Making Meaningful Connections Through Language Barriers

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Every part of traveling somewhere new presents it’s own challenges, whether it be understanding the local custom of haggling in markets in Morocco or distinguishing between local dialects in India. One of the most exciting, and arguably the most challenging, parts of traveling to different places around the world is learning how to communicate and make connections with people who don’t speak the same language. For some, this means relying on the power a game of soccer can have in making new friends, for others it means connecting through different avenues like art, music or dance.

As Allen Klein once said, “There are no language barriers when you are smiling.” Though we may not literally speak the same language, in being human we share a commonality between all us that allow us to communicate without the need for any words – the ability to feel, and to share those emotions. In being able to communicate our happiness through a smile, or sadness through the teardrops that fall from our eyes, we transcend any language barriers that may step in our way. I have seen time and time again in my experience traveling how easy it can be to communicate once we let go of the safety of our words and begin simply expressing ourselves using our emotions and most basic expressions.

The problem is not that we are unable to connect with others through language barriers, it’s that we are unable to recognize that sharing a language is not the only way to do so. Roughly 6909 languages are currently listed in the Ethnologue catalogue of world languages, each with their own ways to describe things, feelings and emotions we all encounter in our everyday lives. In each language there are words used to describe certain feelings and emotions that are simply untranslatable to any other language. This means that certain feelings, ideas or things are simply untranslatable from one language to the next, forcing us to once again rely on the most basic of communication devices we all possess – the many different ways of expression.

Ways to Communicate Without Language

It can be daunting going somewhere new without speaking the language and feeling like you may not be able to connect with those around you. Here are some ways you CAN connect with those around you without the need to speak a common language.

Bring a pack of cards

While not everyone in the world may speak Frisian, most people have had experience playing some form of cards. By having a pack of cards ready to share in the common room of the hostel or in the waiting room of the bus station you can bypass the need for words by partaking in an activity that may already be familiar to those around you.

Pack a beach ball

One experienced traveler I spoke to stated that one of the things she always kept in her suitcase was a deflated beach ball, particularly when they were visiting a place where there were kids that didn’t speak the same language as she did. By having the beach ball, they were able to join the kids in having fun and playing games without the need for a common language, simply relying on their ability to have fun instead.

Bring some music

A form of expression without the need for a common language, music is something that brings even the most different of people together. I may have had trouble asking the taxi driver for directions in Costa Rica, but when he heard my iPod playing Bob Marley he spent half an hour singing along with me to his entire first album.

Traveling somewhere that doesn’t speak the same language forces us to communicate through so much more than simply just what we choose to verbalize. It forces us to communicate using our body language, facial expressions, gestures and anything else we can use to get our point across. We spend so much of our time with people around us that can speak the same language that we have come to rely on shared language as the only way to communicate, without recognizing that it is not the only way to communicate.

It is travel that has shown me how alike we all are, regardless of the language we speak, the religion we practice or the beliefs we hold. I may not be able to speak your language and we may not hold the same views, but we both understand the same feelings of pain and hope. It’s this ability to feel, this humanity within all of us – that connects us all, regardless of the languages we speak. This is something I think we need to remember when traveling somewhere new, that even when it seems impossible to communicate without speaking the local language, communication without language is possible, and sometimes even more genuine than the words that come out of our mouths. After all, there are so many more parts of what makes us human than that which is verbally communicated.

Keeping in Touch With Your Gap Year Friends

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Leaving home to Gap Year for a semester or year is fertile ground for making new friends. Together, you trip and stumble and fall and giggle through the language barriers, conquer unexpected challenges, and actively explore your new sense of freedom. You quickly start to question your lifestyle back home, and get to shed your past and start fresh. You meet people from all different walks of life and challenge your conventional norms. Who wouldn’t want to do this hand in hand with a rad person who totally “GETS IT?”

Your bestie from abroad is a special gal/guy, and it’d be a shame to let your tight bond go to waste just because you’re in separate time zones. Here are some ideas for keeping in touch with your Gap Year BFF!

Share the mundane details of life

Since your Gap Year BFF is probably on the other side of the country, you will be tempted to limit your conversations to memories of your shared lives and adventures back on the other side of the pond. While it’s fun to reminisce, it isn’t a great foundation for the growth of a longterm friendship.

Gap Year BFF’s Jamie and Grey share: “Our joint love for Ghana was the cornerstone of our friendship, but it was important for us to continue building it beyond that.”

When telling stories, use the actual names of your friends and your professors. Talk to him/her about what’s really going on. Avoid generalizing or skipping over things because you’re busy or think he/she doesn’t care. Talk to him/her the same way you would talk to your BFFs at school – about EVERYTHING. He/she deserves to know, and probably wants to, too!

