MAIREAD REILLY/THE HOYA AROUND THE WORLD Students spent their years throughout the globe.
MAIREAD REILLY/THE HOYA
AROUND THE WORLD Students spent their years throughout the globe.
When Kayla Corcoran (COL ’15) landed in Jordan less than three months after her high school graduation, she had three bags, no knowledge of Arabic and no idea what the next 10 months would hold. “I got on the plane with a copy of Eat, Pray, Love with the idea that I was going to find myself,” she said. “I actually hated the book so much I wanted to leave it on the plane when I got off.”
Corcoran, who spent a gap year teaching at King’s Academy, an international boarding school in the city of Madaba, didn’t have the trip she expected.
“I didn’t find myself, but I don’t think that’s a thing,” she said. “It was the hardest experience of my life.”
Corcoran is part of a small portion of American students who choose to take a gap year — a yearlong break between high school and college during which students typically travel, work or volunteer in ways they can’t when school is in session. According to a 2011 study by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California Los Angeles, only 1.2 percent of first-time college freshmen decided to take this nontraditional path.
The Georgetown students who spent their gap years abroad found this time to be a mixed bag of great rewards and difficulties.
Corcoran, who first considered taking a gap year after she was chosen to represent her high school at an international conference in India, hoped that her time in Jordan would force her outside her comfort zone.
“For the first time, I was in this environment where everything was uncomfortable for me, and I loved it,” she said of her time in India. “I realized there was so much more out there for me to see and do.”
Corcoran served as a junior fellow at King’s Academy, interning in the school’s academic support department, tutoring students in English and math and helping students develop organizational and time management skills. She also took an Arabic class and a seminar on Middle Eastern history.
Though Corcoran set off for Jordan with lofty expectations of a life-changing year, she was caught off guard by what she encountered, including going through growing pains as a first-time teacher.
“I had this travel experience but also the problems that come with being a teacher. I had to alter my expectations about how my students were learning, how to teach them better,” she said.
By Christmastime, Corcoran strongly considered returning to the United States but realized that if she did choose to leave, she would regret it.
“The year was up and down. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so lonely in my life,” she said. “At moments I really wanted to come home, but at other moments I felt … immersed in wonder.”
These moments made up for the times she felt homesick: Corcoran vividly recalled her visit to Egypt in November 2010, only a few months before protesters flooded Tahrir Square to call for the deposal of former President Hosni Mubarak.
“That was a crazy experience. There were very few women on the streets and none with their hair uncovered,” she said.
Corcoran witnesed international soccer frenzy first hand when she accompanied Egyptian friends to a soccer game between the Australian and Egyptian national teams. As one of the only westerners present, she had to convince members of the wild crowd that she was not Australian.
“Soccer games get really touchy. People really love their soccer,” she said
Her time in Jordan and travelling throughout the Middle East motivated Corcoran to pursue an Arabic minor at Georgetown.
“It ended up being quite serendipitous that I had decided to come to Georgetown because Georgetown has the best Arabic program in the country,” she said. “So it ended up being exactly the place I needed to be for what I wanted to do.”
Kyla McClure (COL ’15) also spent her gap year volunteering. She decided to spend six months in Honduras working at Helping Honduras Kids, an orphanage she visited during a week-long trip in high school.
“I felt I needed that year to take that time to do some learning outside of school … actually teaching instead of being taught,” she said
She worked at the orphanage and its associated school in La Ceiba, a tourist town on the Caribbean coast that contains a jarring contrast of wealthy hotels and poor districts.
McClure stayed in a volunteer house where cockroaches frequently fell from the ceiling and a rat once stole $200 worth of Honduran lempira from her to use as part of its nest.
Although her living conditions were less than luxurious, seeing the problems that her students endured proved most difficult for McClure.
“The kids I worked with, a lot of them were very poor. A lot of them have behavioral issues. Their dads weren’t present, they suffered from abuse, both physical and sexual,” McClure said. “It’s hard because you care about these kids so much.”
In the end, McClure found she gained more from her students than she gave.
“It had the outward experience of, ‘I’m going to help people and it’s not for me,’ but it was for me. I benefitted more than I ever helped those kids, but hopefully their investment in me will benefit them,” she said. “It was an enriching experience of living in a completely different world.”
Aidan Dugan’s (COL ’15) gap year was a world apart from McClure’s. After studying German for five years, Dugan spent a year in Alfeld, Germany, a small town south of Hanover, on a scholarship from the U.S. Department of State. Dugan enrolled in a German high school and held an internship in the state parliament.
