’ is not true. I was hoping to spend a good deal of time in the U.S. but it just didn’t work out. I chide myself because I could drive 45 minutes north or south and be in completely different cultures. There are so many ways to structure a year in the United States within your state or your community. The important part of the year is not necessarily where you go but rather meeting new people, broadening your horizons, being challenged in new ways and–

Bloomfield: And taking on some independence.

Flaster: Right, taking on independence, learning to be an adult and maybe having a better idea of what you want to pursue in college. Programs like Global Citizen Year, among others, offer financial assistance, and that allows people from almost any background to have a fulfilling gap year. And you can gain that anywhere – you can gain that next door or halfway across the world.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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