Kick it old school with snail mail and commit to phone dates

Who doesn’t just LOVE getting care packages?! Take the time to put a little lovin’ in a box/envelope and drop it in your local post box for your gal pal across the country.

While it will be tempting to back out every now and then, avoid falling into a habit of breaking your phone or Skype dates. Texting and snapchatting and giving them a little #TBT shout out every now and then is good and all, but is it enough?

Introduce your @home besties & him/her

We have a hunch that your besties in your hometown or at your university would be huge fans of your new friend, too. Take the time to get everyone involved in the lovefest!

For instance, Jamie’s other friend Meredith was pumped when BFF Grey posted a funny photo on him/her Facebook wall.

This step can look as simple as friending one another on social media or following each other on Instagram. Having the groundwork laid pre-tip #4 will only enrich him/her experience being welcomed into your home communities.

Invite your Gap Year BFF for a visit!

Step 1: Think about how AWESOME would it be to show your life back home to your Gap Year bestie?!

Step 2: Invite them over.

Step 3: Nag them until they buy their plane ticket!

Introducing your BFF to your life at school or your life back home will strengthen your relationship. Now, she’ll be able to put a face to all those names, totally “get” why you couldn’t get over that guy, and better understand why you called the gelato in Italy second-best to your favorite diner ice cream in your hometown.

Gap Year BFFs Madeline and Marley can’t wait to reunite in Seattle later this year. “We met while studying abroad and just clicked!” said Madeline,

Marley joked, “It’s hard to tell if me or my mom are more excited for him/her visit this summer! ….And I secretly want to set her up with my brother.”

Plan your next joint adventure abroad!

Before even leaving the hills of New Zealand, Gap Year BFF’s Karinne and Olivia were already scheming ways to return together. A few weeks later they had a full fledged plan to get jobs, save up money, attend community college, and then come back the following spring.

Having a common goal to work towards together and a loving buddy who can hold you accountable to your commitments is a surefire way to keep the travel stoke AND the BFF stoke alive.

Jamie agrees: “Grey and I couldn’t wait to get back to Ghana. We did some independent research, contacted a local NGO outside of Accra, booked our plane tickets and returned the following summer. It was amazing, especially to be able to do it with someone who ‘gets’ me.”

Did you hit the jackpot or WHAT? Not only did you get to travel abroad and check out life in amazing foreign countries, you also got to share your experience with a new BFF. You lucky thing, you!

Bridging Culture Gaps

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You don’t have to go overseas to experience a different culture – there are a variety of deep and wonderful cultures anywhere. Thus, the most important thing is the way in which you approach any different culture. For instance, traveling from North Carolina to Los Angeles is no doubt going to be a different experience and there’s often little need to go to the other side of the globe to push your comfort zone.

That being said, in the words of Holly Bull from the Center for Interim Programs, “Perhaps the most important aspect of a Gap Year is the student making their own decision.” In other words, whether you feel called to be in Hawaii working with dolphins, in Louisiana engaging in service-learning about environmental issues, or in India living in a yoga ashram, the fact that you as the student are making your own decision is the largest predictor of a “successful” Gap Year.

Here are a few tips that are important to remember when you’re thinking about visiting a foreign culture:

The bottom line

There are no excuses for “inappropriate.” No matter what, if you feel unsafe, threatened, of if you generally feel a bit off about what’s going on, then no amount of cultural norms make it okay. If, particularly as a woman, a man is touching your leg or neck, in almost every culture such behavior is unacceptable unless you’re at the least dating . . . no matter what the man may say. Please, for your and every other traveler’s sake, tell the man “no” firmly and leave.

Ease in

If you’re traveling for three months, spend the first months simply engaging and observing: try to see things from the local perspective and then, when you feel comfortable, venture into sharing some of your own opinions and cultural norms. This extends to simple things like taking pictures, or constantly asking “how much is that” . . . these are things that leave a big and stereotypical footprint that inevitably put you in a box and limits your experience as much as it shows your ignorance of the local cultures.

Remember to travel lightly

This is in reference to the environment as much as it’s in reference to the culture. But in general, traveling with an open mind rather than insisting on reinforcing your own opinions is the best way to make friends and experience the local cultures authentically. For instance, when traveling in a Muslim country, learning about Islam, cultural values as they are represented on the ground, and the state of the average family is going to be far more educational than watching the news about radical Islam. The reality is that the differences that divide us as a species are far less numerous than the similarities.

Be a good guest

It’s often said in other parts of the world that the “guest is god.” It’s a way of saying that when a guest comes in, that you’ll be treated as if you were royalty with all things shared and all invitations made. Oftentimes, in a more impoverished setting, the family may give you (a single person), the only bedroom while the entire family sleeps in the living room (where some of the rest of the family would sleep on any other night). Even though this may be uncomfortable, it’s probably rude in these circumstances to refuse.

