Monday, August 13, 2018

Day 181 - 198: What I learned on my gap year

Day 181 - 198: What I learned on my gap year

I completed this trip having learned so much more than I imagined I could. Everyone knows, duh, your crazy trip abroad is going to be life-changing, but even knowing that the magnitude still surprised me. I wrote a big, long 20-minute speech for my presentation of learning, which I will share, but I learned more than I could express or vaguely fit into 20 minutes. 

After my tailspin out of high school, I had a big, bad, bitter taste of education in my mouth. I wanted nothing to do with school, college, even the U.S. itself. Thinking Beyond Borders helped enlighten me and show me what learning can look like without the confining walls and rigid curriculum of the public school system. I learned a lot about myself; what I value, my strengths, and helped me to begin forming my own opinions and beliefs. I also gained a cross-cultural and global perspective on local and global issues as well as a general outlook on life. Every aspect of my life is forever impacted by my experience with Thinking Beyond Borders, and I know it was all for the better. 

This is my experience, but it is different for everyone. I highly recommend taking a gap year (especially with Thinking Beyond Borders) to ANYONE and EVERYONE! If anyone has any questions about taking a gap year or Thinking Beyond Borders, I'll be happy to answer them! I'll link all my social media down below; don't be afraid to reach out! 

One journey ends and another begins...
I'm headed off to University in Costa Rica where I'll be majoring in Global Studies with LIU Global. Brace yourselves, hold on to those socks, and get some popcorn, because I'm taking you along for the ride.

With all that being said, I'll include my speech / "Presentation of Learning" down below. I will have to cut certain parts for privacy, but the main messages will still be there. It's quite long and personal, so if that's not what you're here for, feel free to skip to the end. Enjoy!


"This is not about depression"

Let me start off by saying, this is not about depression. This is about my growth despite depression. This is about the tools I’ve gained to combat my depression through this gap year. This is about relearning what happiness feels like. This is about growth, learning, and inspiration. This is my TBB journey. But, this is only one aspect of my journey. I could fill days with everything TBB has taught me and all the questions it has left me with. But, it all starts with depression.

In high school, I was an outsider. I had two friends and I thought that was all I needed. I used to be a really angry person. I was bullied in the sixth grade, and I never felt the same way about school again. I felt rejected, and I hated school. I hated homework, I hated waking up early, I hated tests, but most of all I hated feeling like I was wasting my time. Around October of my Junior year, my closest friendship ended and I began spiraling downward into what I would later find out was depression. As my other friends followed, I found myself becoming less and less angry and that all that l had left was hopelessness and sadness. I had no motivation to go to school. I questioned my life, and my frustration turned into an overwhelming feeling of being ‘stuck’ - like I couldn’t escape. Why was this happening to me? What was the point anymore? Why do I lose all my friends? Why am I so unhappy? That December, I finally broke down. The inescapable unhappiness finally overcame me. I broke down to my mother in her car right outside the doors to my school, and I asked for help. I admitted that I couldn’t deal with this alone. That was a turning point in my life. I opened up to my parents, and together we came up with a plan. A plan to get me the hell out of high school. We met with my counselor the very next day, and she convinced me to stay, but for only one more semester. She could break me out a whole year early! I went from class of 2018 to class of 2017 in a day. But, it wasn’t easy. It was extremely challenging, and my depression didn’t just magically disappear. With the support of my family and the faculty at my school, I am proud to say that I am a graduate of the class of 2017. But, what was the next step? Formal education had left a bad taste in my mouth, and college was never even a thought. I wanted to be in control of how I spent my time, and I wanted something extraordinary. I wanted excitement and independence. I was sick of being told what to do and how to be. I knew I wanted to travel, and I started exploring ways to do that. I stumbled across gap year programs, and my parents pushed me towards this as a more structured way to travel and gain the independence and adventure I was looking for. But, there were other reasons I chose to come on this gap year that were unknown to me at the time. I was also running away. I was blaming my depression on my situation, my school, my surroundings, my hometown, and the people that lived there. Everyone around me reaffirmed this by telling me that my depression was merely situational. My parents, my counselor, and my therapist all told me this, and I believed them. I expected that once I broke free from the shackles that were Southlake, Texas, I could be happy.
And, that’s how I got here - Thinking Beyond Borders. I arrived with these expectations that all my problems were now going to be solved. I had broken free from my personal prison, and now I could be happy again. Right? This expectation was tested during the first interactions with the strangers that I would be spending the next seven months of my life with. In the early days of the trip, I found myself scrambling to make connections with people. Connecting with people had always been so easy for me, but there was a new distance there - between me and them - that I couldn’t quite explain. Another expectation I didn’t realize I had was what role I would take in the group. I wanted to be the funny - adventurous - bold one. But, that’s not the role I felt I was falling into. I realized that I didn’t know myself as well as I did before my depression, and I felt lost.
During orientation, we wrote goals for ourselves in the five areas of learning; emotional, social, cultural, spiritual, and academic. I asked myself some big questions, some of which I’m still exploring today. I asked, “Who am I after depression?” and “How has depression changed the way I interact with people?” I explored these questions at the beginning of the program, and I struggled. I couldn’t grasp the magnitude of my change, and I felt disconnected from other students. About a month into the program, I broke down to my mento, Peter. I shared my struggles, and he offered to do a tarot card reading with me. Now, for all of you that don’t know what tarot cards really are, on TBB, they’re used as tools for self-reflection, not fortune-telling. He began the reading by having me ask a question, and I asked: “who am I after depression?” Peter helped me revise it to, “who am I now?” This was another turning point for me. I finally had to face what I had suspected all along - that I was running away from my depression - that I still had depression, and I faced the unsettling truth that I would most likely always have depression. This was hard to accept, but it was necessary if I was going to move forward. Peter also read that I was focusing too much energy in one area. Knowing the context of my situation, he suggested that I focus less on social learning and start leaning into some of the others areas of learning as well. So, I did. I engaged fully in academic and cultural learning. I leaned into worksite, seminars, the culture, the community, and the language. But, I completely shut myself off to the rest of the group. I decided that if social learning was going to cause me that much pain, I just wasn’t going to do it. So, I ignored my pain and focused all my energy on my personal growth and learning.

