The following post was written by Global Gap Year Fellow Val Orozco.

One of the biggest goals I had for my gap year was to become more independent. Growing up, my family was the center of my life (and still is, to be honest). During senior year, hearing about how my friends were ready to move out and do their own thing, away from their parents made me want to explore my life outside of home too. I just got back to DC from spending almost two months at home for the holidays, and it was so much harder to leave than when I first got here.

I’ve been working at the Youth Leadership Foundation in Washington, DC for about 6 months now. My internship started as supporting the social media team and being a tutor, but it evolved into creating a whole new afterschool program and conference that includes high schoolers and college students. I’ve had the chance to explore non-profit management from social media content creation to administrative and development work. My dad and I joke around that I’ve had more corporate America experience in six months than I ever want to have again in my lifetime. Being in Washington has been an incredibly rewarding experience where I’ve had the ability to explore a wonderful city while gaining genuine work experience at a non-profit that works with youth.

Getting to my placement and getting used to a quiet house without all of my siblings running around asking my mom for where their soccer jersey was or when their next dentist appointment was definitely took some time. I live in an Opus Dei house called the Yuma Center, where women of Catholic faith with a vow to apostolic celibacy live together. The building used to be an old school but was renovated by the numeraries (the women who are celibate) into a very cozy and lovely home. It gives off the dark academia vibes from Harry Potter while being warm and welcoming at the same time. Because of covid, the numeraries opened one side of the building to be rented out to college students in the area. That’s where me and my roommate Mariana, a curly-headed Venezuelan-Salvadorian girl with just as much ADHD as me, come in.

Mariana has become one of my best friends, setting very high expectations for whoever is my roommate at UNC. We are two peas in a pod– we cook together, study, work, and go on adventures. Hitting up Target at 9 pm has become one of our favorite things to do when we’re craving chocolate and lime-Tostitos. Thanks to Mariana I have started reading up on theology and philosophy a lot more; something I didn’t think I was interested in until after I read Dante’s Inferno at her request. I’m writing this as we’re sitting in my bed taking a break from our month-long Dan and Phil YouTube video marathon. Who knew that watching two British white guys play video games would be so entertaining? Mariana and I have been inseparable since we met, and she became like an older sister to me as time went on. By Thanksgiving, we had baked dozens of sugar cookies and even gotten ourselves an advent calendar to count down the days until we went home; me back to Greensboro and her back to LA.

I was fortunate enough to be able to come home for the holidays. If 2020 were a normal year, I might’ve been abroad! Christmas with my nuclear family was amazing– celebrating our Colombian novena traditions with my family members over Zoom made me yearn for when I lived in Colombia and could see them all; dancing, singing, eating, and being a family. My mom did her best for all of us to feel the Christmas spirit– going as far as to get all of us matching pajamas. My siblings and I spent so much time together that we started enjoying each other’s company… to the point where my brothers stopped being Duke fans.

Getting home and breaking the routine of working 20+ hours a week was a relief, but getting back in rhythm was a whole other story. I had told myself that I would be driving back to DC between January 3-7th. I wanted to get back to work and continue my rhythm, but I kept putting off thinking about departure. After January 6th’s disastrous events at the Capitol, I pushed back my departure date again to the 17th, which then became January 23rd, and finally January 31st. Why did it take me so long to leave the place that I was so desperate to get out of back in September?

I found after my time in DC that living alone in a place far from home doesn’t equate independence; it just gives me a lot more things to worry about. Groceries, rent, social interaction, time management, meal prep– all of these things that my parents would do with me fell onto me hard and fast. At first, I would accidentally make enough food for 7 people, because that’s how much food I was used to cooking with my dad back home. Every day I would forget to take my medications unless my mom texted me to remind me. Staying under budget for food was a struggle at first, and I remember half of my food would go bad before the month was over. Going back home took those anxieties and extra work away from my shoulders, making me appreciate it so much more. You don’t realize how useful a dishwasher is until you have to handwash all of your dishes.

I found myself a place to do my work at my 8-year-old brother’s homework desk while he was at school during the day. Work went on like normal; calls, planning, meetings, etc, and I worked from home. Doing things remotely was different and a little bit exhausting, but it wasn’t anything a quick run to Cookout or Bojangles with one of my brothers couldn’t fix. Home became more than a place that signified my childhood and reminded me of how weird I was in high school, it became a place where I wanted to be. Being away from home improved my relationship with my parents and siblings, as well as teaching me that there was a lot more to do in the next chapter of my life; that college would be a whole new experience.

After much thought and reflection, I have decided that in the coming weeks as my internship begins to wind down and I’m looking for my next placement, I’m going to be going back home to Greensboro. There is a lot of the city that I haven’t had the chance to explore (yet I have been the first one to call it Greensboring when someone asks me where I’m from) and there are a lot of friends that I haven’t seen since pre-covid, so it will be the perfect transition for me.

I hope to reach my other goals that I set at the beginning of my gap year as I continue to trek through being a young person during the pandemic; however, now I have a better understanding of what kind of independence I wanted and needed. It was self-confidence. Becoming more confident in my individual abilities has made me more independent than physical distance from home ever could. I am much more secure with my own company, the way others perceive me, and how I want to portray who I am via fashion or art. I feel much more ready to dive into shaping my identity now than I did before I got to the Capitol.