However, Americans consume enough as it is . . . so don’t simply take everything without consideration for the rest of the family nor for the power of cross cultural communication.

Give back

One night, offer to cook your host family or friends or coworkers a traditional meal from your home as a thanks for their hospitality and to reduce their work for the evening. In the author’s experience, there was a time the family was making hot water so he could take a shower. They had gone out in the woods, cut down wood to burn simply so he could take a hot shower. He didn’t know about this, and so consumed three-quarters of the water from the bucket in a ‘new and exciting bucket-shower’ as the locals do. However, unknowingly, the entire family was now relegated to using only the final quarter of the bucket for their shower.

Dealing with food specialties

In most cases, it’s better to make excuses rather than refusals. It’s one of those understood issues of living culturally that if you don’t like a particular food, or if you’re a vegetarian for instance, then rather than saying that you “don’t eat meat,” say that you’re “allergic to meat,” or a vegetarian. Of course this is perhaps a bit misleading. However, it’s an understood way out from cultural expectations and half-truths are often understood culturally better in different countries than here in the States.

Traveling with expectations is overrated

It’s impossible to walk into an experience without expectations – they are usually subconscious and fed by media, friends, or your own American culture. However, being a good student in life means being open to being wrong. Walking in as an anthropologist in lieu of an “American” – inasmuch is possible – is invaluable. Keep your mind (and your eyes) open.

Keep a journal

We know . . . this sounds like homework, and who wants to spend countless hours writing in a journal? But perhaps one of the most important aspects of a structured Gap Year is keeping a journal. How often do you know how you really feel until you’ve thought about it a bit? How often do you just remember that really great insight without writing it down? The point of it, above all else, is to keep the reflective element of learning a daily practice rather than simply photographing the local people and ghosting through your experience.

In all, cultural travel at its best consists of two main ingredients: common sense and respect. Respect the local people, local traditions, local food and way of life, local authorities. Also be sure to respect yourself and fellow travelers. Keep an open mind and use a dash of humility and common sense, and you’re sure to have a pleasurable experience no matter where you travel.

How to Talk About Your Gap Year Without Annoying Everyone

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A nugget of wisdom from good ol’ Lorelai Gilmore:

“Hey, don’t you want to see it? Huh? The place where you’ll be living and studying and developing very naïve but pretentious world views that will come crashing down the minute you graduate?”

Whether you like it or not, your newly-enlightened worldview is still in some-ways idealistic. This is not a bad thing. I repeat. This is not a bad thing. But the reality is that even with the insane number of amazing experiences you now have under your belt, you still have a lot to learn, and humility will be your BFF as you navigate your post-Gap Year relationships and conversations.

Here are my best tips for talking about your Gap Year without everyone’s eyes glazing over.

How to NOT sound like an arrogant-annoyance

There’s no quicker movement from “0 to annoyed” than to constantly barrage your family and friends with the amazing stories you had while experiencing a much-cooler life than basically everyone else you know. Want to bypass this intersection?


Don’t be the one-upper

You know how you hear stories that instantly trigger memories about your own personal experiences? While it’s great to relate to others and communicate your empathy through sharing them, it can unfortunately devolve into a game of “my experience is more hardXXcore than yours.” Listen and react appropriately to others; don’t just wait for your chance to interject with something that’s all about YOU.

Cool it on the conversation policing, especially in public

Some of your friends and family might make comments that are inappropriate, inaccurate, or insensitive to other cultures. Instead of calling them out in the middle of a group, if you feel strongly about something they’ve said, take them aside independently and have a quick chat about it. Don’t embarrass them in front of others – but don’t let these false comments slide, either.

Integrate your experiences

If you are quick to tell others how much you support access to clean water or education equality in India, don’t let these interests lie solely in memories. Walk the talk and merge your newfound interests with your life back home. People will be more interested in hearing about your intensive Swahili course in Tanzania if you’re currently seeking opportunities in your home community (or heck, online) to continue developing that skill.


Mutual Interest is Key

While you were traipsing around the planet bringing new meaning to the word “globetrotter,” your family and friends were also having important experiences. They might have been ordinary or they might have been extraordinary. Regardless, they matter, and you need to let them know that.

Ask them questions, too

It’s called a dialogue, di-alogue, two. There’s not much fun if you’re the only one talking. Like a good ping pong match, toss questions back at them and inquire thoughtfully about their personal experiences while you were away.

Don’t minimize their experiences

Sometimes the things we say come off as a lot more harsher than we intend. For instance, “I could never live in <insert hometown> again” OR “Everyone here is so complacent. My greatest fear is to not really LIVE life and to just do the same thing day-in, day-out.” While you might feel all of these things, there are more sensitive (and less offensive) ways to say them. “I’m thankful for my experiences in <insert hometown>, but I want to try out living in other places” OR “One of my values is diversity of experience and staying active. This will manifest in my life in these ways: x, y, z.”

