The following post was written by Gap Year Fellow Janis Arrojado.

I’ve put a lot of thought into the song that will play when my plane touches down in Ecuador. It’s my first time traveling alone, and I know that I will need the boost of courage and inspiration that music gives me. After listening to various artists and albums, I have concluded that “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield will be my landing anthem. It’s upbeat and gives me feelings of confidence and motivation, which are two things I’ll definitely need as I begin my gap year.

Growing up, I never had the plan to take a gap year. I thought that after high school I would go straight to college and then find a job. However, this linear thinking changed when the time for college decisions came. I stressed about choosing where I wanted to go to college, what I wanted to study, and other future plans. Sure, I was used to pushing myself to succeed, but by the end of senior year, I felt totally burnt out. I knew that I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t want to go immediately after I graduated high school. Thankfully, I’ve found the perfect solution – the Global Gap Year Fellowship at UNC-Chapel Hill. This opportunity will allow me to explore the world and serve over the next year before starting school.

Leading up to the Global Gap Year Institute, I was overwhelmed. I had two weeks to plan my gap year, learn about ethical service, and become friends with nine other strangers. However, I found that the orientation lessened my fears about doing community service abroad and traveling by myself. Through learning about volunteering and service, bonding with the other fellows, and participating in planning workshops, I became less overwhelmed and began to see my gap year for the amazing opportunity it is.

One of the things that we discussed the most was what it means to serve and the difference between the partnership approach to volunteering and the charity approach to volunteering. Through participating in workshops and interactive activities, I have learned that when volunteering, it is so important to listen and empathize with the organization you are working with. By removing our ego from our service, we can learn what will truly benefit the communities we work in. As we are all required to do at least six months of service, this was an important message to learn.

My favorite parts of the Institute were getting to know the other fellows, learning more about myself through the IDI assessment, and going off campus to explore Chapel Hill. I even made a YouTube channel (subscribe to Janis and Jennings)!

During one of the workshops where we expressed ourselves through words and pictures, I wrote the motto “Thriving and happy.” I want those words to describe my gap year – a time when I hope to not only appreciate the moments that bring me joy, but also to grow from the negative moments as well. I want to become more self-reliant and independent, and learn how to do things myself. Right now, my plan is to travel to Ecuador and Chile alone. I am excited to experience South American culture, and hope to improve my Spanish skills and learn more about sustainability and nutrition. Then I’ll join other fellows for an #AsiaFoodTour next spring, where we will go to Southeast Asia, explore the culture, and eat some great food.

Whenever I feel myself becoming anxious about my gap year, I remember some of the lyrics from “Unwritten”: “Live your life with arms wide open / Today is where your book begins / and the rest is still unwritten.” During my year abroad, I know that I will face some lows and some difficulties. However, I also know that I’ll experience some amazing moments, meet great people, and grow. The future is uncertain, so the best thing I can do is take life as it comes. When my plane touches down on September 9th, I hope that listening to “Unwritten” will inspire me to have a fulfilling gap year.