Photo courtesy of Laura Keaton.

Photo courtesy of Laura Keaton.

The article is in partnership with Global Citizen Year. Learn about their plethora of awesome gap year programs and apply!

By Laura Keaton, University of North Carolina, Wilmington (Guatemala 2010)

We often view ourselves as the stars of our own autobiographical films. I admit that I certainly thought a bridge year in Guatemala was going to make my film quite exciting. Yet I didn’t expect for my role as the protagonist to fall away and morph into something more akin to a film photographer, always taking note of the action in the scene and looking for the meaning behind it. In this role I learned many lessons, two of the most important of which stemmed from the same phenomenon that first led me to drop my starring role: I laid off my personal monologue.

I remember being greeted by my host mother Josefina for the first time on the doorstep of her bright orange house. My Global Citizen Year program director had just left when she asked me a question I didn’t comprehend; naturally, I smiled and shyly laugh-spoke “sí.” (This and “gracias” were my go-to lines for weeks.) Thus I was ushered into the family truck and off we went—as I would soon find out—to meet Josefina’s sister, Gloria. We sat down at her table and Gloria kindly served me a crunchy fried tortilla spread with refried black beans and a sprinkling of queso fresco. (This would later be crowned as my favorite Guatemalan meal.) They did all the speaking. I ate and recognized random words here and there. Over the next weeks I did much the same; I ate and listened. (Gained a lot of weight, too, but mostly just listened.) Little did I expect, three months later I would be understanding long conversations. I would also better able to express myself, but most of my coworkers and relatives had become accustomed to my quiet presence. For the first time in my life I felt comfortable sitting and listening for long stretches of time without offering any thoughts.

This practice came in handy while working with two Guatemalan homemakers on vision campaigns in rural villages across the country. I heard how the community members were confronted with daily struggles I had never met with at home. I was able to view the world anew from their perspective as they shared it with me. It was also impossible to distract myself by thinking of a response in the moment, given the sheer amount of concentration it took just to follow what they were saying. Later I would turn the day’s experiences over in my head, examining them from the perspective of the person who told it to me, imagining how my mother would see it, and often asking Josefina what she thought. I also considered it from the perspective of my own life experience.

Repeating this thought process taught me to value my viewpoint as unique. I had gotten a small but revealing glimpse into diversity of thought that exists in the world, and realized I was an important part of it. In short, I became more confident of myself. At the same time, I became more conscious of all that I did not know. The combination of these life lessons was, in effect, the perfect precursor to my college studies. I understood what is important in a grander sense than just the basic value of education. I had an idea of what was valuable to the world. Better yet, these formative lessons were able to inform my higher education, and thus the effects keep amplifying themselves to this day. And best of all, the film’s just getting started.

Today I’m writing from Spain, where I’m quickly approaching the end of a one-year contract as an assistant English teacher. After benefiting from the way that Global Citizen Year had enabled me to reflect and prepare for the exciting opportunities of college life, I felt inspired to take another bridge year. Even though I knew it would be a big challenge, I felt unafraid because I had done it before. Now I’m looking forward to taking on my next challenge, whatever it may be.

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