Minding the Gap
Published: Friday, October 12, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 12, 2012 11:10
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].”