Tell them you love them and are thankful for them

It can be a little scary to see your best friend or your kid or your sibling jaunt off around the world to experience so much. Wouldn’t you feel a little insecure, too? Remind your closest friends and family that they matter to you, and that while you had a valuable experience striking off on your own, you couldn’t wait to come back to see them, hug them, hear how they’re doing, and start making more memories with them. Ah, love.


“How” to share versus “what” to share

We’ve already talked at length about how to answer the inevitable “How was it?” question after your travels. These tips are applicable even when responding to more detailed or specific questions. The secret is to know your audience and adapt your stories based on their expressed interest or their time availability.

The more conversations you have in the days, weeks, and yes – years – after your Gap Year will continuously illuminate new approaches to these discussions. You will stumble. You will annoy people. You will start to realize people avoid eye contact as they’re passing you on their way to class (okay, maybe that is extreme). But without a sincere effort to keep trying and to keep learning – not to mention that humility I alluded to earlier 😉 – you might stagnate.

Be transparent with your friends and family, maybe even going so far as to explain to them that you want to talk about your Gap Year but you don’t want to overwhelm or bore them with stories – asking them to be direct with you when you say something offensive offhand or are beating a dead horse.

Happy chatting and good luck!

Conferences for Gap Year Students to Attend

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Startup Stock Photos

Startup Stock Photos

When I was seventeen, on the cusp of adulthood, I boarded a flight to Germany that forever changed how I view education. In the four weeks I spent in Southern Germany, I realized that education and learning has less to do with a classroom, and more to do with a mindset. In those few weeks I learnt more about the world around me than I had in an entire year of sitting in a classroom. My classroom transformed from a small room lined with desks in Canada to common rooms in hostels, waiting areas in airports and cafés with good company. I realized that my previous association of learning and education with a classroom was completely wrong.

Learning and education is not limited to the four walls of a school – it continues wherever you give it the chance to grow. It was through leaving a traditional classroom and embarking on an adventure abroad that I learnt this.

By choosing to take a Gap Year, whatever shape or form it may take, you are giving yourself the opportunity to learn by your own rules. Whether that means joining a Gap Year program with fellow students or embarking on a solo trek through Eastern Europe, the opportunities to learn about yourself and the world around you are countless.

As Henry Miller once said, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

No matter where you go, you will find opportunities to further enrich your Gap Year experience. Below are a list of resources in order to help you find these opportunities.

Attend a Tedx Conference

The focus of Tedx is to “share ideas worth spreading,” giving individuals across the world a platform to broadcast their ideas. Unlike Ted conferences, Tedx conferences are organized and planned independently and by a community. This means that often these conferences have a focus on issues and ideas that are relevant to the place the conference is being held. By going online to their website and using the Tedx conference searcher, one can see the countless opportunities across the world to attend these conferences, ranging from themes like “Choices and Chances,” to “Transforming the World.”


These conferences are all held in English, making it infinitely easier to understand by the typical Gap Year student. There are a variety of different types of Tedx conferences, ranging from Tedx conferences organized by universities, youth events which are catered more towards youth and those in school and TedxWomen, a Tedx event with an emphasis on the topic of women and gender.

Experience a Student Leadership Conference

Designed to bring together like minded young people and to help you grow in your role as a leader, there are many student leadership conferences across the world that offer a unique experience. In the United States the National Conference on Student Leadership allows you to share your experience as a leader (and gap year student) with students from not only the US, but also the world. The International Youth Leadership Conference is another organization which offers events all over the world, mainly focused on discussing global issues and how to become a global citizen.

Conferences and opportunities for gap year students who are also student leaders are abundant. Universities often host their own student leadership conferences, and by participating in one of these conferences you can develop your own leadership skills while also meeting fellow students from around the globe.

Take a Stance!

In an article recently written by the Huffington Post, it was stated that “millennials are a generation overwhelmingly dedicated to social justice.” We do whatever we can to respond to the injustices we see around us. Whether that means checking in to Standing Rock on Facebook to show solidarity for the movement, writing emails to local government or marching in black lives matter rallies; millennials are a generation unwilling to allow the injustices of the past to continue unquestioned.


Gap Year students are in a unique position to participate in movements and ideas around the world which are important to them. By remaining informed about the issues that interest them around the world, they can participate in a variety of forms of activism while traveling.

This includes participating in events like the annual pride parade in NYC every June or World Environment day, hosted by Canada on June 5 2017. For myself, this meant attending the 3rd International Youth Mental Health Conference in Montreal this past fall. There are a variety of opportunities for gap year students to become involved in forms of social justice while traveling by simply doing research on the causes most important to you.

