The following post was written by Global Gap Year Fellow David Gonzalez Chavez who is spending his Gap Year in Belfast, Ireland.

Congratulations, you’re on a gap year! Here is the perfect blank slate, a new beginning, a time for self-actualization and personal growth and whatever else you could possibly want. Better yet, here’s the money and support you need to accomplish your aspirations for this year.

Sounds great, right? Yeah, totally, but here’s the catch: it’s all up to you. No one can force you to take advantage of your gap year to the fullest, to explore and learn and grow. You could easily just find a comfortable volunteer position and treat it like a 9 to 5, going to work and putting in the minimum effort before going home, watching Netflix, eating takeout, sleeping, and repeating ad infinitum.

I’ve been guilty of this in the past, so I know this trap of normalcy quite well. I look back on the two internships I did during high school, one in NYC and Bogotá, and realize I really didn’t take full advantage of them; I stayed in my house a lot, usually didn’t go out when invited or make an effort to form meaningful relationships, and I stayed well within my comfort zone. My time in those amazing places and positions could’ve been a lot more powerful for me, but I didn’t put in the necessary effort to make that happen.

Going into my volunteer position at Quaker Cottage in Belfast, I made a conscious effort to stick within my comfort zone. In the first weekend, I biked 40 miles to a nearby town with a castle someone had mentioned to me, and since then I’ve done a lot of other (somewhat impulsive) things that have enriched my experience in Northern Ireland so much. I’ve hiked all of the mountains near where I live, I’ve attended yoga and spin and fitness classes, I’ve reached the highest point in Northern Ireland twice, I’ve hiked 50 miles along the West Highland Way in Scotland with 50 excruciating pounds of equipment in my backpack, and I explored the Giant’s Causeway and Derry/Londonderry (depending on your leaning, which I’ll explain in later posts) with Leah Simon–a former fellow who I met up with while she was visiting Northern Ireland.

All of these experiences have made me appreciate the place in which I live so much more, and I really feel fulfilled. And yeah, some of those things were totally unnecessary; why did I need to hike with 50 lbs of equipment, and why didn’t I just take a £2 bus to that castle like a regular person?

The thing is though, if I question every opportunity that comes up in that manner, I’ll just let myself fall back to comfort and normalcy. I don’t want to stay in my comfortable house that’s a whole mountain away from the communities I work with in Belfast, and I don’t want to be the person that always says no when you invite them out to dinner or to the pub or to a Masonic Lodge (that last part could be a whole blog post in itself).

 

My supervisor at Quaker Cottage told me recently that she believes that volunteers get out of the cottage what they put in, and I agree. My favorite memory so far at the cottage has been the day I prepared a build-your-own-pizza activity for an afterschool group; it was a ton of work from planning and buying ingredients to making the dough to getting a feel for the kitchen and oven. I didn’t need to put in any of this effort, but I did and I had an amazing time and so did the kids.

Her lesson is one which I’ve taken to heart not just with my service, but with my entire life during this gap year. This year is my blank slate, and I can choose to fill it up with amazing experiences or keep it sparse–its all up to how much I decide to put into it.