For many young adults, the path after high school is simple: college. But what happens when a student chooses to take the road less traveled and experience life in new ways, before taking the next step into college? This is exactly what recent TMI graduate JuliaGrace Walker ’17 is learning during her current gap year in Ecuador.
From taking the wrong bus and ending up lost in a foreign city to facing the impending moment of finding a spit-roasted guinea pig on her dinner plate, JuliaGrace eloquently describes how her life at TMI prepared her to take this leap of faith and go on this journey. In this Q&A interview, JuliaGrace shares how the lessons she’s learning this year, outside the classroom, are preparing her with broader life experiences and heightening her excitement for attending college next fall.
“I am learning to trust myself, becoming self-reliant in new ways, accepting of my failures, and gaining new patience with myself. I am also learning to try new things and be okay outside my comfort zone.”
Continue reading below for a deeper look into the unique opportunities she is experiencing through cultural immersion, overcoming fears, and learning to adapt to any situation.
Q&A with JuliaGrace Walker ’17
Q: Why did you decide to take a gap year with Global Citizen Year?
A: I chose Global Citizen Year because they incorporated the most important aspects I was searching for in a gap year program: language, host family, and service. I wanted to live in country where I could be immersed in Spanish and become fluent, which is why I chose to live in Ecuador. Global Citizen Year places students in Ecuador, Brazil, Senegal, and India. In all of their programs, you live with a local host family in order to have the support and full immersion/cultural-exchange experience. Lastly, Global Citizen Year is a service-based learning program where each student is placed as an apprentice to projects in environmental conservation, education, social enterprise, public health, or agriculture. I am teaching English classes with 30 students at a time to 7th-12th grade students.
Q: How has TMI prepared you as a Servant Leader in your Global Citizen Year?
A: TMI taught me how to manage my time wisely, which has helped me balance my life here in Ecuador. I work from 7:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and have to balance that with opportunities to explore and meet up with my friends during my free time and participating in my host family’s lives. TMI’s Corps of Cadets taught me how to mentor younger cadets. I am using these skills every day with my English students and volleyball team. Class after class of teaching and managing 30 students is no easy task. Throughout my seven years, TMI reinforced the importance of service. I am serving the community of El Cabo every day, whether in the classroom with my students or helping my host family at their food stand on the weekend.
“I am serving the community of El Cabo every day, whether in the classroom with my students or helping my host family at their food stand on the weekend.”
Q: What impact do you hope to make during your year abroad and how do you think this experience will influence you upon your return?
A: The biggest impact from my gap year will be how I grow and change. My Global Citizen Year is giving me the opportunity to learn what I am capable of without the safety net of a familiar culture, language, and community. Already in the first three months, I am learning to trust myself, becoming self-reliant in new ways, accepting of my failures, and gaining new patience with myself. I am also learning to try new things and be okay outside my comfort zone. This experience is helping me feel confident that I can adapt to any new environment, including a college campus.
Q: What views or stereotypes have been changed so far during your Global Citizen Year?
A: I have traveled to Ecuador once before, so I already had reasonable expectations of what Ecuador would be like. I thought daily life would be easier, but it is not as easy as I thought. I encounter new things almost every day and have to learn to adapt or overcome them. Some people falsely assume a gap year will be unproductive or distract you from wanting to return to school. On the contrary, I am working harder than I ever did in high school while teaching English to 480 students. My time in Ecuador has confirmed to me my interest in pursuing a degree in international affairs. I am more excited than ever to start college next fall.
Q: How will you share your experience with the TMI community and the wider San Antonio community?
A: When I return in mid-April, I will be giving a series of presentations to the Spanish classes at TMI. I will also be sharing my experience with my community including a homemade Ecuadorian feast at my house. I am also writing a weekly blog sharing my adventures and reflections.
Q: What would you say to anyone in the TMI community who is considering taking a gap year?
A: Most students launch straight from high school to college, but why not take a less-traveled route? Do you want to do something different for your first year out of high school and continue learning and growing? I encourage those interested in learning more about themselves to take a leap of faith and consider this bolder path. I have yet to meet someone on a gap year who regrets the decision. There are many different programs to consider. Research and apply to several. Not everyone who goes on a gap year wants to pursue a career in international relations or travel abroad like me. You can find out about more programs at the USA GAP Year Fair and, of course, you can feel free to contact me if you have more questions.
