I decided to do a gap year abroad after high school in order to capitalize on a time where I had little responsibilities... and a lot to learn! At first, it was difficult for me make the decision to go abroad for a long period of time, since I had never been abroad for more than a couple of months. I was worried that I would be behind in college, it would be hard to come back to school, and I wouldn't graduate on time. The experience I gained definitely outweighed my previous concerns. I used this time to learn, gather experience, and grow. My gap year offered me many more opportunities than I could have hoped for. I realized that my gap year, and the experience I gained made me stand out when I applied for positions and colleges. Five years later, and it is still one of the first things people ask me about in interviews.
Since I was not going to school that year, I essentially used college money to buy a plane ticket and spend while I was there. The Sudanese dinar is very weak, and the exchange rate worked to my benefit as an American traveler. I found jobs teaching English and tutoring after I arrived.
I wish I would have known that I wasn't unrealistic! Taking a gap year is something that other people do, and anyone who chooses to can do. People often made comments questioning whether a year travel would hinder my life and accomplishments. I can gladly say that I think it did just the opposite, and truly helped me evaluate what I wanted as a student and a person.
I experienced stereotypes surrounding my American nationality. People questioned why I wore hijab (a headscarf) if I was American. I didn't experience discrimination because of my background, but I did find that colorism was very integrated into the culture. Sudanese people have varying, melanous skin tones, and lighter skin tones are seen as more beautiful. As a Black American, I felt uncomfortable and offended when people would say I wasn't black, or that I was lucky because my skin was not as dark as theirs. I learned that beauty standards and the value placed on skin tone are both relative and man made. The only person who can define your beauty is you!
My gap year abroad has benefitted me by establishing a foundation for my life. My experienced sparked a passion of travel, my field of study, my life goals, and my happiness. I learned a lot, and to this day can see how it has improved my life in every aspect.
One of the most memorable moments of my experience was near the end of my time in Sudan. I was driving my friends home, and we were laughing and having a great time. I realized in that moment that Sudan felt like my home. It no longer felt like I was visiting, or that my journey and connection was temporary. It was real! This is me! I had established a life for myself there.
My year in Sudan definitely cemented my interest in pursuing arabic language acquisition. I was able to learn basic phrases, which led to me studying Arabic when returning home. My time abroad, and specifically my time teaching and volunteering, gave me experience that I could put on my CV. I think one of the most important things I gained from my gap year, was time and exploration. I was able to come to a decision on what I wanted out of my life and how I wanted to fulfill that with my career. To some, their career may not need to align with their personal goals, but to me it was very important to figure out how to do something I loved.
I did not go to Sudan with a specific program. I researched universities, programs, and volunteer positions before leaving, but did not find one that worked for me until a few weeks after I arrived. I volunteered in the English department at the University of Medical Sciences and Technology and enrolled in an Arabic language program at Africa University. I went on excursions with the medical students at UMST to Sabaloga. I also taught English and volunteered at an NGO that supplied resources for people in Khartoum with physical disabilities. People and places are very accessible in comparison to the US. Most of the opportunities I found were from walking into an organization or institution, starting a conversation, and letting them know I was interested in working with them!
I would recommend doing a program at UMST or finding a place to volunteer that interests you.
I would definitely recommend to be fearless, go out, and make things happen! It's hard not to let people and the educational system pressure you into thinking that taking year off will be a mistake that will put you so far behind, it will be impossible to catch up. It was definitely not the case for me. Taking a gap year was the best decision I have made for myself and my education this far.