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Gap Year Reflection: Living with Intention
At home, I’ve taken to driving around. There’s not much else to do and it’s nice to have some space for myself. I’ve discovered new nooks of neighborhoods I thought I knew and mentally bookmarked interesting houses on street corners.
I’ve noticed big changes in myself after my gap year that show in small ways. It’s in the way I drive around town, the way I shop for groceries, the way I listen to podcasts while brushing my teeth.
A year ago, I would tell you that I am directionally and spatially challenged, and completely reliant on google maps to get from point A to B (even though I’ve lived in the same place my entire life). I drove in a frenzy most of the time because I was always running late. As I drove last night, I realized I didn’t have my GPS up. I was conscious of what highway I was on (I-85), and I knew that I was headed south. This may be an irrelevant revelation to most people, but for me, who never knew the names of highways, who never could point north or south, I was surprised at how much I had learned just from paying a little more attention.
On I-85 I knew my life had come into slightly clearer focus. Not just because I was more aware of my surroundings and my physical place in them, but because I had become a more intentional person. I was less concerned with where I was headed, and more interested in how I got there.
My gap year gave me the time to think about where I’m going, but more importantly, to reflect on how I would get there. I noticed small things about my everyday routine, like relying on my GPS, and had the time to pause and think about them. My time in Paris taught me to think about the foods I buy from the grocery store–I learned more about seasonal and sustainable eating habits from my host mom. I’ve learned to prioritize my interests and dedicate my time to doing things I love, every. single. day. That’s the magic of a gap year; you take a beat from the frantic high school highway, step outside your life a little bit, and shift your focus to things that actually matter to you.
This year, I committed to reading fifty books, listening to podcasts while I get ready for bed, paying attention to road signs while I drive, and above all, making sure I am actively engaged with my life. This year has restored my sense of autonomy in some ways–I no longer feel like a passenger being swept along a predetermined path. I try not to do things that feel passive, or uninteresting, or serve no purpose.
I’m so grateful for all the experiences I was able to have this year. I know it deeply changed me as a person, and I’m eager to keep thinking about my life within the framework I built during my gap. I can’t wait to get to Duke and think about my everyday choices with intention, as I am doing today.
On the Eleventh Week in Quarantine
On the 11th week in quarantine I learned to play This Charming Man by the Smiths on the guitar, practiced doing the boxer step with a jump rope, cooked an awesome Thai basil beef dish, and started learning the basics of garment construction on my sewing machine.
If you had asked me in the fall my plans for the spring, I would have outlined three months spent in Rome, working part-time at an art gallery and taking Italian classes the rest of the day. I envisioned myself eating lots of pasta and pizza, taking painting classes, and strolling aimlessly down cobblestone streets. I saved many Italian songs on Spotify (Semmai by Giorgio Poi is a great one!) in the hopes that upon my return in June to the United States, I would be versed enough in the language to decode them on my own.
Although these plans fell apart with astounding speed (the first case of COVID-19 was announced while I was in Buenos Aires), and I had to cancel flights and permanently unpack back home, this life-on-pause has not been altogether worthless.
I am lucky enough to take this time to continue exploring my interests and take full advantage of my gap year, even within the confines of my own home. The podcast “Stuff You Should Know” taught me about the size of our galaxy and red shifting, and how it allows us to chart the universe’s expansion. I finally cracked open the pages of Paradise Lost by John Milton and created a brief timeline of Christianity to help me contextualize his writing. I took a virtual voice lesson on Skillshare with a Broadway singer. I’ve watched movies I’ve always meant to watch, like Rebel Without a Cause, and watched movies I’m not sure how I ended up bingeing, but did (in my case, it was the Twilight saga). I also made a bucket list for my time in quarantine, which includes learning to record music, taking virtual painting classes, practicing my french, learning to shuffle cards, dyeing my hair blue, getting better at yoga, and learning to do the splits.
I want to quickly note that I am fortunate enough to be able to take this time for myself–I know that is not the case for many Americans. Everyone has made sacrifices, and as my plans disintegrated, I reminded myself of the much greater sacrifices those working in food service or health care have made and continue to make. We have collectively lived through a daunting few months, and peer into the face of uncertainty itself. I hope everyone is staying healthy and taking care of themselves.
