By Sophie Zeigler, parent of current AMIGOS Gap Uruguay volunteer Reed. Sophie will be visiting Reed next month in Uruguay to see the beautiful city of Montevideo from his perspective! She is happy to share her parent’s guide to gap years below.
It was late August, a couple of weeks before my son Reed’s departure for Uruguay, and I was feeling remarkably pleased with myself for having found a way to postpone the inevitable (and to hear my friends describe it, generally fraught) ritual of a shopping trip to Bed, Bath and Beyond to find the perfect extra-long twin sheets and matching dorm room accouterments.
In fact, in comparison to my cohort of parents with college-bound kids, I felt downright relaxed.
Not that the preparation for Reed’s upcoming four-month gap year adventure to a country so distant that it was experiencing the opposite season was without tribulation and anxiety. There were my lengthy (though surreptitious) searches for ways to guard against potentially life-threatening diseases, the eleventh-hour visit to the travel clinic for a missed TB test, the heated battle over the appropriate outerwear for all the possibly dire weather events I had conjured, and the sinking feeling that for us there would be no reassuring parents weekend or Thanksgiving break visits…among other things.
So why, I wondered, did I have this feeling of relative calm during one of the most difficult periods of transition a parent and child must navigate?
On reflection, I think it came down to two things:
First, Reed’s clarity about his desire to try something completely different immediately after high school.
Second, our confidence, based on both our research and the experience of friends, in the AMIGOS program.
While navigating the ups, downs, and unknowns of the whole stressful college process, the one thing Reed knew for sure from early on in his senior year was that he wanted to take a gap year before jumping into college. He also knew he wanted to travel outside the US and improve his Spanish-speaking skills. His dad and I were on board, but we wanted him to be more than just a tourist or student of Spanish, so we went on a search for a program that would allow him to go a little deeper into a particular culture.
I had heard about AMIGOS from several different friends whose sons and daughters had participated in summer sessions in Latin America, and they all raved about it, so when we read about its gap year programs we were immediately excited.
We loved that Reed would be connected to a cohort of American peers, while also living with a family and participating in the community through an internship. We also loved how thoughtful the structure was in easing the transition: initially, there would be time to get to know the other students and the lay of the land, then there would be time to build his Spanish skills and settle into life with a family, and finally, he would begin a two and a half month internship, which seemed long enough to really develop some new skills.
We also felt relieved that the program clearly prioritized health and safety, and had a robust staff in the country to check up on the students. Add to that an opportunity for a few excursions with the group, and we were sold. It wasn’t easy to decide between Ecuador and Uruguay, but ultimately Montevideo seemed the most exciting to him.
Two months in, we couldn’t be happier with our decision.
Reed sounds happy and engaged, clearly enjoys spending time with his host family, and says his internship is “great.” He’s apparently working with kids from ages 12-18, mostly teaching English but also helping with some history classes. He says his job involves some “wrangling” as the classes are fairly big, but that he’s already seen a lot of progress in individual students who are really enthusiastic about speaking English with him.
We also learned, to our immense surprise, that he’s now a fan of South American soccer, and for a kid who never showed the least interest in professional sports, that’s the clearest proof we could have that he’s fully immersed in the culture!
We have yet to meet any parents who have said they had regrets about their children’s decisions to take a gap year.
Even parents whose kids had some bumpy times, like joining programs that did not meet their expectations, said their children grew in ways they could not have predicted and that would not have been possible had they gone straight to college. Our hope for Reed is that he returns home with a renewed sense of wonder and possibility.
We are also excited that he will begin college already fortified with the confidence to navigate completely unfamiliar places, situations, and new people – after all, if English is spoken, how hard can it be? As long as he doesn’t decide to become a Uruguayan citizen, we can’t imagine having any regrets!