My name is Jake Leary and I am currently a freshman at Harvard University, but the journey to get on campus has taken me from Massachusetts, around the world, and back home. I do not know my concentration (Havard’s fancy term for a major) yet, but I am very interested in Government and East Asian Studies. I am from Brockton, Massachusetts and attended high school in Boston. I was very involved in our writing club, jazz band, yearbook publication, and running cross-country for four years in high school. In the fall of 2016, as I went into my senior year, I had no idea that I would be taking gap year after graduating and travelling the world to countries like China and Peru. I did not really even know what a gap year was, nor that a gap year was possible for me. However, looking back on it, this became the best possible path for me to take.
During the final month of my senior year in high school, I decided I wanted to take a gap year. After thinking long and hard about it, I knew that I needed to give myself a break. This was not only a break from the routines of school and school work, but a deep breath to slow my life down.
As I look back on my senior year of high school, it turned out as the most stressful year of school for me and it didn’t allow me time to consider the next step after college. If I went straight into studying in college, I would have felt the burnout from high school, but luckily, I felt supported when I told my close friends, teachers, and mentors at my high school. However, I kept getting asked the same, repetitive question: “So what are you going to do?”. I had not given much thought to this which I probably should have, but I responded: “I might want to travel, but I will figure it out.” This simple, general response probably scared a bit those who asked, especially my school’s principal and president, when their valedictorian essentially had no clue what he was doing with this year off.
Despite the little worry I had about my future plans, I knew that everything would work out. This self-assured feeling became especially true when I found out about EdOdyssey after graduating. I had an inkling that I wanted to travel, and EdOdyssey’s several travel destinations for students intrigued me. After talking with EdOdyssey about possible plans for my gap year travels, I became very excited to embark on this journey.
Prior to my gap year, I had never travelled outside of the United States and felt something missing from the experiences in my life. With a desire to learn Mandarin for the first time, my first destination that I decided to travel to was China, halfway across the world. At 18, if you told me that I was moving to China, I would have never believed you. After arriving at night in Beijing, I was a little intimidated to say the least, since I could basically only say 你好 (hello) in Mandarin. After arriving in China, my hosts referred me to a breakfast that I later found because I was starving after 19 hours of travel. Now it was time for me to order something to the best of my ability which turned into an unforgettable experience.
Luckily, when I went to the counter of the restaurant, a boy around my age who spoke some English helped me order my soup and baozi--a steamed bun filled with meat-- which felt strange eating meat at 9am. Despite my reservations, I took my food and sat down at a communal table and started a conversation with a woman and her parents, from what I could tell. Although the meat tasted great, they noticed that I did not love my soup so they handed me a warm piece of bread. I told them my story through Google translate and then asked them where I could buy bottled water. After finishing eating, they walked me all the way to the grocery store. Despite a language barrier, it was these complete strangers’ natural instinct to help me. This kind of hospitality and friendliness I later continued to experience and encounter throughout my entire trip in China.
One of my favorite experiences in China was when I studied Mandarin for the first time in my life in the small city of Guilin (population of 5 million, a small city for China standards). At the language school recommended by EdOdyssey (Chinese Language Institute), it was extremely valuable to have one-on-one classes with my Chinese teacher, and solely focus on my study of Mandarin. Since I did not take Mandarin classes in high school, it made a tremendous difference studying a new language in its native country. I took what I learned in my classes and practiced persistently when I asked locals questions, went out to eat, and explored the city. My experience with Mandarin challenged me, but I did not feel as intimidated as I first thought. Even though I studied hard, I met tons of new and incredible people and had loads of fun simultaneously.
Reflecting on my experience in China, I now realize how valuable it truly was for all of the amazing people I met, my newfound interest in Mandarin, and personal growth made. If I had not received all of the help and guidance from EdOdyssey for my trip to China, I would never have met such amazing friends that brought me back to China this past summer to visit. I also would not have decided to continue my study of Mandarin here at Harvard. As I entered my first Mandarin class this fall at Harvard, I felt very prepared and confident in my foundation of Mandarin that I had established abroad. Within my first week of Mandarin class, while some of my peers struggled to introduce themselves, I could hold conversations with my teachers. After my travels in China, I thought about improving my Spanish, which I could not speak and hold a conversation a year ago.
Soon after my trip to China, I decided that one country would not suffice for my year off, and through EdOdyssey, I headed south to explore Peru. Initially, I felt worried about traveling to Peru because I thought about how I would essentially start from scratch again in a new country. I wanted a new and fresh experience in Peru, one entirely different from mine in China. This fear quickly disappeared as I fell in love with Peru’s numerous destinations, diverse culture, and delicious cuisine.
My homestay experience shaped my entire time in Peru. Living in Lima, with a central location close to all of the restaurants, shops, and downtown area was very convenient. I was only a walk away from one of Lima’s central parks Parque Kennedy with numerous restaurants and shops and the area that overlooked the Pacific Ocean Malecón de Miraflores where I enjoyed morning runs. My helpful host family got me acclimated to this new environment and showed me around to their favorite spots in Lima several times. In my unique homestay experience I only spoke Spanish in the home, forcing me to significantly improve it. I loved sitting with my host parents during meals while eating some of the best food I’ve ever eaten and learning more about Peru, South America, and my host parents’ lives. A cultural difference that I realized, the affection exuded by everyone I met, I soon came to love, with constant hugs and kisses when greeting someone. This speaks volumes to how much love and passion Peruvians truly have in their lives.
I loved most in Peru when I had the opportunities to give back in the form of volunteer work. Going to the community of Pamplona Alta in Lima exposed me to the hardships of many living in Peru, but also the great sense of perseverance and strong-will that its people possess. I helped in constructing concrete stairs, as the citizens of Pamplona Alta must climb the mountain-sides daily. After my experiences in Peru, I learned that life does not have to be so constantly fast-paced as we sometimes make it. This has helped me in how I go about living my life, in handling any stress and managing my time in the best way possible. I have learned to approach life with a more easy-going attitude that I know will stay with me.
In summary, the opportunities to travel because of EdOdyssey have changed my life in a very positive manner. Before my gap year, with a shy and timid personality, I mainly stuck to routines. Through travel, I have grown to become more independent and adventurous. I have also in the process become a strong advocate for students taking a gap year. An amazing chance to learn more about yourself, outside of the comforts of what you are used to, a gap year is transformative. It is a time to take a risk, but a risk with infinite benefits. Nevertheless, I would give the idea of going abroad with EdOdyssey serious thought and you may find yourself reflecting on it, and maybe even writing a blog about your experiences, in one year’s time!