If you’re thinking about taking a gap year, but are uncertain what you can do in these times, I still encourage you to take time off traditional school. I’ve learned so much in these few months at home, from space to guitar to cooking to yoga, that I wouldn’t have time to prioritize if I were also attempting to balance a full course load. It’s been refreshing to plan my weeks at home, filling the hours with activities I’ve always been interested in, but pushed off until now. There are plenty of worthwhile online options to look into, like virtual internships and online classes. A gap year is simply a year to grow, regardless of circumstance, and I’ve found that I’ve been able to do so while confined in surprising ways.
I am excited to see what Duke will look like this coming fall. I know it will be different than what I imagined my freshman year would look like, but I think it will be an amazing experience regardless (or at least a unique one!).
My Week at the US/Mexico Border with Al Otro Lado
My dad and I got out of the car as I hefted my backpack onto one shoulder and squinted up. The sky was silent and clear. The pedestrian crossing between Tijuana and San Diego awaited us ahead, the whole gray, metal body of it. There was barbed wire in rings on top of the cement gray wall, and the door–that led to a hallway, that led to another door, that led to another hallway–was a metal lattice. It interlocked and revolved, letting one person push through at a time.
The American flag stood tall, billowing, rising up over the border wall and looking on past the sloping valleys of Tijuana. It was windy in a flat way that day, and the flag flew calmly. Right behind the flag was a mall–a grey compound with a Burger King and a Panda Express. Mall of the Americas, with its flashing signs and ads for one dollar quarter pounders, is the last thing visible before crossing.
There were soldiers in white uniforms and a bright silence through customs. There was a long, zig-zagging white bridge. On the other end, I was suddenly surrounded by tacos al vapor street stands and a gentleman’s club. Ads were painted on the sides of cement walls of restaurants and homes. A TIJUANA sculpture greeted me with its tall, block letters.
I volunteered for a week with Al Otro Lado, a non-profit organization that serves asylum seekers and migrants in Tijuana. The building is four stories, shared by an anarchist collective and an organization called Food-not-Bombs, and seems more akin to an artist squat than a traditional office. The walls are adorned with vibrant murals and red drapes cover all the windows. The main entrance is dotted with stickers. I appreciate the openness to art and beauty in the building. People are welcomed in by walls varnished in different shades of turquoise and plants lining the fourth floor rooftop.
Over the course of the week, I completed intakes with asylum seekers while my dad digitized documents. People came through our doors from Eritrea, Honduras, Cameroon, Cuba, Crimea, and beyond. The stream of constant chatter was always an indistinguishable amalgam of language, with a murmuring of Turkish and soft Spanish currents floating throughout the halls.
My job as an intaker was to listen. The purpose of an intake is to distill the important information of each asylum seeker’s case into an organized document, so that lawyers can advise the client based on their claim, and so that the client can concisely explain their story to immigration officers in a compelling way. In order to best understand these stories that tended to be complex, circuitous accounts, I needed to ask 5 essential questions:
What happened that made you leave home?
Who is responsible for this?
Why were you specifically targeted?
Did you go to the police?
Would it be possible to relocate to another part of your country?
These are not easy questions to ask, nor are they easy questions to answer, especially to a stranger. All five asylum seekers I worked with had faced senseless violence and persecution, and rightfully feared for their lives. One thing they consistently reiterated was that they never expected to be in this position–uprooted from their livelihoods and families, living in overcrowded shelters in Tijuana, awaiting their court date months away in the US. A grandmother I worked with told me over and over: “tenemos mucho miedo”: we are so afraid. Her grandkids couldn’t even go to school anymore. As I translated for the lawyer advising this woman on her case, I had to explain that all that she had endured might not be reason enough for her to win asylum in court. The court requires that applicants prove that they had or would be persecuted on account of at least one of five protected grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Random violence, however horrible, does not ensure protection from the United States.