From the beginning, one person stood out to me, Ben Creitser. He was always asking questions. I didn’t understand him, and honestly, I was intimidated. I had never met anyone like him before. TBB’s curriculum intends to create an environment where students can explore and hopefully gain certain qualities attributed to great agents of change. These qualities are a purpose, the ability to question, and radical love.  I know now why Ben caught my attention. Ben already possessed the ability to question, and that meant he was a step ahead of all of us.

At one of our reflective journaling sessions during our last couple weeks abroad, we were asked to evaluate what we came into TBB with, how we’ve grown over the course of the trip, and what this looked like moving forward in terms of the qualities of an agent of change. At the time, I believed that I hadn’t encountered the ability to question much before this trip. In the process of creating this presentation of learning, I’ve realized that I had - just not in the same way. The questions I had back in late 2016 and early 2017 paralyzed me. Questioning was a large aspect of my depression. Those questions were destructive and harmful to me, and I didn’t associate them with the ‘TBB’ ability to question - the productive tool that helped me to question my assumptions and further my learning. The tool I had fallen in love with over the course of this program.
I had an enlightening experience on our first IST, or independent student travel weekend, in Monterrico, Guatemala. One night on the beach, a few of us ran into, and almost stepped on, a sea turtle laying her eggs in the sand. Two men were accompanying the turtle, an Australian and a local. We learned that the Australian man was a tourist who similarly stumbled upon the turtle and was now protecting the turtle from the locals that he believed were harvesting the eggs to sell for human consumption. The other students were immediately emotionally involved, but I was hesitant. I felt as if I didn’t have enough information or experience to judge this situation. And, even if this man was going to sell the eggs as food, was this really our place to step in? The local man was confused and spoke to the Australian in Spanish. When he responded in English, my hesitancy was validated. He had no idea what was going on and had made some big assumptions. Luckily, our program leader Patrick came with us on our IST and had decent Spanish skills. He began speaking with the man and didn’t stop to translate for what felt like a long time. When he finally did he revealed that the man never intended on eating these eggs. He sold the eggs to a hatchery in town. This occurrence fascinated me. Why did we all assume the Australian man was right without further inspection, and what’s more, why did we mistrust the local man? But, what this supposed sea turtle rescue mission gone wrong really showed me was - my mindset had changed. TBB had given me a new perspective on the world, and I loved it. I was enlightened and exhilarated by the new experiences I was having and the places this program took me, both physically, mentally, and metaphorically.
I took this momentum with me as we moved on to Thailand, and I leaned into the education unit. In our first community, Khlong Chinda, the academics ramped up as we explored the ideas of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator and philosopher as well as author of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. My learning started to feel less exhilarating and more exhausting. This only increased on arrival in our second more rural community, Khun Sathan. Khun Sathan is a small mountain village consisting of Hmong people. Hmong culture is traditionally patriarchal, and we - meaning the women of the group - were given an extreme set of restricting new rules in light of cultural respect. On top of that, the homestay conditions and language barrier were by far the most challenging we’d experienced so far - I’m talking four hours of Thai lessons for a community of Hmong people who speak Hmong, as well as dirt floors, bucket showers, barns for houses, and plenty of creepy crawlies. I can safely say, Khun Sathan was the most challenging community I encountered on TBB. For worksite, I was set to shadow a teacher at the school within the village, Prakit school. But, we ran into issues. Prakit school didn’t know what to do with us. We only wanted to shadow the teachers, get to know them, and see what life inside of a Thai public school classroom was like. Maybe the language barrier was too great. Maybe the cultural barrier was too great. But, we clearly didn’t understand one another. This was frustrating for me. I came into the education unit with more unintentional expectations - high expectations. I was passionate about education. This was the subject that I had the most experience with. This was the subject I felt most passionate about changing. But, I began to get the similar feeling of entrapment at Prakit school. I wanted the exhilaration that came from my learning in Guatemala. This lull in my choice areas of learning unleashed the pain I was suppressing from ignoring social and emotional learning. Nearing the end of our time in Khun Sathan, I broke down yet again. And, yet again, I opened up to Peter, and he, yet again, offered me a tarot card reading. This reading wasn’t as immediately enlightening. It was harder. He asked me to be patient, to live in the present to the best of my ability. I don’t know if I fully understood the meaning I took from it then, but I look back on it as a shove in the right direction. But, since we only had a couple days left in Khun Sathan, I basically waited it out.

