Study Abroad – Enhanced Value of Having a Gap Year There

November 11, 2023 at 10:34 PM
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Study Abroad – Enhanced Value of Having a Gap Year There

By Lizzie Gurwitz UA’24 and Jim Stellar

Lizzie spent a year in Israel and we keep having fascinating conversations about what a study abroad program can do for a student that compares to spending a whole year abroad. Lizzie, can you give me a first impression of how living outside the United States for this year affected you?

I had the unique experience of taking an entire year off between my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college. Senior year of high school is a confusing time for many. At that point in my life, there were so many unknowns about the impending future and I was just beginning to learn who I am as an individual. These uncertainties in my life paired with the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, I decided that this was the perfect time to air out and explore some of these unknowns. Spending a year abroad, I found myself immersed in an entirely new environment and surrounded by new people all in a language I was not entirely comfortable in. At such an important time of self-discovery, this was an opportunity to forge my own path away from expectations that both I and others may have had for me.

Excellent.  So what is the new direction (or confirmed direction) that emerged?

Living abroad for a year, surrounded by completely new faces was a transformative experience that pushed me to explore my individuality. I dove into the unknown, finding myself in new situations and challenges like having multiple internships and smaller tasks like learning to navigate a foreign bus system. For a good part of the year, I volunteered in a transplant unit in a large hospital where I completed various tasks ranging from transporting patients around the hospital to recording vitals. Not only was I familiarizing myself with the fast-paced hospital environment, but it was all in a language that I was not comfortable speaking. There I was, fresh out of high school, immersed in an entirely new environment and I had the opportunity to either sink or swim.

Through experiences like working in this hospital, I got the opportunity to get to know myself in a way I never had before. Leading up to that year I had always been fearful of new situations and the unknown. This environment forced me out of my comfort zone in every way imaginable. I learned all about resilience and embracing challenges rather than shying away.

So what happened when you came back?  Did that re-entry experience improve your flexibility?

After getting comfortable and finding home in a new place, I packed up what had been my world for a year into two suitcases and returned to my childhood home on Long Island. I was greeted by my family and dog and then made my way upstairs to my room. Standing in the center of a room that I grew up in, I felt a comfort and a familiarity, but also a new feeling. One that I was not used to feeling in this space. In that moment, as I observed the posters on the walls and the books on my shelves, it hit me just how much I had grown during my year abroad.

That year had been filled with learning about myself and the world around me. I learned what a new level of freedom feels like. I learned to navigate entirely new situations. I learned how to face challenges head on. All of this gave me a new confidence in myself and it gave me a clearer picture of who I was as a person.

The growth that came along with this major switch up of my routine definitely improved my cognitive flexibility. This was invaluable as I almost immediately jumped into college- yet another new environment. I can relate my experience in each of these new environments to my studying of George Stratton’s prism experiments, where he had participants wear goggles that shifted their vision slightly to the side and after a time they adapted. After periods of being in a new place, there is a point in which my perception is flipped and I am adjusted to my new environment. While a major change in environment has never been a complete walk in the park for me, with each change, the adjustment grows easier. Interestingly in the Stratton experiments mentioned above, after the people adapted to the visual shift after wearing the goggles when they took them off they had to adapt to normal vision as the world seemed to shift for a while in the other direction. I felt I had that same reaction when I returned.

This experience fits with the general way the brain adapts to new situations and often people are not aware of the adaptation (e.g. you do not feel your underwear but you did when you first put them on).  The brain seems at all levels to practice this adaptation from the eye to the emotions.  It even happens with something as abstract as happiness. And this will be our next blog.

ADHD – brain structure and function – a focus on emotions and the amygdala

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