81: Gap Year Missionary

81: Gap Year Missionary

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Getting In...To College

Gap Year Missionary

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.

~Helen Keller

I blinked once, twice, trying to make sense of what was happening. My eyes, bleary from more than twenty-four hours of constant travel, flitted over the surroundings of my new home in the YMCA of Lima, Peru. I took everything in: the spartan room filled with steel bunk beds, the giant crucifix above my bed, the enormous yellow “Jesus Lives!” banner below my window, the piles of pocket-sized New Testaments by the closet door. My stomach dropped six floors. What had I gotten myself into?

I was eighteen years old when I set off for a totally new world. Among my middle class suburban friends, I was one of the only ones who didn’t go straight to a four year college. While they were buying comforters and trash cans at Bed, Bath & Beyond for their new dorm rooms, I decided to invest in a green hiking backpack, get my passport ready, and take off for the horizon.

My high school was pretty typical among the area high schools. We grew up with the understanding that college was the only route after high school, no questions. But I wasn’t ready to go to college. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what I wanted to study.

People call it a year “off,” the year I spent between high school and college, first milking cows on a commune in Israel (a kibbutz), then on the other side of the world volunteering with the YMCA in Lima, Peru.

But this wasn’t a vacation—my gap year was the best decision I ever made. I learned to speak two languages, worked outside under the Mediterranean sun, and salsa danced in the shanty towns of Lima.

High school seniors often don’t consider taking some time on the relentless march to a bachelor’s degree. Hey, man, slow down! Going to college is an amazing opportunity, one that you should take advantage of when you are totally ready, not just because your friends are doing it. So many people around the world and in America would love to be in your situation, so make sure you are mature enough to really get everything out of the experience.

A gap year isn’t expensive—you’d be surprised how little money you need to survive when you’re living abroad, if you don’t mind roughing it a little. There are so many programs out somewhere on the Internet where you can work in exchange for room and board, both in the States and around the world. All it takes is some flexibility and an open mind. Work, volunteer, travel, live somewhere new. The experiences you gain will be priceless.

I know my experiences were certainly interesting. Before I left on my whirlwind adventure, the International YMCA office in New York reassured me that a nice Jewish girl from suburban Boston had nothing to worry about, working with the Young Men’s Christian Association. Yes, Peru was 98% Roman Catholic, but don’t worry, you’ll be fine, they told me.

The opposite turned out to be true. Me, Melanie Lidman, with ten years of Hebrew School under my belt and the biggest Jewish nose you’ve ever seen, suddenly found myself in a foreign country singing songs about Jesus and planning skits about the Holy Trinity. It sounds implausible, but it’s true: I had accidentally become a Catholic missionary.

Surviving those five months in Peru was the most difficult and most rewarding thing I have ever done. Among other things, it gave me an incredible sense of self and pride in my identity. I learned quickly how to adapt to a culture completely foreign to what I knew. Though I disagreed with some of the religious messages, I felt passionate about the social work we were doing in Lima’s poorest slums.

We brought weekly recreation programs to these plywood shack neighborhoods, tutored child street workers, and collaborated with local teens to start a community nutrition group. The poverty I saw was shocking, arresting: something I never could have learned in the classroom. The days were hard, but I knew these experiences were the reasons I put off college in the first place.

I started college the next year a completely different person. Confident, relaxed, more mature. I decided to study journalism, something that would enable me to continue traveling and learning about different places, and writing about other people’s stories. At my large university, I found some amazing friends who also took alternative routes towards graduation. I stayed in touch with my friends around the world and even led a short YMCA spring break trip back to Peru the following year. In short, I was ready to be in college.

Taking the road less traveled is always scary. There were times that I was lonely and homesick and missed my friends, who regaled me with stories about college keg parties and crazy Saturday nights, while I got ready for the sunrise milking at 4 A.M. in Israel.

But I wouldn’t change a thing about my crazy year when I was eighteen. Working on a farm, being a missionary — I wouldn’t be the same person today without those experiences.

So, high school senior, congrats on graduating and good luck in whatever you do. But think about deferring for a year or two. The college of your dreams isn’t going anywhere, but you can. And just think about it, you’ll turn twenty-one before all your classmates.

~Melanie Lidman

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