When we arrived in Ghana, I felt refreshed. New country - new learning opportunities. In Ghana, we explored public health and our worksite was at public health clinics and community centers. For me, worksite was fascinating. It filled my new need for academic stimulation, and I gained some of that momentum back. With me now in a better place, despite ignoring and suppressing social learning and the emotions that accompanied, I asked Peter to challenge me. He asked me to start leaning into that social learning again by opening myself up to new connections. A way he suggested doing this was with my assigned roommate, Rhea. So, I did. I didn’t fully open myself up to the group, but I did start letting Rhea in. But, I didn’t exactly know how to. It felt like relearning how to walk - something that used to be so natural, so easy was now so confusing. I was guarded, yet vulnerable and open. I couldn’t pinpoint where this guard was - or what I was hiding. Why couldn’t I feel connected to anyone? What was holding me back? I still don’t have the answer. I’m still exploring these questions. But, this reflection process has given me a better idea.

I’ve never been able to ‘keep’ friends. I don’t have a best friend from kindergarten that lives next door. I don’t even have one left from high school! Through these experiences, I believe I’ve unconsciously learned that friendships don’t last. My depression could’ve taken ahold of this secret insecurity within me and created a guard. A guard where I tell myself - ‘we’re not that close’, or ‘they’re not really my friend’ - without even realizing it. And, despite all this confusion, I somehow managed to form a better relationship with Rhea. I started to hike away at the mountain of depression between me and human connection.

Cue Morocco -
Nearing the end of our stay in Rabat, the capital of Morocco, we had a seminar titled "the Theory of Change". In this seminar, the PLs, or program leaders, introduced us to a theory of change. I adapted it into a tool that I use to create change, personal and social. I call it the reflection action cycle. It’s originally a spectrum where reflection rests at one end and action at the other- solely reflection is paralyzing and solely action is blind. The cycle is a reminder to move on to the next; if reflection is hindering you, act. If action is not taking you anywhere, reflect. Reflecting is asking the tough questions of yourself and thinking of ways in which you can improve your actions. This cycle creates intentional reflection and intentional action moving towards, for me, becoming more of who I want to be and achieving my goals. This cycle is a tool I have created to combat the paralyzing effects of my depression.