Attend One Young World

A conference like no other, One Young World is held annually to bring together the brightest young change makers in the world. Last held in Ottawa, Canada this past September, the conferences always features many distinguished speakers, such as Justin Trudeau and Emma Watson. Over the course of a few days, One Young World allows young people around the world to meet with world leaders to work together and brainstorm lasting solutions on a variety of global issues.

This conference is aimed directly towards young people aged 18 to 30 years old who possess leadership skills and are committed to making positive change in the world. A range of issues is discussed over the course of the conference, including the impact of climate change, youth unemployment and how to create meaningful interfaith dialogue. If you, or someone you know is interested in attending, visit the conference’s homepage here to find more information!

Take a TEFL Course

A four week course that offers numerous opportunities, TEFL stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language. A prerequisite to teaching English abroad, this certification is perfect for someone looking to travel and learn at the same time! With most courses starting at roughly $500 USD and requiring only 100 hours of class time, TEFL certificates can be attained at home before setting off on your travels or abroad, allowing you to learn and travel at the same time. Even if you don’t want to teach long term, having a TEFL certificate allows you to get paid while traveling, and to experience a foreign culture from an insider perspective.

So…where will your travels take you? Whether it means teaching English in South Korea or attending a Tedx conference in Toronto, the opportunities to self educate while on a gap year are endless. By seeking to learn more about the world around you, meaningful connections and lifelong memories will be made. Depending on how you look at it, any experience, good or bad can be a learning experience. It’s all about one’s willingness to learn.

How to Support Your Traveling Student From Home

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let go.
Well done! Despite feeling nerves like never before and wanting nothing more than to squeeze your kid tight and never let go, you’ve managed to support your child as they’ve gone through the (admittedly-more-arduous-than-you-anticipated) process of preparing for a Gap Year. But now they’ve taken off from JFK/SFO/ATL, and are en-route to the learning experience of a lifetime. So, now what?

Even though you’re thousands of miles away, you, as a parent, will still play a critical role in the success of your child’s Gap Year. As per usual, you’ll wear many hats – friend, confidant, parent, cheerleader, soundboard. But new territory to navigate will also present itself: without the convenience of face-to-face interactions and a shared physical presence, finding ways to connect can be more challenging than expected.

So how can you support your child while they’re thousands of miles away on a Gap Year, anyway?

Encourage Making Good Decisions

Here’s the reality: you don’t know exactly what your kid is experiencing every day. And that’s pretty scary. Hopefully you’ve instilled some street smarts in your kid over the years that will allow them to handle their new day-to-day road bumps. In the end, the best you can do (both for your child and your own sanity), is to consistently encourage them to make good decisions.

Good decisions come in handy in a variety of circumstances. Coach your kid into thinking clearly through their actions, considering others throughout that decision-making process (especially in light of their role as a visitor in a foreign country), and ultimately making choices that aren’t always “easy” but are always “right.”

As a parent, it’s your moral obligation to be the (slightly) naggy reminder of all things safety. Gentle prompts to be travel-savvy, such as storing money in multiple places on your person, are not overbearing – they’re necessary. Be the voice of reason in case your child is getting caught up in all the fun.

Frame Conversations Appropriately

While it’s great to learn about their trip to Victoria Falls and (gulp) when they hung over the edge of somewhere called “The Devil’s Pool,” try to redirect conversations to focus more on what they’re learning and what they’re gaining from their overall experience. Fun and adventure will inevitably be a part of their Gap Year (and it should!), but ideally, your child has more robust goals for their trip than a couple of cool photos.

When you have your check in with your kid, ask them more pointed questions about things they’re learning about themselves or personal reactions to experiences they hadn’t anticipated. Don’t ask them to give you the play-by-play. Instead, challenge your kid (and yourself!) to avoid giving a chronological “report” of their experiences abroad. Ask them about their favorite “teacher” – even if it’s an unconventional one like their homestay mother – and if their goals have changed or adjusted throughout their experiences. What new insights do they have? New passions? New ideas for a sense of purpose?

Yes, you want to hear about toppling all over each other as your kid and their friends recreated the Tower of Pisa in Italy, but don’t allow these surface-level discussions to be the core of your check ins.

No Guilt Trips: None!

We know you miss them. We know it’s hard. We know that your spouse just isn’t as much fun without your kid around. We know that you have more free time now than you know what to do with. But do not – under ANY circumstances – guilt trip your child because you are heartsick for their company.

There’s a difference between communicating your love for them meaningfully without sliding into the “I wish you were here’s” and the “Well, if you hadn’t left us forever…” eyerolls. Now is not the time for being overly dramatic. Now is the time for you to find new avenues for personal emotional support healthily.