Q: How will your Global Citizen Year help you take better advantage of college?
A: I will be entering in as a freshman, but not as someone who just graduated high school. I will be better prepared for classroom discussions due to my global perspective and year of independent living. I am gathering life skills and experiences before I enter college. I have had the chance to reflect on my chosen major of international relations and future career in diplomacy. I have renewed confidence in what I want to study and the classes I want to take. My time-management skills will be stronger than before, because I am learning how to live independently before college. Having a year off from a demanding academic course load will give me the opportunity to start college refreshed, not burned out. I will be fluent in a foreign language acquired not just from class time, but from complete immersion. As a freshman, I will approach all decision making with a new sense of confidence and trust in myself and know I will feel more secure in who I am. How I navigate new situations will change with every new challenge I face, but knowing I can do it will be the most important gift this gap year will give me.
“How I navigate new situations will change with every new challenge I face, but knowing I can do it will be the most important gift this gap year will give me.”
Q: How has support from your TMI community and family and friends impacted your experience in Ecuador for the better?
A: The support from my TMI community and family and friends is reinforcing that my decision to take a gap year was the right one for me. I am so appreciative of my TMI teachers who have stayed in touch and encouraged me along the way; and my family and friends who continue to reach out and follow my experience through my blog. Sharing my Global Citizen Year with my community at home has been a rewarding part of this experience so far and I’m excited to continue over the next few months and when I return.
Q: What else would you like to share with the TMI school community?
A: Here’s how my daily life looks different from an average college freshman:
In the three months I have lived in El Cabo, Ecuador, my patience has been tested. I teach English to 480 Ecuadorian students, ages 11 to 18. When I enter the classroom, my students stand up and say, “Good Morning, Teacher.” As the instructor and outsider, I must be patient with my students who are not much younger than I am. They don’t always listen. Commanding attention and directing 170 JROTC cadets at formation on the football field last year, helps me stand confidently today in front of my classroom of Spanish-speaking students.
I am also learning to be accepting of my struggles. It was embarrassing to flounder with Spanish those first weeks, and I am not always as articulate as I would like to be. Immersing myself in a rural Ecuadorian town, with less than 1,000 people, and only speaking Spanish has been exhausting and frustrating at times, but my Spanish skills grow each time I make an effort to understand my co-workers at lunch or ask my host family a question over dinner.
I am becoming self-reliant and learning to trust myself in new ways. Eager to explore on my first day in Quito, I jumped on a bus and ended up lost in the city. As the bus sped down the highway, I pushed aside my fear and embarrassment of not knowing where the bus was taking me. My physical presence and mistakes are more noticeable than the locals, as I stand 10 inches taller and don’t dress the same. One of these days, I will board the bus without hitting my head. When I need to get off the bus, I have to yell from the back, “Gracias!” at just the right moment to signal the bus driver to stop so I can get off. There’s more room for error than you would think – timing and volume is key. I am learning the nuances and customs. I am discovering how to take care of myself without the safety net of home.
I am adventurous, but I have limits. I dreaded eating guinea pig, but I knew it was inevitable when my host mom showed me 100 of them living in a shed behind our house. Trying spit-roasted guinea pig definitely isn’t the same as trying a new flavor of cheesecake! The night finally came when my host mom roasted eight guinea pigs on long skewers over an open fire. She chopped them in halves and served me the hindquarters with rice and corn. We use spoons or our hands to eat all our meals including this one. To my great relief, the guinea pig meat was delicious.
In Ecuador, I spend my day with many different types of peoples: my local Ecuadorian host family with whom I live (4 generations under one roof), my fellow teachers and colleagues at the school, the 7th through 12th grade students I teach, the high school girls and boys volleyball team I help coach, local young professionals I have made friends with to spend evenings and weekends together, and the other Global Citizen Year Fellows from all over the world who are living in neighboring villages. I love spending time with all of these different groups of people and I am learning from all of them. I live in a small village and have access to Ecuador’s third largest city, Cuenca, whenever I want to go there. I have explored many of the neighboring towns and attended ferias, carnivals, and parades. Ecuador is a festive country. I am taking advantage of all that I can see and do.