The famous “gap year” volunteer—the student who wants to experience the world either before or during college—is a relatively new concept. The benefits of the gap year for young people are enormous. Many of them simply need time to grow. They need life experience and are excited for something challenging and bold, something different, beyond the scope of the familiar. Back in the early 1990s there weren’t a lot of formal opportunities for students wanting to further their experience and education overseas. Dr. Peter Slowe, a geography professor with some adventurous students, took it upon himself to find an international placement for them. Back then, there wasn’t an Internet full of volunteer organizations vying for volunteers. There weren’t thousands of great, sustainable volunteering non-profits out there for the average student. Instead, Slowe set up his students with some academics he knew in Romania. They took off to teach English and Projects Abroad was born.
I lived in Kenya when I was a child so Africa has always held a special place in my heart. The sunsets were spectacular, like nothing I’ve ever seen anywhere else in the world. They’re orange and pink, expansive, like a painting on velvet. I was only seven when I lived there but I made three lifelong friends—each of them uniquely bright, energized, curious, and kind. I fed giraffes and walked with elephants. I tended a carnivorous pitcher plant in my own backyard. Africa is magical. It’s full of incredible creatures, each more fascinating than the last—the stark stripes of the zebra, the proboscis of the anteater, the mischievous cunning of the spider monkey. And it’s full of incredible people, many of whom face unimaginable challenges and hardships. Organizations that serve Africa help to protect this magical place while they help to improve the lives of her people. If you have never been to Africa, go! It will change your life forever.
Sustainability is such a buzzword these days. It’s one of those words that reflect a way of thinking about the world. It evokes renewable resources, carbon-neutral living, eco-friendliness, and organic food. Conservative talking heads hate the word because it implies a move away from big agricultural subsidies, mono-farming, and corporate globalization. It’s about getting back to basics—growing your own vegetables, shopping locally, and composting. But the word has academic implications too. It calls for a cultural shift away from blind consumerism and towards accountability. In many ways sustainability is anathema in the United States. It seems that way to me. I grew up in a generation of consumers: plastics, Styrofoam, and waste. When I was a kid, I wasn’t conscious of the damage my consumer habits were causing. I think many of us have had a rude awakening in the past decade or so.
Sometimes it’s difficult to comprehend disadvantage. Living here, in the United States, I have so many luxuries. While I am not rich compared to my neighbors, I am a millionaire compared to so many people in the world. It’s easy to see yourself through the lens of your own culture—to forget that, on a global scale, the picture is so dramatically different. I thought about this a lot at the beginning of the Occupy movement. Here were millions of Americans, rallying together to fight the 1%, the people in America who enjoy the vast majority of the wealth. Who were we fighting for? We were fighting for the rest of our population—the 99% of Americans who pay taxes, fall behind on mortgages with outrageous interest rates, default on student loans, and can’t find gainful employment. There is no doubt—the way America works is deeply flawed and innocent, hard-working people suffer—but what I think we forget is that, on the global stage, Americans are the 1%. We are the privileged. This is what it means to have a global perspective.
Aldeas de Paz is a Venezuelan NGO with a history of inspired service. In 1995 a German entrepreneur named Manfred Mönninghoff was volunteering on a humanitarian project in Merida, Venezuela. The project was focused on integrating street children and at risk youth into more stable environments via school, community projects, and foster families. It was a grassroots effort, as so many humanitarian projects are, and it inspired Mönninghoff to do more, to dedicate his life (and his life savings) to the service of children with an organization dedicated to their care. In 2001, he formed Fundación Aldeas de Paz, a volunteer-based NGO in Caracas. Today, that NGO is based in Santa Elena, a gold and diamonds mining town in the heart of the remote Canaima National Park, on the border with Brazil and Guyana. The location is isolated, beautiful, and culturally and ecologically important.