For most, college is the time to embark on an escapade of newfound independence and drastic lifestyle change. Leaving the nest is a big feat for many young students. It can be nerve-racking traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles away from home to start a new life. However, for a rare few, an even bigger adventure serves as a precursor to the experience of freshman year on a university campus — a gap year abroad.
Trading in the comforts and commodities of a familiar home for a foreign country with an alien language is a venture reserved for only the most daring, such as recent Clearwater Central Catholic graduate and future University of Pennsylvania student Elena Prieto.
Prieto, a Jewish 18-year-old, chose to spend a year in the culturally rich Israel. She says the experience of living in the land where Jewish identity was formed has strengthened her sense of pride in her roots.
"I need to be more of an advocate for Israel and Jewish people," Prieto said. "As much as people don't want to believe it, anti-Semitism is a real thing, and it's a growing thing."
Prieto spent the first few months abroad in Jerusalem, the capital city. Now she is living in Tel Aviv, an area predominately occupied by younger people. By the time Prieto is ready to leave Israel at the start of summer, she will have been living in the country for a total of nine months.
Through the Young Judea Year Course, post-high school graduates ages 17 to 20 live on their own in apartments in Israel. They do not have host families as students in the highly popular study abroad program do. Instead they have a few designated families, which the visitors are free to join for dinner.
Prieto said a huge challenge has been coping with the distance between herself and home. Before this year, the longest Prieto had ever been away from home was two and a half months. Staying in touch is difficult because of time differences, and the contrast between the two countries is glaring. For her, things that were commonplace before are now precious and appreciated.
"I miss English, Starbucks, Publix, bagels, good coffee, Christmas and other holidays," she said.
Another difficulty Prieto has faced is the language barrier. The main languages of the region are Arabic, Hebrew and English. In many instances, she's been forced to navigate on the little Hebrew she knows. Prieto describes the experience as incredibly isolating to live in a place in which so few speak her language. However, she has met plenty of extraordinary people to facilitate the transition.
In a village up north, Prieto met a 22-year-old man who walked from Africa to Israel in order to escape the genocide and poverty of his homeland. Within the program itself are even more fascinating people. One girl's family is on the Forbes top 30 list for making a fortune selling moonshine during the Prohibition era. Another, a young man from Colorado, paid his way to Israel entirely on his own through illicit drug money. A third student, from Washington, D.C., is the offspring of a famous advocate of Israel in America. Prieto says one common denominator with everyone she's encountered is genius intellect.
Prieto, a medical volunteer, spends much of her time aboard an ambulance. This has inspired her to want to study medicine in college. In addition, she strives to further her understanding of the pressing sociopolitical concerns of the Middle East.
Overall, she highly recommends taking a gap year. It's an opportunity to have fun and get to know people without the constraints of parents or a strict curriculum. According to Prieto, there's truly nothing quite like a gap year; no other experience allows one to travel to a different part of the world and carry no responsibility.
After enduring a highly rigorous course load and completing the International Baccalaureate program, a break to regroup was essential for Prieto before taking on an Ivy League university. She says some colleges even promote the gap year program. The University of Pennsylvania granted her a deferment almost immediately after she emailed them explaining what she wished to do. A friend she made on the program said her future university even paid part of the expenses for her excursion.
Although Prieto is ecstatic to attend the school of her dreams, she believes coming back to America will be a tough transition. "Everything's more simplistic here," she said. "I'll be more aware of differences I've seen and will appreciate things more."
Prieto said a fresh start like this doesn't happen often in life and it's an opportunity worth taking. "I've made some friends that I'll probably have for the rest of my life. I've taken chances that I never would have taken anywhere else and with anyone else. I've learned to let loose and have fun. It's helped me grow and become a better person."