Then & Now: Reflections from a Gap Year Graduate

I had my first experience serving a community when I was a high school senior. We were building water filtration systems near San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua; it was the first time I saw what true poverty looked like, peering out the window of an old school bus as we drove through rural villages. Children ran barefoot between houses that were barely held together with sticks and plywood. Beyond the poverty, what also stood out to me was that in spite of the circumstances, people radiated a level of joy different than what I had ever felt in the US. Those barefoot children were playing football and laughing, and the houses that appeared to be falling apart actually provided the basic shelter they needed to sleep safely at night. How could those who have so little in the way of material objects have so much currency in happiness? I craved to know more about this way of life, but I didn’t yet know what path I could take to gain the deeper level of immersion and understanding I so desired.

I grew up in a liberal, affluent, suburban city in the Northeast and was encouraged to attend college to study dance and fine art in upstate New York. I wasn’t aware that there were alternative options, and felt resigned to continue on the path that most high school seniors in the US follow. I didn’t know it was okay to take time to explore my interests before committing to undergraduate life. Surprising or not, my first year of college left me unmotivated, uninspired, and lacking direction. I wanted to shake up my life so that I could simultaneously feel the stimulation of being pushed outside my comfort zone and the tranquility that is cultivated from a slower pace of life. I wanted desperately to reach outside of myself, denounce my ego and American-bred individualistic tendencies for the sake of helping and caring for others. I wanted space and time to breathe, think, ground. 

I chose the Global Routes Teaching Internship Program in Tanzania as the alternative to my first semester of my Sophomore year. I surrendered to the experience, and the experience returned to me a lifetime of possibilities. Taking a gap semester in Tanzania wasn’t always pretty, but therein lay the beauty. During my gap semester I immersed myself in Tanzanian household practices, mealtime prep (from baking bread to killing chickens), Swahili lessons, independent travel on the local minibus system, and so much more. I was humbled by the simplicity of village life as it compared to the life of excess that I came from. 

My mind, body, and soul felt enriched by both the local community that housed and fed me and by the support of my fellow Global Routes peers and leaders. We bonded over the idiosyncrasies of daily Tanzanian life and found joy in comparing the obstacles and successes we faced each week. The time away from home allowed me to find gratitude where I previously lacked it and gain personal confidence. I took time to self-reflect, write, and take long walks. I discovered my true interest in global health by visiting orphanages and teaching biology & sex ed, which allowed me to begin to better understand the sustainable & appropriate ways to provide aid in developing countries (more recently, my focus has been on exploring topics of anti-colonialism, white saviorism, effective altruism, and how to exist in this sphere as a mzungu – could be an entire essay in itself!) I felt more awake during my gap semester than I had felt before, and because of that gap semester I had a better sense of who I was and a clearer vision of the impact I wanted to have on the world. I learned to be adaptable and embrace the challenge of functioning, and eventually falling in love with and thriving in a community so different from my own. When I left, I felt I had established roots and built lifelong friendships. Now when I return to Tanzania, it feels like a homecoming, a warm hug, and an exciting rush of noise all mixed up in one pot of ugali.

After my gap semester and graduating from college with a degree in psychology, I couldn’t ignore my desire to have experiences that would feed an insatiable need to understand the world, connect with people, and most importantly improve the lives of others. I shadowed in an operating room in Thailand, trained as a yoga instructor in Bali, hiked in the Himalayas, and eventually returned to study nursing at Duke University. While there, I served as President of Nursing Students Without Borders and completed clinical hours in a medical center back in rural Tanzania as well as in a prenatal clinic in Guatemala. After I graduated from Duke’s ABSN program, I worked as an acute care float nurse at Children’s Hospital Colorado and continued with Duke’s master’s program to become a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP).

Then, in my third semester of grad school I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. I faced an aggressive treatment plan of fertility preservation, months of chemo, and a series of surgeries. Being sick was one of the most trying times in my life. But I refused to let cancer stand in the way of my dreams; in fact, facing my mortality fueled a desire to live life even more fully than before. With immense support from my family and my peers, I continued taking classes and logging clinical hours throughout treatment. When I finally reached graduation, I was one semester behind my peers and one year cancer free.

As a new grad PNP, I moved back to Boston to work with the general surgery team at Boston Children’s Hospital. Tackling the steep learning curve during this time was challenging both personally and professionally … and then the pandemic hit.  Amid the chaos and anxiety of working on the front-lines during lockdown and anticipating the first spike of coronavirus infections, I was offered an opportunity to go back to East Africa to join an organization called Seed Global Health as a pediatric critical care nurse educator. What an incredibly complicated decision I had to make – follow my heart and move away from my family during a global pandemic or stay close to home and rest in the security of my current job until we ride it out? After months of deliberation and applying a “wait-and-see” approach, I ultimately chose to trust my intuition and take the risk. I am now living and working (and thriving!!) in Malawi and plan to continue building my career in global health for the next years to come.

My parting words to you: a gap year is not just an experience you have between high school and college. There will always be “in-between” times in life, between jobs, moves, relationships. Taking time to self-reflect and realign your goals and ideals will always serve you. In fact, I believe it’s important to carry the spirit of the gap year throughout an entire lifetime, continually seeking opportunities for growth, learning, sharing, connecting, slowing down, and exploring. Entertain creative endeavors and welcome life with open arms. Pursue the road less traveled and see where it takes you. Take with you Lisa Borders’ wise words from my most recent graduation – a riff on a famous Winston Churchill quote – “failure isn’t fatal, it’s feedback” and treat each of your experiences, the “good” ones AND (more importantly?) the “bad” ones, as gifts. As a testament to the power of the gap year, I love to share that what I am doing now still is directly fueled by my gap semester experience in Tanzania as a 19-year-old. The lessons that shaped me during that time are still providing me guidance to this day, and I hope to pass along my story to inspire you to discover what incredible possibilities lie in your own future.

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