Where in the World?

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A quick bit of advice; when one is looking for cheap flights, Google flights (https://www.google.com/flights/) is a very easy and quick way of checking out many destinations and dates of departures.  Many people also like to use Skyscanner (https://www.skyscanner.com/).

Interview with 2012 CHS Graduate Leah Berolzheimer

Q: What inspired you to take a GAP year?

A: A drive to better understand healthcare inequalities, a desire to learn more about the clinical aspects of healthcare delivery and a need for a break from formal education.

Who else (if anyone) do you know who has taken a GAP year?

I was one of seven fellows at UNC-Chapel Hill who took a gap year. So, I know those six others, plus a whole other network of those who took gap years at UNC called “Gappl.” However, graduating from Carrboro, I knew very few others who were also taking gap years.

Where did you go & what did you do while there?

A: Nairobi, Kenya (4 months); Accra, Ghana (2 weeks); Kara, Togo (3 months) and  Budapest, Hungary (1 month). In Nairobi I worked with a non-profit based in Chapel Hill called Carolina for Kibera (CFK). I had read the founder’s book, It Happened on The Way to War, and had begun interning regularly in their Chapel Hill office my senior year of high school. So, when offered the Global Gap Year Fellowship at UNC, I knew working in Kibera was on the top of my list. At CFK I spent one day per week at the Tabitha Medical Clinic assisting and observing in one of the nursing triages. The other days of the week I focused on community development work: I helped out with the girls soccer teams in the evenings, documented events on the weekends and helped out where I was needed during the other days of the week. Mid-December I traveled to Accra, Ghana to visit a dear high school friend, Vanessa. I spent two weeks of vacation, including Christmas and New Years with her family. Next, I crossed the border from Ghana to Togo and traveled to a small town in the far north called Kara. There I worked at an HIV/AIDS clinic and community center called Association Espoir pour Demain (translated to “hope for tomorrow”). I worked alongside the nurses there and also joined in on an IRB research project that was initiated by a local Peace Corps volunteer. We interviewed over 50 women about what their perceived (and actual) barriers to accessing health care were. Lastly, I spent one month in Budapest, Hungary working with a democratic youth organization. I visited public high schools all across Budapest and gave presentations on the benefits of public service and taking a gap year.

Kara, Togo, the rural village where Berolzheimer spent three months working at an HIV community center/clinic called Association Espoir Pour Demain

Where outside the U.S. have you visited, if anywhere, and for how long and in what context?

I traveled frequently as a child, but most recently, I have spent time in Israel on a Birthright trip (December ’15-January ’16), and in Myanmar and Thailand from May-July of 2016 completing my nursing practicum.

What was your budget?

I was awarded $7,500 by the Global Gap Year Fellowship at UNC-CH. I did my best to budget this as closely to that as possible, though traveling to several countries in Africa and Europe over the course of eight8 months made it difficult. I ended up spending only about $500 more than that amount, as I had a generous donor that gave me thousands of airlines miles which paid for two portions of my flights.

What did you hope to get out of the GAP year?

A: A break. Overcoming the challenge of living and traveling solo for eight months. French language immersion (Togo). Clarity on what I wanted to study once starting at UNC. A greater perspective. A chance to serve others, while also serving myself–validating my own needs to see new places, experience being a minority and learning how to live with and learn from people of backgrounds different than my own.

Did you get out of your GAP year what you hoped to and what did you gain, realize, etc that you did not anticipate?

Yes. I learned that you truly cannot plan or anticipate what will happen over the course of eight8 months. My gap year was really tough at times; it was in these moments though that I learned the most. I came back to UNC with a much wider perspective, a much greater appreciation for the salad bar at Rams Head Dining Hall, and a passion to study Nursing.  

What research or preparation did you do?

I had a weekend long orientation at UNC in which we had time to talk through our expectations and start searching for organizations. I did a lot of networking on my own and found that the best experiences were those that I had personal connections to, rather than ones I found through online research. I’d be happy to share my own connections that I have made with anyone interested!

What worries or concerns did you have about the GAP year?

Traveling as a solo female definitely made me cautious. I learned to take things day by day, or even minute by minute, and also learned to follow the advice of locals—–they truly were always right.

What advice would you give others who are contemplating taking a GAP year?

DO IT!

How did you integrate yourself into the local culture?

I think the first step to doing this was by traveling on my own, rather than in a group of other westerners. I stayed with host families in Kenya and rented out a small hut/house in a compound with other Togolese people while in Togo. I was open to eating almost any foods, tried tirelessly to learn the local languages and assumed the position as the learner, rather than the teacher, wherever I went.

What were your experiences of culture shock abroad?

My most extreme experiences were actually with reverse culture shock upon returning home! Though I was ready to come home when the time came, it was extremely difficult to pick back up with friends who had just completed their first year of college, to pick back up with my job as a summer camp counselor, and to move back in with my family after living on my own for so long.

Include anything I didn’t ask, but which you feel is important to know.

I continue to say that taking a gap year was the best decision I’ve made. This is a unique time in our lives—–taking a “gap year” after college is SO different. My gap year influenced what I study today at UNC, how I think about and approach each of my patients as a soon-to-be nurse, and how I consider the value of walking in someone else’s shoes before making assumptions. Thanks!

Feature image: The Fruitful Women cooperative (a makeshift school and foster center) in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya.  Photos courtesy John Hite.