"Our priorities shift when we realize we have the freedom to create our own lives."
Marichelle Gurski had a lot of unanswered questions. She'd made a pact with herself that after high school, she'd travel and immerse herself in a completely different culture. When her sister came back from a whirlwind trip, Marichelle spent extra time with her, just trying to live vicariously.
"I began to take the time to ask questions like, "What does my heart long to see over the mountains?" says Marichelle. "And decided that I wanted to do something for myself to answer these questions."
This train of thought led her to get ahead in her coursework at the community college, and when she finally took the "leap into the unknown," as she says, everything fell into place.
Marichelle is an incredible human and I feel lucky to have crossed her path. As you can see in her answers to my questions below, she's very thorough and tackled any issues she had in planning for her gap year head on by educating herself on potential issues.
This interview is long, but I promise it's worth it.
What did the process look like when you were planning?
I knew that when I took my Gap year this would be the first time that I would be traveling outside of the United States. I wanted to make sure that I was in a program that fit my needs and would support me through this transition of my life.
So I did my research. I reached out by email and tried to make connections with as many people as I could. It first began with just sending out an inquiry to all the different abroad organizations. I would go back and forth with emails, but then these emails would turn into phone calls and phone calls would turn into connecting with someone over tea.
I really would take time to listen to other people's experiences that had taken a gap year, I would bring my notebook and write down all the information they had given me.
I would ask them for references and recommendations on books, movies, media, that I could use to educate myself.
For me, this was a huge part of the planning process. I felt by reading these books I could begin to have a taste of the culture and visualize the experience that was yet to come. I spent a good six months reading any book I could get my hands on from Eastern Philosophy, to historical novels, political essays and folk tales. Looking back I know it helped me come to terms with a lot of things that I struggled to understand about different cultures as well.
When I had finally been accepted to my program I went all out in my preparations. I wrote down a list of my obstacles and I tried to brainstorm ways to counter them.
So for example, in India, I knew one of the biggest obstacles I would face is gender barriers so I took it upon myself to read as many books as I could about that social issue so I could understand from different perspectives.
I also knew I would be on 35-mile trek, so to get myself physically prepared I would pack my backpack a ridiculous 50-lbs and I'd have friends and family drop me 6 miles from my house and walk back twice a week or I would go on nature walks in the backwoods.
I found this method to be very useful way to deal with my obstacles.
I used it again a second time around when I left for SEASIA. I knew in Thailand that my biggest obstacle would be language barriers, so I would teach myself the basics of the language. I also did a lot research for this trip and it helped me to draw out a map and plan my route with bullet points of specific goals or things I wanted to achieve.
What were you most nervous about before leaving?
I was very nervous about how I would fit in the dynamics of my group. I am very shy and am an introvert by heart, so it's very hard for me to be around people constantly all the time.
I find it to be draining and all I knew was I was going to meet 10 people who were essentially strangers at the San Francisco Airport with no prior contact. And then we were going to be together as one big happy family for 3 months in India.
I had no idea what to expect: I didn’t know who they were, it sounded crazy in my mind. But I wanted to challenge myself and confront this fear and share my experience with others who could support me.
Of course I had other fears, I was nervous about what would happen. I was nervous about how I would be able to adapt to Indian culture. What would that even look like?
I knew that the hardest thing for me in India would be finding a way to cope with the soul-crushing poverty. I had read about it in all my books and did my research—the poverty in India is very real and it can be overwhelming sometimes. I’m a very empathetic individual and when I see someone in pain it stays with me.
I feel so often we can become numb or desensitized to violence or poverty with constant exposure, but the first man I saw with the same amount of intensity as all the others. My reaction has never been able to adjust. These were very real concerns and I knew I had to find some way to cope.
And when it came a time again to travel to SEASIA, I was extremely nervous about traveling by myself. And my family was also nervous for me! They filled my head with crazy scenarios or terrible new media on female solo travelers. Just horror stories on what could happen. It began to wear down my confidence in my mind, I didn't know for sure if I could do it. I decided I wouldn’t know until I went.
In my gap year, everything was planned in my semester program. But now I was taking the reins so to speak and designing my own adventure. Which means I had to take full accountability for whatever went right or wrong.
It was exhilarating to be able to test myself and use what I had learned from my previous experience. But I still was nervous about how I would get from point A to B, and about language barriers. How was going to be able to communicate my needs when my vocabulary of the language is less than a 2-year-old native speaker? My mind would spend hours going through all the what if scenarios: What if this happens? What if that goes wrong? What will I do? Where will I go? Who can help me?
What did you do on your gap year?
My Gap year entailed traveling, independent work, and an internship. When I began this Gap year experience, I had no idea what to expect when I came home.
The beginning of my Gap year was organized. I was in a spring semester program with Carpe Diem Education’s India program (SHANTI). During my time in India, I traveled in a group with 10 other people who at the beginning were strangers at the airport but now have become like family.
We traveled in a Northern loop through India where every day was saturated with the most intense experiences I've ever had in my life. We were fully immersed in the culture and I became friends with the locals who let me see into their world.
Just to name a few of the experiences I had in India: Painting Internship in Varanasi, worked with other international volunteers at Mother Teresa home in Kolkata, volunteered at government school and rehab center, trekked through the world's highest peaks, spent a week in silence at an ashram, learned about organic and sustainable farm practices, did meditation studies at Deer Park, and lived with Tibetan refugees.
I was also enrolled at the time at Portland State University through Carpe Diem and received credit for studying art, psychology and philosophy.
When I returned home I faced reverse culture shock and began feel a bit disconnected from the life-changing experience I had just had. So to connect with the things I had learned in India I began to volunteer in my community by working at a Permaculture farm.
I spent 6 months learning how to grow my own food and about organic and sustainable farming in the United States. I also attended a weekly West African Dance class and would go dance with my friends in the park. This was very good way to create my own culture and community back home.
The final part of my Gap year, I spent traveling for 4 months independently through SEASIA where I again took the things I learned from my time in India. I did an Art Therapy Internship for one month in Northern Thailand with the NGO Cultural Canvas Art Relief International so I could finally get the first-hand experience in the field of Art Therapy.
During this time I worked with the minority populations in Thailand where I designed and implemented my own Art Therapy workshops. After my internship I traveled through Northern Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, while connecting with local contacts and volunteer opportunities in the community teaching English, building an earth home, painting murals for an NGO, and celebrating holidays with the locals.
When I take the time to reflect on my gap year, I had never planned on going on a full gap year. I set out, in the beginning, to just do a semester in India and return to my studies in the fall. But things change and our priorities shift when we realize we have the freedom to create our own lives provided we deal with the consequences of our decisions.
So, the last part of my gap year was not planned out. I just knew I wanted to travel again. And I just went along with the flow figuring it out along the way.
The time I spent in SEASIA was a very rewarding experience that taught me you don’t have to know everything, you just have the courage to try.
Tomorrow, we'll hear about how Marichelle's love for art was fostered during her gap year, and what advice she has for others considering taking time off.