In a Year Off the Beaten Path, a New Direction for Life
In a Year Off the Beaten Path, a New Direction for LifeBy LAUREN CLARK; As told to PATRICIA R. OLSEN - New York Times, 6/15/2008AT the end of my junior year in high school in Maryland, I realized I wasnít ready to apply to college or take the SAT. I wanted to postpone the whole application process and focus on my studies during senior year. A friend suggested a gap year ó a year to pursue other interests ó after high school.
It sounded perfect. Not only could I get what I wanted out of my senior year, I could also try something that I was interested in before attending college. I had no idea how much the experience would mean for my future.
In the fall of my senior year, I contacted the Center for Interim Programs, a company that arranges gap-year programs for students. I knew I wanted to go to a country where I hadnít been before, and I designed a program with its help. I spent the first half of that year helping villagers in Ghana and the second half studying art history in Italy. My four months in Ghana turned out to be a defining experience. It introduced me to the field of international development.
I lived with a family in Homabenasi, a rural village, and taught English and math to middle-school students. I also helped the community with a project. First, I met with the elders and people from the local government to find out what they needed most. We decided on a library for the middle school. Then I wrote letters to friends and family back in the United States and raised $2,500 to buy the materials and the tools ó everything from cement mix to nails, corrugated tin and window panes.
Along with the other two students working on the project, I organized the villagers and helped to build and furnish the library. I also bought books with some of the money.
When we were done, we instituted a library council, composed of teachers and elders and other respected people in the village, to manage the library after we left. A radio news announcer attended the grand-opening ceremony along with representatives from neighboring school districts. As a token of their appreciation, the villagers gave us traditional garments appropriate for a king and queen of the village. I realized at that ceremony how much the library would mean to the communityís education.
That experience was the biggest challenge Iíd ever had ó emotionally, intellectually and physically, but it was also the most rewarding.
After Ghana, I went home for a month and then studied art history in Venice for three months. I was glad for the opportunity, but art history was more an avocation. I wasnít drawn to it the way I was to the work in Ghana.
When I returned to the United States, I knew I wanted to pursue international development as a career. I enrolled at Tufts University for a B.A. in economics and international relations, with a minor in Africa in the New World. Iím sure my essay about what I did in Ghana helped me get in, because the dean of admissions wrote me a personal letter in response and remembered me at a welcome reception for new students.
I liked Ghana so much that I returned to Africa and studied in Cameroon during the spring semester of my junior year. I stayed there for the summer to work for a local nonprofit organization on a water distribution project. For three months, I researched sites for hand-pumps and wells to be built in villages that have no access to potable water.
When I graduated in 2006 I obtained an internship at FINCA International, a nonprofit organization in the microfinance field. FINCA wanted someone who had worked in Africa and who spoke French, which I do. I know that the people who interviewed me for the internship and for my later job at MicroVest Capital Management, recognized the value of my gap-year experience. For a career in international development, time in the field is priceless.
I want to make a difference and improve the lives of people in impoverished countries around the world. The microfinance industry is the most sustainable pathway to productive international development because itís not dependent on philanthropy. Like other companies in microfinance, MicroVest gives loans to companies that fund poor people who want to start a business. Then those people pay the money back, and the companies repay MicroVest. Thus, the capital is recycled if the funding is done commercially.
I tell friends who want to work in development finance that a communications position is a great way for someone without an M.B.A. to get a foot in the door.
At MicroVest, I worked on our annual report, on brochures, and on other external marketing. I also managed the Web site and designed presentations for conferences.
FAMILY friends were afraid that I would never go to college and get a good job if I chose a gap year. But I knew I was committed. Now Iím interested in the financial side of global development, and I plan to go to business school and get my M.B.A. Recently, I accepted a job offer to return to the field because I feel that itís critical to advancing my career. I am moving to India this month to work for a microfinance consulting company.
Itís good to have a plan, but if something extraordinary comes your way, you should go for it. As I did with a gap year.