My year truly started directly after the summer of 2015. To kick it off, I travelled to France for the entire month of September. My first two weeks were spent in Nice, where I took French classes with students from all over the world and lived with a host family, with French becoming our common language. Then I spent another two weeks working on a vineyard in the city of Beaune, in the Burgundy region of France. I continued to further my French, as my hosts knew no English. To finish this trip, I spent my last weekend in Paris with family friends, and discovered the city and Parisian culture. Through this experience, I greatly improved my French (I still have a lot to learn) and learned what it is like to live outside of the US while making friends from all over the world.
In October, I used newfound time away from school and work to continue my interest in politics and to learn more about art and painting; interests that I’ve never had time to pursue. Since I live near Boston, I dedicated this month between work and travel to truly experience the opportunities that I’ve missed while living here, essentially finishing my “at-home bucket list”. I went museum-hopping, going to the many great museums and attractions in the area, and enrolled in a four week class at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston on Van Gogh’s life and his art. Among my favorite places for art that I recommend were the MFA, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the Harvard Art Museum, which everyone should check out when they have the chance (this may sound like favoritism, but there is a fantastic collection here and now it’s only steps away). For continuing politics, I greatly enjoyed visiting the JFK Presidential Library, which shares JFK’s legacy, and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, which is a treasure trove of information about the senate and government. In addition, I attended many lectures at Harvard and the JFK School, including several special events featuring various Harvard professors, Secretary of State John Kerry, Wendy Sherman, head US negotiator of the Iran nuclear deal, and also attended a Model UN event conducted by the Harvard Institute of Politics in which former President Bill Clinton was the surprise guest.
From November to January, I interned at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), a nonprofit organization that aims to prevent malpractice. There, I worked on online classes that gave information to healthcare practitioners and students across the globe on how to protect patients and make healthcare more efficient and effective.
Afterwards, in February, I embarked on my second round of travel for the year. Looking for more new experiences, I headed to Thailand. For this trip, I used a travel company that organizes trips for college-aged students, in which we travelled to the country individually, the twenty of us there, and did a loop around the country with a guide hired by the company. In this trip, we explored the culture, history, religion, and natural beauty of the country, with the highlights being Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket. My favorite moments were volunteering at an elephant sanctuary, island hopping in Phuket, and marveling at centuries-old temples scattered throughout Thailand.
Upon returning to the US, I spent the rest of the year until July interning at Partners in Health, a Boston based non-profit healthcare organization dedicated to bringing modern medicine to those in poverty. There, I worked to help coordinate community-organizing and activism throughout the US, advocating for changes in laws to provide more foreign medical aid and spreading awareness of ways Americans can help make care available internationally.
In reflection, my year was certainly worth it, but I did have challenges along the way. The hardest part of my year was piecing together each aspect of it and planning and budgeting each step up until I started school. I entered my gap year with no overarching plan, but instead had to rely on one event leading to another. For example, my availability for travel was dependent on when I would be able to work, in both timeframe and financial flexibility. Paid internships made travel easier, and I would start planning trips only when I was sure of when I would have time to work, which I learned at the end of the internship. I learned of opportunities for travel only after finishing my first trip, as the first travel company referred me to the one I used for Thailand, and my first internship gave me experience that I could use to get the second one to finish out the year. I also found it difficult to find the right information to use for planning. There is a sea of information out there for travel opportunities and things to do for a gap year, but in consequence it is hard to personalize what I wanted to do for my time. For me, I did not want to spend an entire year travelling, but wanted to make sure I could pursue a variety of options. Finding flexibility and personalization was the most challenging factor of my year, and this difficulty was mostly fueled by a lack of school resources and guidance for gap year students. Because of this, I want to help future students be able to effectively tackle their gap year without the stress of not knowing anything about what it will entail.
I believe that my gap year has made me a more complete person. In my year, I explored new places and ideas, developed new skills from added work experience, and began new friendships everywhere I went. I believe that I not only grew as an individual, but also became more prepared for college as well. College no longer seemed like only a continuation of the same routine or an overwhelming challenge, but now was another exciting new experience to add to my list of seeing everything life has to offer.
Author: GA Attia, Class of 2020