Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Q&A with Global Gap Fellow Maggie Armstrong

Ever consider a gap year? More students than ever are taking a year off after high school to travel, serve, and get some real-world experiences before starting college. Maggie Armstrong is a first-year student at Carolina who was in the inaugural class of Global Gap Year Fellows. This program, run by the Campus Y, awards $7500 to seven incoming first-year students to fund a gap year that combines international travel and service. The Campus Y also provides support and planning resources before, during, and after the gap year. Learn more about the Fellowship, and read on for Maggie's amazing stories of her gap year. 

How did you decide to take a gap year? Did you have a hard time convincing your parents?
I decided to take a gap year for many reasons. Like many others, I was burnt out after a rigorous high school experience. I wanted to continue learning, but I desperately wanted to do so outside of the classroom. When I told my parents that I wanted to take a Gap Year they actually laughed. They were certain that I couldn't figure out how to finance the trip. They were also worried about my safety in a place that neither of us understood.

After months of research, assuring them that I was capable of handling myself, and receiving the Global Gap Year Fellowship, they were finally both on board. Once I had convinced them that a gap year was the right step for me my life got much easier.

Where did you go? What did you do?
I went to Yumen, Gansu, China, a small northwestern town located in the outskirts of the Gobi Desert. I was an oral English teacher in a public high school. I was a part of the Amity Young Teachers Program, a program consisting of 12 college-age students teaching in Gansu, China.

How did you fund your gap year?
I funded my gap year almost entirely with the Global Gap Year Fellowship.

Best day abroad?
My best day abroad was the day that I entered Lhasa, Tibet. After a thirty-seven hour train ride, I stepped out into a refreshingly cold city that was entirely different than anything I had previously experienced. Every winter Tibetan Buddhists go on pilgrimages to the holiest of Buddhist temples, such as Drepung Potala Palace. The winter is also a season devoid of tourists, because few people are enticed by the bitter cold of a Tibetan winter. As a result, I believe that I witnessed the most authentically holy and spiritual version of Tibet possible. The market streets of Lhasa were crammed with men and women performing daily prayer, and lively market people selling prayer flags, fruits for sacrifice, and jewelry. The monasteries were alive with elderly and young people alike praying aloud, chanting mantras and singing. The countryside was littered with devout Buddhists trekking to the nearest and the farthest temples. I knew in just my first day that I was witnessing something mind-numbingly authentic, spiritual, and human.

Toughest day abroad?
Honestly, my toughest day abroad was my first. Of course, as with any given period of time, there were many days to follow that were less than spectacular. However, looking back, the only day that I remember being truly scared, or bewildered, and the only day that I remember doubting my choice to go on a gap year was my first full day. Before I made my way to Yumen, the town that would later become my home, I spent four days in Nanjing, China meeting with and learning about my position from the Amity Foundation. The orientation with Amity was great, however, afterwards I was alone, in a strange city, in a strange country, that spoke a language that I knew nothing of. Unlike many countries, essentially no one in China speaks more than 10 words of English. This meant that I had no way to figure out where I was going, what I could do, or even what food I was eating. I found myself aimlessly wandering around the city, and while this was thrilling, and I at times I was elated with where I was, I was also terrified.

How did the Campus Y and the Fellowship resources help with support/planning/transition?
The best thing that the Fellowship has done for me is helping me transition into life at UNC. After spending a year abroad, learning on my feet, and experiencing cultures entirely different from my own, I find that I want to share how I have changed, what I have changed, and how I hope to change the world in the future. The Gappl, the Campus Y and the Fellowship have provided a great outlet for this, because the other people in my life can only deal with so much of this. I also find that these experiences have put me in a very different place than many of my classmates. I am thrilled that there is an established group of people who I know can relate to my struggles, my joys and my interests.

How did your time abroad change you and your outlook?
My single year abroad changed me more than any other time period in my entire life. Some of the changes are obvious. I am more relaxed. I can speak Chinese. I can barely go two days without craving tofu.Alternatively, some changes happened deep within me. I look at the world entirely differently than before. When someone does something strange, I am conscious to consider why they have done it, rather than how uncomfortable it is or how it affects me. I understand that differences in culture always come from something basic, and in that way even the strangest things have a beauty.

What would you tell prospective first-year students who are considering a gap year?
I would tell them to stop considering and start actively looking for a placement. I do not know a single person who regrets their gap year, and I know very few people who do not consider their gap year to be the most influential experience of their lives. I honestly wish that everyone would take gap years because they do great things for individuals and great things for the world.

Thank you, Maggie, for sharing your story with us!