When people ask me how my first semester was, the word that immediately exits my mouth is, amazing, which is closely followed up by, very emotional, eye-opening, and life-changing.  I can see how it is easy for people to assume that I was on a three-month vacation based on the pictures that I posted. However, what I failed to post were pictures of us in tears after visiting the border wall, the heartbreak we felt after saying goodbye to our host families, or us struggling to grapple with the genocide that occurred in Guatemala. Much like how history is written by the winners, my photos only captured one side of the story.

The Gap Experience was so much more than a three-month vacation, it truly was a life-changing experience that opened my eyes to so many aspects of the world and made we want to explore so many more. I had never embarked on such a challenging journey; mentally, physically, and emotionally until the Gap Experience, but I am so grateful that I did because it has shaped the way I now view the world and altered my path for moving forward with my life.

Gap family.

In the Boundary Waters and on the Superior Hiking Trail, I learned more about myself than ever before in my life. I learned who I became when stripped down to my rawest form and how I functioned as a leader. Our community became extraordinarily close as we learned many things about each other’s past, present, and hopes for the future. I gained immense appreciation for nature and really deepened my passion for environmental conservation here.

On Jut Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Through the various encounters I had, I now have a better sense of my place in society as well as the privilege that I was given through the lottery of birth. Based on where I was born and the family I was born into, I gained privileges that many others don’t have due to conditions entirely out of my control. Learning how different my life is from someone my age who lives only a few hours away in Chicago is not easy, especially when these peers had no control as to where they were born, same as myself, yet our outcomes were so different. At first, this idea of privilege paralyzed me and I felt guilty for so many things I possessed, but I soon realized that if I become paralyzed, then I am unable to serve those who are not as privileged.

In the Austin neighborhood of Chicago.

I was able to carry this shift in attitude to Albuquerque, where I was able to learn about the Native American communities there and the many injustices they still face due to decades of marginalization. Through hearing the heartbreaking stories of mistreated individuals, specifically from a woman who’s siblings were taken to an Indian Boarding School and never to be seen again, I began to understand that many injustices are still facing native populations today and wanted to figure out what service I could be. I realized that right here, in Green Bay, there are also indigenous populations facing injustice, so I began to think about what I can do to serve those in my own community.

Sunset in Albuquerque.

At the border in El Paso, I was extremely overwhelmed with emotion between sitting at the border wall while talking to border patrol, forming relationships with individuals seeking asylums, and learning about the extremely unjust and broken immigration system. It was here that I realized my passion for immigration reform and creating just practices for those seeking safety within the United States borders.

The border wall between the United States and Mexico.

Then being abroad in Guatemala taught me how little I really knew about people living outside of the United States. At first, this made me feel guilty and selfish, but then I remembered again that paralysis helps no one. After that, I became fully invested in learning as much as I could about the Guatemalan culture. Once I began applying what I had already learned throughout Gap, the month spent in Guatemala with my Gap family as well as host family was truly one of the best of my life.

Mi familia.

Before beginning the Gap Program, I was a naive freshman in college who thought that they could change the world entirely. I thought that through Gap, I would figure out exactly what I wanted to do with my life and how I was going to change the world. I had my own political beliefs and personal values formed, but I had yet to witness first hand or hear stories from individuals directly impacted by these injustices that really showed me why I believe what I believe. My beliefs were strong, but my arguments could not support them.

After Gap, I find myself even more confused than before, but in the best way. I thought that I would determine a career path during Gap, but instead, I have more areas that I want to be involved in. I learned much more about politics, but now I want to know even more and to understand the bigger picture as well as the small details. I am still looking to make a difference in this world, but now have to decide which approach to take with that and what impact I want to see. Since Gap has concluded, I have decided on a sociology major that I feel will help me to serve many individuals impacted by social injustice. I feel less naive and more empowered with the ability to ask critical questions of situations, structures, and individuals to tackle social justice issues.

I now know that I alone am not capable of changing the world and that this change will not happen overnight. The process of serving justice is a long and slow process, but if each person finds their own unique passion and channels their energy into working with that passion, real progress can be made. In order for change to happen, we have to unite with a common goal, not work independently.

Ascending balloons in Albuquerque.

Now that I have come to peace with the terms that I can not single-handedly solve all the world’s problems overnight, I see a more realistic pathway for what I can do for the world, especially in my community. I have found many strong passions throughout the Gap Experience including women’s rights, environmental conservation, education. Instead of deciding one thing that I wanted to devote my life to, I realized that I have so many passions it is impossible for me to direct them into just one thing, but I will always be working to promote equity and serve to end social injustices.

Thanks to the Gap Experience, I am entering the rest of my life with an amazing assortment of skills, qualities, and attributes that will set me up for success in my professional life. I have learned some of the greatest strengths about myself, such as adaptability, positivity, and connectedness; as well as be able to work on my growing edges of idealism and indecisiveness. I have become a much better communicator with my fellow peers as well as authority figures in order to foster the most beneficial environment for everyone. Now that I have seen so many various places struggling with social injustices, I have a desire to see more, learn more, and serve more.

The sun rising in Guatemala.