The following post was written by Global Gap Year Fellow Matthew Lu.
Adulting is scary. Though I turned 18 at the start of the summer, I still feel as if I haven’t changed at all from the 17 year old who was about to begin his last year of high school at this same time a year ago. Really though, a whole new chapter of my life is unfolding; one where I will be traveling thousands of miles away from my parents, my friends, and the people I’ve known my whole life.
Though this is true of my gap year, it is also true of my university experience. I am one of the rare out of state students who is not only out of state, but international. The depth of trying to adjust to a new life in a new university, in a new country for four years is slightly daunting. Perhaps I’ll try one year abroad volunteering, just as a teaser. That’ll be easier, right?
Honestly the implications didn’t really start to hit me until I actually entered the GGYF Summer Institute. Even after attending the finalist selection weekend and receiving emails with the amazing interns there, the threat of high school finals bearing down on my mind forced me away from even considering my gap year plans, even as they began to crystallize around me. Once I arrived at UNC though, the deluge of information about budgeting, cultural adaptation, and service placements began to flood my mind. I went from not having to worry about my day-to-day life to panicking about everything I’ll need to survive, like securing a living arrangement and budgeting for food.
On the one hand, this sense of panic was slightly refreshing. It was a marked difference from the day-to-day struggle of forgetting homework, last minute assignments, and unprepared for tests. On the other hand, it was also quite stressful. I had never dealt with this before. Thankfully, the Summer Institute didn’t stop at introducing us to these issues and letting us flounder on our own. Of course, GGYF will not hover over our backs and complete all the important tasks for us, the Summer Institute provided many helpful tips about living abroad successfully. Slowly, through the multitude of workshops, I began to see my gap year less as a scary place full of infinite dangers to navigate, and more of a path with many interesting twists and turns to explore. I mean really, renting isn’t that hard. I made it seem much worse than it was. Really, all I had to do was search through Airbnb for longer than a couple minutes.
Planning my gap year has happened slowly but surely. The way that my plan to volunteer with a rural outreach organization in Guangdong, China slowly clicked into place was reminiscent of a petulant child finishing a puzzle. He starts to make progress, but once he gets stuck he drifts away again before becoming reinvigorated by the prospect of finishing the puzzle. In the same way, I put together my first placement in bursts. Figuring out my schedule, finding a place to live, scrutinizing a map so I don’t get lost on my first day, and talking to various friends of friends in order to create a network that I could rely on once I arrived.
The moral of the story is that things rarely are as bad as they seem at first glance. Like a famous Chinese philosopher, Lao Tsu, said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The Summer Institute helped me break apart my daunting thousand-mile journey into a couple of little steps, which when added together will most definitely allow me to see the world in a different light.