“I had family members who had [taken a gap year], and they said it was really good for growing as a person,” he said. “You work so hard during high school, to take time off so when you come back you’re ready for school again and revitalized and ready to work [is important].”
Despite his familiarity with the language, Dugan still faced the same challenges other students do while living in a different country.
“Life as an exchange student is really awkward,” he said.
Unlike Corcoran, who was inspired to pursue Arabic more intensely because of her gap year, Dugan stopped studying German after his year in Alfeld.
“When I was in high school, German was my favorite class, so I was like ‘I’m going to be a German major,’” he said. “After coming back fluent in German, I decided I didn’t want to.”
Emilia Brahm (SFS ’16) also received a scholarship from the U.S. Department of State that helped fund her year abroad. She spent four months in Morocco learning Arabic before moving to Warsaw, Poland, to live with her mother’s family and intern at a think tank and non-government organization. The two trips posed very distinct problems.
“My first semester was very planned, but my second semester was very loose, and I was on my own,” she said. “[In Poland], I had to make my own way and be independent and make my own connections, which was definitely hard.”
Like Dugan, Brahm felt that a gap year offered a much-needed break from academics before jumping into the next step of her academic career.
“In high school I was overbooked, so it was nice to have a year off to refresh myself,” she said.
In Morocco, Brahm learned conversational Arabic in Marrakesh at the Center for Language and Culture in a small class alongside two other students. She also taught English classes and traveled throughout the country, with trips that included a hike up the Atlas Mountains.
Morocco was also the site of one of her most surreal memories, when she and her friends attended a film festival that paid tribute to Mexican cinema. Tired of waiting in a long line for general admission tickets, the group tried to sneak in through what they thought was a back door.
“This guy points us down this hallway … opens the door for us, pushes us outside, and we realize that we’re on the red carpet for the premiere of this movie,” she said. “We were wearing dresses and heels, so we decided to work it [and] pretend we’re supposed to be here.”
The girls posed for photographers, waved to excited fans and ended up in the third row of the theater. From this prime spot, Brahm saw her favorite actor, Gael Garcia Bernal, take the stage.
In Poland, Brahm’s think tank focused on the intersection of law, society and technology. As part of her job there, she worked on international projects and was able to utilize her new Arabic skills and her native English language.
In both countries, she found that the people she encountered were very receptive to her as an American.
“People love America,” she explained. “They hate America’s politics. They don’t like Bush. … They want to know if it’s like the movies, if you really have cheerleaders.”
But Madeleine Ringwald (COL ’16) struggled to balance her American identity. Ringwald lived with a high-ranking family in Portoviejo, Ecuador, where anti-American sentiment was a continual presence.
“My extended family … would get really impassioned when they were speaking about everything the United States was at fault for in the world. They hate the United States and how involved they are abroad, but then they hate the United States because we don’t help Ecuador enough.”
Listening to these criticisms was tough for Ringwald, but she strove not to respond to them.
“[The program coordinators] tell you when you’re going on exchange that you’re staying with this host family who really graciously accepts you into their home, so don’t bring up politics with them.”
This, on top of the fact that Ringwald didn’t speak any Spanish when she arrived in Portoviejo, made her year in Ecuador was emotionally trying
“The host family does everything they can to embrace you, but there’s a disconnect because the cultures are different. … At the bottom of it, you’re not part of their family,” Ringwald said.
Even though these aspects of her time in Ecuador were unsettling, Ringwald was still nervous when she had to transition back to normal academic life.
“[In Ecuador] I had zero responsibilities. No one expected anything of me because I … didn’t speak Spanish,” she said. “It was basically like a bum year. I got things done, but not in a conventional sense.”
She’s also struggled to relate to her friends who did not go through the year she did.
“Their lives had stayed on a steady track … [while] I was chucked into a foreign country completely alone with no one to speak English with,” she said. “It’s a completely different experience.”
Corcoran has similar trouble communicating with friends about her time abroad.
“[In Jordan,] I was horribly lonely and frustrated, but that’s not really the thing people want to hear. People want to hear the Eat, Pray, Love story.”
At the same time, Corcoran felt that her gap year was — overall — a positive one.
“It gave me a perspective on my life that I didn’t have before, and for that I’m very grateful,” she said. “Now I know what I’m capable of.”

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