A Life-Changing Gap Year Experience in Nicaragua
Haley wasn’t ready for college. The just-18 year old felt she needed a break after high school. She began researching long-term international volunteer placements when her parents insisted she do something productive during her gap year.
“I had traveled in Italy before,” she says, “But I wanted to go somewhere other than Europe - somewhere less expensive and maybe closer.”
Nicaragua offered both economy and relative proximity to Haley’s home in south Texas. Plus, it was a place where Haley could work on her Spanish, a language she’d studied in school.
ELI placed her in Granada, the beautiful colonial city in western Nicaragua, located on Lake Nicaragua, one of the world’s largest lakes. The area has everything: historically and culturally important sites, water, lush green hills and even volcanoes.
Haley lived in a guesthouse with other international volunteers, and for four months worked at a daycare of a center for young unwed mothers and underprivileged children. On weekends she and her housemates would take side trips, exploring much of southwestern Nicaragua.
Was it hard living and working on her own in a foreign country, at just 18?
“My age really wasn’t a factor, “ she says. “I was often with other volunteers, and some of them were my age, too. We became friends and did a lot together.”
She says volunteering is a great way to hone your traveling skills.
“As a volunteer in Granada, you actually have a lot of support - everyone from your local ELI coordinator, to the people you work for, not to mention other volunteers. It’s actually easier -- and probably safer -- than traveling.”
It didn’t take long for Haley to fall in love with the country, its people and in particular its children.
“I forged very strong relationship with some of the kids” she says. “I miss them, and I can’t wait to go back.”
Time and again, she was struck by the warmth of the people in Granada.
“Locals got to know me because everyday I walked the same route from my guesthouse to the daycare,” she says. “And they would often stop me and chat. They were so amazed and touched that I was volunteering there. Very quickly, I felt a part of the community, and that I was sort of being looked after.”
Haley felt so close to the people and children of Granada, that going home after 4 months was both difficult and disorienting. Right away she experienced the so-called reverse culture shock.
“I felt really strange back in the U.S. Americans’ attitude is very different, and you see that even at the airport before flying home.”
Her hometown seemed to her deserted, its streets empty and its residents hidden indoors or within their cars.
“In Central America, people are everywhere! They walk to the store, they talk to their neighbors and acquaintances, they keep their front doors open to the street. Here people sometimes seemed almost more lonely.”
The wealth of her opportunities also made Haley pause.
“Sometimes I felt almost greedy, because I wasn’t taking care of someone else -- I was just taking care of myself, and doing what was good for me, and not others.”
Frustrations or setbacks quickly clicked into perspective when she recalled the struggles many Nicaraguans face on an everyday basis.
“Sometimes, what would upset some of my friends seemed so inconsequential,” Haley says. “It made me realize that a lof of our problems aren’t real problems at all.”
As her parents had hoped, the trip to Nicaragua was both productive and eye-opening. Haley gained fluency in Spanish; she saw poverty but also saw firsthand how tight family bonds can hold together even the poorest communities.
“Poverty doesn’t diminish the joy of life that you see in Nicaragua,” Haley says. “ I saw some of the saddest sights -- children in need -- but also some of the most beautiful and meaningful as well.”
Today, Haley wants to share what she saw and learned, which is why she’s studying photojournalism. Many of the photos in her college-application portfolio were ones she took in Nicaragua.
“Through my words and photos, I want to make people aware of what’s going on. This trip solidified my desire to tell stories.”
Spoken like a volunteer whose experience was a life changer. We look forward to hearing more from you, Haley.