Guilt tripping your child can backfire in a major way.
You might get satisfaction in the short term but it’s harmful to the relationship in the long term. Why create feelings of regret or resentment for your kid when they should be focusing on learning all the lessons this great big beautiful world has to offer?

Develop a New Identity for Yourself

Having a child “fly the nest” isn’t an easy process for any parent. After years of investing time and energy and laundry detergent and love into a little person, you suddenly realize they’re all grown up and capable of making important decisions independently. They walk away and you’re left feeling less-than-whole.

Rather than wallow in self-pity and an identity crisis, look at the experience as an opportunity. It’s an invitation for you to explore new understandings of yourself. There’s a lot you can do with your newfound brain space; devote it to hobbies or activities that DON’T include memorizing your child’s extracurricular schedule.

Your child will only feel wholly supported when their parents are feeling stable and grounded.

Smile. Laugh. Be Interested.

By the 11th phone call of their epic trip, you might start feeling a little zoned out when your kid is giving you updates. Sure – your kid may drone on, and sure – you might not need every detail about that mango sticky rice, but it’s important that you are fully present for your long-distance conversations with your kid. It can be tempting to have one eye on your favorite reality TV show as you chat. But your kid needs you to listen, respond, engage in conversation, and treat them like their stories are as cool as they think they are.

Give Them Space

Whether you regularly Snapchat your kid goofy photos or are still LEARNING HOW NOT TO TEXT IN ALL CAPS, it’s safe to assume you have regular in-person and digital communication with your kid. While the ongoing daily conversations serve a purpose, they’re not realistic for your child’s stint abroad. They need to be fully present and actively participating in their experience (not to mention WIFI can be spotty in other places).

Instead of demanding daily check ins or four-hour-long gab seshes every weekend, invite your kid to propose a check in schedule that works for them. It may change over the course of their Gap Year, depending on their needs and their availability. Phone chats might happen once every three days for a period and then be separated by two to three week stints.

Remember: the underlying goal of a Gap Year is for your kid to develop some serious self-awareness, and this can be hindered by constantly disengaging through phone calls home.

Finding your groove as a long-distance-parent takes time. You might feel things you’ve never felt before. You might hit the ground running. You might flounder a bit. Just as your kid is learning in this new stage of life, so are you – practice patience and self-love. You’ll get there!

Dominique Robinson of Pizarts: On Breaking Ground with Dance Gap Years

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One of the great things about the AGA National Conference is the connections we make with new people. Among the bright lights in Boston this year was Dominique Robinson. I noticed her smile first, and her enthusiasm followed closely behind. She’s got a passion for life, a passion for learning and a big idea: to create a Gap Year experience centered around dance and the arts. Based in NYC, she came to the conference hoping to learn and connect.

Please tell us who you are, what you do, and how you got there.

My name is Dominique Robinson, I am a choreographer, dance filmmaker, and the CEO of Pizarts. Growing up I enjoyed sports and being part of a team. I also have a deep passion for travelling so when I transitioned from sports to dance I knew I could pursue dance as a career that would allow me to do what I love which is travel around the world and meet new people.

Why are you so passionate about the concept of Gap Years?

I began my training in college and although it was a good experience the first three years were overwhelmingly tough. I lacked confidence in myself and it was terrifying to share my ideas. One summer I studied dance in Argentina and after the trip I knew that I wanted to collaborate with artists on a global scale. A few years later I moved back to Argentina where I taught, performed and traveled for 18 months. This transformation led me to discover my passion which was education and so I decided to further my studies.

Graduate school was a completely different experience because I knew exactly what I wanted to study, I could express myself with confidence and I can honestly say that it would not have been possible without taking what I consider myself as an independent Gap Year. I am so passionate about Gap Year because I know that I would have retained so much more from my undergraduate program had I come into school with a Gap Year under my belt.

Pizarts may just be the only Gap experience of its kind.

Tell us a bit about what you’re doing with that and your vision for the future.

Yes, I do believe it is one of a kind and that is partly what drove me to pursue it. Dance Gap Year is a program designed for trained dancers where they get to experience the joy of taking a Gap Year without having to neglect the demands of their training. It combines a curriculum inspired by BA (pedagogy and arts management) and BFA (choreography and performance) degree tracks while including projects that impact the social and personal lives of participants and locals.

Students who take our Gap Year immerse themselves in all aspects of a dance career before entering directly into the audition world or entering a program in higher education. We have a short-term summer program for teens 13-17 and in the fall of 2017, we will have our first 7 month Gap Year for ages 18-25 that will include North America, South America and Asia. Through this experiential process dancers will explore things like dance film, theater, site location composition, integrated arts (movement and literacy), curating works on a budget and women’s empowerment through movement.