I spoke with a girl a year older than me who had left her home after a gang stalked and threatened her and her family. She had just begun her first year of university. She told me about her boyfriend back home and how much she missed him. She carried a brown quilted backpack. (I’m about to start college too! I love mini backpacks too!). Despite the fact that she is traveling with her family, including her mom, dad, and two younger sisters, because she is of legal age, she may be sent to a detention center, for example, in Dilley, Texas while the rest of her family is sent to El Centro, California. As the lawyer and I explained this, she nodded wordlessly and pressed her back up against the wall. I felt very hot and suffocated then, and kept asking her, “¿entiendes?” She kept nodding yes, saying nothing.
I completed another intake with a young man who talked affectionately with his mom on the phone as I finished filling out my notes. He had been taken from his home and tortured by the police for his beliefs. He had a strong case, according to the lawyer. The only problem was that he applied for asylum in a time when US immigration policy is rapidly changing. The lawyer told him he would only be eligible for withholding of removal; while he could obtain a work permit in the United States, he could never become a permanent resident. He would also never be able to leave the United States, as this would forfeit his status. He told me he had a baby girl back home.
Most people I met at Al Otro Lado had already been through long, taxing journeys to reach the Tijuana border. But what awaits asylum seekers on the other side of the wall may be equally as harrowing. Ideally, asylum seekers should be able to present their case, go to custody, have a “credible fear” interview, and then argue their case in court.
In reality (according to my experience at the border), asylum seekers are being turned away and given a number to be called from an arbitrary list. The list is managed by a group of volunteers also applying for asylum, who receive instructions from Mexican border control, who receive instructions from Customs and Border Protection. It is impossible to predict when your number might be called–sometimes hundreds of numbers are called in one day, sometimes none–and numbers are announced at 6:30 in the morning at CBP’s discretion.
After their number is called, the hielera awaits asylum seekers. It’s a concrete room, kept at frigid temperatures, with no windows. The lights are kept on 24 hours a day. Asylum seekers are stripped of their clothing except for their base layers. They are given mylar sheets to sleep on the floor. There is little to no access to medical care, showers, or food. CBP claims that asylum seekers stay in the hielera for no more than 72 hours, but Al Otro Lado has seen their clients held there for three weeks at a time. People I spoke to during intakes described incredible hostility and disrespect from immigration officers. One client told me they threatened to deport him back to his home country if he didn’t sign a document that he could not read or understand (the document was in English, a language he doesn’t speak, and the immigration officer refused to translate it for him).
From the hielera, after completing a credible fear interview, asylum seekers are released to a detention center, or returned to Mexico under the “Migrant Protection Program”. Al Otro Lado describes detention to their clients as jail cells. There, asylum seekers face squalid conditions for months on end awaiting their court date.
If asylum seekers are returned to Mexico, they are given a notice to appear in court. These court dates can be at 3 or 4 in the morning, there is little to no access to counsel in Tijuana, and even if asylum seekers manage to obtain an asylum application form from a judge, they must complete this legal document–that is completely in English–in Mexico. Sometimes, asylum seekers are given “ghost” notices to appear in court. Although they have a document establishing a time and date for their hearing, their case number is nowhere to be found in the system. When asylum seekers show up on this time and day, they are turned away and stuck in limbo in their asylum process. This is how the CBP has tried to deter, confuse, and ultimately, outwit those seeking asylum within our borders.
I struggled to write this because we are not the worst thing that has ever happened to us. The people I’ve written about have suffered, and continue to in our broken immigration system, but they are just as wholly human and deserving of justice as anyone else. It is not sufficient to say that one person was threatened by a gang and one person was extorted, and that another’s brother was shot and left on the street. The young college student I spoke to had a boyfriend she really likes, and another woman I met let her chubby baby pull at her hair and pinch her arms. These people are not “rapists” or “bringing crime”, and they are not “invading” the United States. They are people like me, like you, who have faced insurmountable obstacles that have left them in a vulnerable position they never expected to be in. And we, as a country, have the ability to help.
If you would like to donate or get involved, you can find Al Otro Lado’s website here:
Makee in Marais
I’m halfway through my semester in Paris (a sentence I can’t believe I’m typing–I feel like I just got here), and feeling more comfortable with my daily routine. I thought it would be interesting to walk you through an average week in my life.