After creating this, I asked myself questions - hard ones; What are you afraid of? Why are you guarded? How do I let myself feel close to someone? Feelings similar to those I had in early 2017 returned, and I felt my depression creeping back up again. I now realize how this was a positive. If I was feeling these feelings, that meant I was taking the first step: dealing with them. I felt them, and I immediately recognized them. I immediately recognized that I needed to deal with them, it was time. I had let my depression hold me back, but I was sick of it. I wanted liberation. So, I just let go. The more I felt, the more I was able to deal with. And, it wasn’t as bad as I expected. My new tools, the reflection action cycle along with the ability to question, were crucial in combating my depression. And, they still are.

[ I had to take out this part, but it was an event causing me to feel...]

But, I didn’t feel anything. I felt empty. This must have sparked a feeling of disconnection in me because an overwhelming need to escape overcame me, and I headed towards the cabin door. On my way out, I passed Peter and he asked if I needed to talk. I wanted to say yes, but I said no and walked out. As I internally battled in front of our Virginia cabin, I had a realization. Disconnection was the cause of this sudden oncoming, and if that was really the case - I just needed to talk to someone. But, my depressional instincts led me to feel more disconnected and avoid opportunities that would have corrected these feelings. I proceeded back inside and I opened up to my friend and roommate, Nishtah Thomas. This was the first time I had successfully recognized this issue and been able to correct it. For the first time, I had the tools to successfully combat my depression AND a success story to show for it.

The ability to question has not only changed the way I interact with the world around me, but it has also changed the way I interact with myself. The ability to question is a double edge sword. it hindered me before I knew how to use it, and it helps now that I do. Now, instead of only asking questions like; What is the point anymore? I ask; What do I want from this situation and why am I not getting it? What can I do to change this into the situation I want? What’s in my way?

Now, I have a poem I’ve written that expresses my journey with depression on TBB.

[Intended for spoken word]

A question
The double edge sword that is a question
A question can cut
A question can cut you up into depression
Don’t bite the hand that feeds you
Don’t question
Run away; redefine; question
A question can be powerful
Questions are destructive
Question: Why aren’t you happy?
Question: Why don’t you just get over it?
Question: Why don’t you feel something?
Question: Why don’t I feel anything?
Question: Why do I keep running away?
But, this is not about depression
This is about me and to be about me it is also about depression
Depression is a word defined differently
Depression is a word defined by those who know it
Depression is a word defined by those who don’t know it
Depression is a word defined a feeling of severe despondency and dejection
Depression is a feeling
Depression is a condition
Depression is a glass box that once encased me
Depression is wanting to sink into the floor
Depression is void of all things
Depression is nothing
Depression is everything
Depression is where I came from
But, depression is not a word that defines me
Depression is a word that I define.
Now -
I define depression as an obstacle
Now, I define depression as something I hope you never have to define
Now, I define depression as a drop in the bucket that is me
Now, I define depression as a part of me
Now, I define depression
Depression doesn’t define me
But, this is not about depression.
This is about me and to be about me it is also about depression
I am depression
I am so much more than depression
I am one thing at a time
I am progress, and I am moving forward
I am the airline, and I am the pilot
The pilot that transcends borders
I am beyond borders
I am no boundaries
I am a newfound sense of purpose
I am the stupid question
I am every question
I am the art of communication
I am connection
I am limitless
I am radical love
And, I am every one of you
I am human
I am scared
I am naive
I am young
And, I am still here

I am being pulled back to earth
I am falling into the constant gravity that is my depression
I am gasping for air
I am slowing, and I am soaring

Now, I define depression
Depression doesn’t define me
And, I say no more!
I define my depression as something that I can control
I define my depression as my own battle
I define my depression as losing that battle
I define my depression as weak
My depression in question
A question
The double edge sword that is a question
Now, I slay my depression with a question
But, this is not about depression


I made three videos during my trip for all the different countries we visited! There's a beautiful marketing video made by Timber & Frame that captures TBB amazingly and also features me! Check those out:

Human Highlight:
All of my program leaders; Peter Seilheimer, Patrick MacMurdo, and Julia Jones.
As well as, all my fellow students <3

Fun Fact:
The Quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala. Their currency is called the quetzal because Quetzal feather used to be used as currency.

BE resplendent
Like the quetzal.

“No one is born fully-formed: it is through self-experience in the world that we become what we are.” 
Paulo Freire (Ferrero Rocher)

Keep thinking - XOXO,
Meg / Otra Chica

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Day 181 - 198: What I learned on my gap year

Day 181 - 198: What I learned on my gap year I completed this trip having learned so much more than I imagined I could. Everyone kn...