Our vision for the future is to set up programs that focus on specific techniques. Ballet dancers for example need to train many hours in ballet. By offering a travel program for dancers to explore different techniques such as RAD, Checcetti, Vaganova and Bornenville, I believe, will allow a unique opportunity for participants to expand their horizons.

You’re in the beginning stages of getting Pizarts off the ground

Can you talk a little bit about that process, your biggest struggles, the connections you’ve made and your process from dream to dancing around the world?

While finishing my last semester at NYU, I entered the ‘Entrepreneurs Challenge’ at Stern School of Business. I am the type of person who needs benchmarks or my mind will wonder so this challenge was the beginning of establishing a concrete plan. Since I have a large following in Argentina within the dance community, I felt Gap Year represented what I was looking for in terms of my passion and interest as a start-up.

To learn more, I went to a Gap Tear fair where I met Holly Bull who told me that dance had been an interest of a recent client and that she would put me in touch with people who could provide me with helpful advice on starting a program.

The greatest struggles include finding resources in the area of logistics like contracts, safety measures and how to devise affordable programming. Nevertheless, going to the Gap Year conference really helped me network with trusted groups that otherwise I don’t believe I would have met on my own.

Tell me a success story

A life changed as a result of a your work, or something you were involved in.

In dance, a lot of issues surround the non-compete clause for both teachers and students. The hardest thing I ever experienced as a teacher was watching a student, after 8 months of private training, be given a harsh ultimatum. Stop training with me or leave the studio she performed at. I explained that I would be leaving in a few months but she thought it was an unfair situation, as did I, and decided to stand up for herself.

When nationals came around I told her I would take her to competition. To see her separated from her studio friends was devastating and I could see the hurt in her eyes. I insisted that this would be life changing because she decided to breakout and be the dancer and person she believed in. She won first place at nationals for her solo and her friends were proud of her, I was proud of her and now she has become one of the most sought out teachers in Argentina and works as a Gap Year guest choreographer.

I am not sure I would have had the courage she had but I am so proud to say that this experience has created another educator who believes that knowledge is to be shared and not controlled. For me, this was a proud moment and proof that we are working towards something special, something life changing, something for the greater good.

The Importance of Journaling on Your Gap Year

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Journaling: kind of like keeping a diary, but with less entries revolving around unrequited love or that start with “Sorry for not writing, I’ve been really busy…”.

However, a journal isn’t necessarily meant for grown ups, or for grown up things, either. In fact, your journal can be a useful tool on that epic journey towards “adulthood.” While you’re on your Gap Year, it can also be a helpful place for processing, documenting, and occasionally venting, too.

Here’s what you need to know about why your packing list should include a journal and a fancy pen (I recommend G2s!):

Memories Can’t Be Trusted

Memories: while powerful, they don’t always tell the whole story. Documenting your experiences in your travel journal will allow you to better remember all of your surroundings, for better or worse. Help your future self tell more accurate portrayals of your adventures by writing down the details of your daily life in your journal. Memory is a slippery li’l bugger.

The Journal is Yours & Yours Alone

You’re not writing a book here. Don’t write your journal as if the President (or anyone for that matter) is going to read it. It is personal, private, and should be written for you. You can be honest – about everything – in your journal, including your less-than-sweet opinions about places, people, or the experience as a whole.

The Grammar Police Won’t Come Knocking

Who cares if you write incorrectly or if your spelling is atrocious. Your journal is about capturing ideas, observations, and realizations, not about impressing your 5th grade English teacher.

Your Journal is Sacred

Carving out time each day to spend alone, pen to paper, is therapeutic. Being diligent in your daily writings will simultaneously give you an excuse to bow out of the crowd and just do you (extremely necessary for long-term sanity). Your journal is basically a portkey, transporting you to a place where independent processing is valued, building much-needed “alone time” in your day to day.

It Will Become Your Best Souvenir

While blogs are nice, having a tattered notebook, one that you can physically hold onto and flip through, will prove a better keepsake in the coming years than your own URL. Your journal is a time capsule of your Gap Year; having a record of your travels will come in handy when you’re senile and your grandkids want to know about your life abroad.

You Shouldn’t Just Write the Play-by-Play

Who says your journal has to be full of boring stuff or literal explanations of your experiences from start to finish? Use your journal to draw observations, ask questions, make unusual lists, doodle, add coffee rings, make connections. Writing about your experience helps you think through critical issues or tough realizations – excellent fodder for future learning.

It’s a Good Companion For Long Train Rides

If you’ve run out of books to read or you don’t feel like playing Sudoku for the 1000th time, having your notebook handy will allow for instantaneous boredom reduction.