Monday through Friday, I go to French class from 10-12 AM at the Sorbonne, one of the oldest universities in France. I wake up around 8:30AM, eat a quick breakfast if I’m not still half asleep, and walk to the nearest metro stop. I live in the Marais, an amazing historic and cultural hub of Paris, and I’m lucky to have 3 major metro lines right outside my door. I hop on to line 4, ride that for three stops, switch to line 1, ride that for eight stops, and walk to my classroom. The commute takes me around twenty minutes every morning, but with the infamous, relentless French strikes, sometimes it can be tricky to get from point A to point B.
In my 10AM class, I study French literature and grammar alongside 15 other students. I am one of the youngest in my class, and the only American. It’s been really interesting to learn a foreign language without having the ability to fall back on a shared dominant one. Since most people do not speak English in my class, when there is confusion about a French word or phrase, my teacher does not resort to simply translating said word/phrase into a different language. Instead, we get to work our way to understanding the problem at hand using our French, which has deepened my understanding of the language in an interesting new way. I am in a C1 level class (we took a placement test to determine our level), so most of the students are hoping to pass this class to obtain a certificate which will allow them to study in a French university for graduate school.
After class, I grab lunch with friends and then head to an afternoon activity organized by my gap program. Tuesdays and Thursdays we explore Paris in a group. The activities range from baking traditional French pastries, visiting the first street art museum housed on a boat, touring the Catacombs, and facilitating discussions on important cultural differences between France and the United States. One of my favorite activities so far has been going to a Drouot art auction, a multi-story building open to the public to attend the auction and bid on pieces of art.
After the hour long excursion, I typically grab another snack with friends and venture off with them to do our own exploring. I’ve gone to countless museums, thrift stores, canals, monuments, plays, etc. in my afternoons in Paris. One of my favorite parts of French culture is how culturally engaged French people are. It’s not abnormal to find a group of teenagers excitedly gathering in line to be the first at the opening night of an art exhibition, or to see bookstores brimming with people buying new books and chatting. It seems to me that learning is an integral part of the French way of life–particularly learning outside of the classroom–and that’s something I’ve strived to incorporate in my own life here.
I return home to my host mom’s apartment around 8PM. We’ll have dinner together, or I’ll cook for myself, or, more often than not, my host mom will spontaneously have an idea to go to a photography exhibition or comedy show and bring me along for the night. My host mom, Dominique, is amazing. She’s a TV producer and is very involved in the arts in Paris, which has been fascinating for me to learn more about.
On weekends, I’ll have long, delicious dinners with friends. We explore the city some more (Paris will never, ever get boring to walk around), and go to more museums/thrift store, etc. At nights, I’ve had so much fun connecting with other students through Erasmus, which is a European student exchange program that hosts events to help international students connect with locals ones. I’ve met people from all over the world, all walks of life, and find myself speaking French in the most unexpected places.
My weeks here have been busy and full of adventure, each one different from the next. It’s been exciting to develop a sort of routine–my metro commute, my go-to pastry shop, memorizing my French phone number–but equally exciting to be unrestrained by a tight schedule. I’m excited to see what the next few weeks hold!
Makee – Leaving Home in 30 Days
I will be leaving home in 30 days. I will be out of the country, away from family, friends, and everything familiar, for approximately 261 days after that.
I can already picture myself strolling down cobblestone streets, ordering in French without waiters trying to stifle their laughter, and sitting by the river Seine nibbling a slice of brie cheese. No, my 3-month stop in Paris won’t be an idyllic, chic montage, but I’m excited to immerse myself in a new culture, refine my French, and feel like I’ve made a home for myself in a beautiful new place. I can’t wait to get to know my host family, gap cohort, and classmates at the Sorbonne, where I will be taking French language and literature. I’m equally looking forward to the delicious food, cool museums, and vibrant art scene.
My goals for the upcoming year include, but are not limited to: learning Italian, cooking a decent dinner, becoming a public transportation expert, bettering my French and Spanish, traveling for 30 days straight, making friends from different cultures, not speaking English for at least 24 hour periods, going on a spontaneous trip, and learning to paint. Hopefully I can accomplish these, and add on many more skills that I pick up along the way.
I’m excited to find out what those are.