You Can Rant Your Little Heart Out

Travel isn’t always easy; in fact, sometimes it can feel like you’re constantly swimming upstream with no relief. If you’re feeling distressed, your journal can be your salvation (it’s better than bellowing to your new travel buddies). When feelings of travel stress, like homesickness, powerlessness, frustration, or fear take hold, writing in your journal will be a healthy outlet for handling them.

Track Your Inspiration!

Sometimes it strikes at the most wonderful times, an elating sense of empowerment, excitement, and freedom all jumbled into one big smile on your face. Whenever you hear a new song, quote, or idea that brings on these jubilant feelings, put it in your journal. As you gain awareness about your passions and capabilities, learn about new must-read books or documentaries to watch, or feel charged to make a difference, jot it down to inspire your future self.

With any luck, not only will your journal prove a necessary outlet for preservation and thought processing on your gap year, but you’ll come to fully realize the benefits of writing exercises in all aspects of your life. Here’s to many bookshelves filled with your observations!

Photo Credit: Aaron Burdin

How to Stay In Touch With Friends & Family On Your Gap Year

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The thought of being away from home is one of the hardest challenges to surmount prior to a gap year – and that’s even before you go! The physical distance between you and home can be a tough pill to swallow while you’re actually abroad. Keeping in touch with loved ones is a surefire means to soften these blows. However, while important, communication can also become unhealthy. It can detract from your presence on your gap year, make you feel unnecessary amounts of FOMO or homesickness, and it can actually lead you to question why you even did a gap year in the first place.

This frame of mind is not ideal for anyone, let alone a student on their gap year.

Here are some tips to help you stay mindful when keeping in touch with family and friends, including communication strategies that work.

Talk About It Before You Go

Explain any concerns you have about communication with your closest friends and family. It can be hard to look your Mom in the eye and break the news that you won’t want to talk to her every day, but it is important that both parties lay out all of their communication-concerns from the beginning. Having this underlying understanding of each other’s needs will provide fodder for healthier communication in the coming months.

Leave Your Smartphone Behind

Yeah, we said it!

Your best bet for maximizing your presence in a foreign destination is to not bring your smart device altogether. There are still ways to communicate, such as using your laptop or computer labs in foreign countries. Not having it around to tempt you will free your mind from its tether and allow you to be fully present in your international experiences.

Can’t Part? Set Ground Rules For Yourself

If the idea of leaving your precious smartphone in its box for a few months is just too much to bear, decide (with conviction) to be more conscious towards your smartphone use. If you are bringing it to use primarily as a communication tool, keep it put away unless you’re calling your family.

Don’t convince yourself that you will only use it for phone calls if you secretly know you’re hoping to blow up your Instagram feed with dozens of new pictures each week.

Aim For Quality Over Quantity

Cozying up for a good conversation with a loved one is one of life’s sweetest pleasures. Use your gap year as a time to reconnect with that reality. Instead of having ongoing text message conversations with friends and family, decide to set aside time each week for a proper catch-up. This can be a phone call, a Skype date, an email, or simply a longer-than-normal message on WhatsApp or Facebook messenger. Put thought and intention into sharing your stories. Connect the dots of your experience before blabbing a play-by-play to anyone who’ll listen.

This strategy will not only allow you to be more fully present in your gap year destination, but it will also allow you a stronger presence in your communication relationships, too.

Go With The Flow

Some weeks you might need to chat with family or friends more than other weeks. This might be because you’re feeling particularly down, you are struggling with homesickness, or you are physically able (or unable) to have the privacy necessary to catch-up. Don’t be alarmed by the inconsistencies of your communication, but don’t be surprised if it bums out your family and friends, too. It’s important you explain to your loved ones the reality of your situation and schedule, while also fully-trying to be there for them as they are there for you. Travel can be whack and mess up any sort of plan, so it is important that Gap Year students are extra-appreciative of their loved ones’ flexibility.

Remember The Time Before Smartphones

Okay, you probably don’t. But keep in mind that there were plenty of travelers and Gap Year takers that survived their journeys without pocket internet (and we’re not talking about ancient explorers).

Our sometimes-neurotic attachments to communication with others can truly be a hindrance to studying or volunteering in a foreign country. It can be all-too-tempting to hole away in your room for an ooVoo call rather than staying up and chatting with your homestay brother or your new friends. Keep in mind that while communication can be a healthy and normal behavior, it can also quickly become dependent and negative.

Be conscious of how much you feel the need to speak with others back home before leaning on those who are in your immediate vicinity.

Look around you. You’re in a fascinating place, surrounded by good-hearted people, and having an experience that many would kill for. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and we’d hate for it to be squandered because you’re addicted to telling your BFF’s every single detail from your day. Strive to use technology as a helpful tool and not a crutch, and you’re sure to avoid sacrificing your Gap Year experience for more thumb fluttering on your touch screen.