The St. Norbert gap experience is a semester long program designed to give students a comprehensive, interpersonal learning opportunity. Not only do the challenges and intensive nature of gap provide students with first-hand knowledge and opportunities to serve the greater community, but they also help to discover a deeper understanding of self.
How did I see myself before gap? This question was asked at the beginning of our experience in the form of who am I? and why am I here? I find the question of ‘how did I see myself before gap’ better answered in my response to why I was here. It was an honest evaluation about the negative aspects of who I thought I was: a sheltered, insensitive, reliant, self-conscience person. Yes, I thought of myself as a dreamer, an artist, a daughter, a sister, and several other generic things, but I also understood things about myself that needed to be improved. In the long process of addressing these qualities and making changes, I have come out of gap with not simply a new view on myself, but a new identity that I can confidently embody.
I was sheltered because of my childhood in a small, isolated town, but in these four months I have grown from my first hand experiences around the world. The gap program was my opportunity to break out of that shell and has me inspired to continue exploring new perspectives around me.
When I say I was insensitive before this program, I acknowledge my inability to perceive others potential pain at comments I myself would not have considered offensive. I had an ‘awakening’ of sorts shortly before gap began. I was suddenly put in the position of offended rather than offender, wherein I became uncomfortable when a certain seemingly mundane topic was discussed in front of me. This became something my peers helped me work through on trail. This support extended to every leg of our journey. I was surrounded by friends who accepted my discomfort, made changes in their dialogue, and encouraged me to do the same with my own. I owe much gratitude to the people who helped me along the way. Because of my cohort, I am now a more sensitive and understanding person.
In my initial journal entry I can see just how negatively connotated the word ‘reliant’ was. Relying on others felt like being a burden. There was a particular instance on trail when I rolled my ankle and my companions began to take equipment from my pack so that it would be easier for me. This felt horrible at the time, but I now look back and think just how lucky I was to be surrounded by people willing to take on a little extra challenge so that I could better succeed.
Another aspect of my ‘reliance’ on others was that in the past my opinions tended to be easily swayed – particularly by those closest to me. This was a flaw I became very aware of in high school, but never found an opportunity to change. What better opportunity is there to change yourself than starting a new life in college? Gap allowed me to face the fundamental reasons behind my dependence on others, and after four months of constant exposure to new ideas and environments, I have been able to reinvent myself from the inside out. Much of my dependance had to do with a lack of confidence in who I was on my own. Thanks to countless candid conversations with peers, I have resolved to be completely honest with those around me and remain true to myself rather than fall into step with what I think others prefer from me. Again, it is because of the people who helped me along the way that I am able to be more confident in who I am as a person.
My self-perception has not merely shifted, but altered completely. While I am still a dreamer, an artist, a daughter, and a sister, I am now more aware of the million other complex qualities that I embody. I am independent. I live by my own values and cherish the people who agree with them, while also learning from and reevaluating myself based on those who do not. I am faithful to my identity, ever expanding but never disregarding the most central traits refined on gap – open mindedness, consideration, independence, and confidence. There is much that I could do with the ‘new self’, but what comes first, above all other things, is working to better myself and maintain the virtues of my newly established moral code.
Since returning home in December, I have had endless questioning from family and friends. It is hard to view gap with the same amount of depth while no longer fully immersed in it. I can no longer marvel at the stars of trail or hear the busy, sometimes frightening, streets of Chicago. I no longer admire the enchanted mesas of Albuquerque’s native land, witness daily stories of immigrants in El Paso, or share dinner with San Miguel Escobar’s coffee farmers. It is hard to feel as passionately today as I did while living in these unspeakable moments of beauty, struggle, history, loss, and perseverance. Whether good or bad, I have gained countless memories and invaluable life lessons. As time goes by where I am no longer moving from place to place, losing sleep so that I can stare in wonder at the constellations above, or losing sleep wrestling with the hard truths of our world, I am forced to make a choice: either let this experience fade into just another elevator pitch about myself, or continue to look at this experience and discover the ever changing meaning it has in my life. I went through this program not realizing what it would do for me. I now understand that I truly did gap to challenge my beliefs and myself, to know who I am and see if I would come out the same. I wanted to see the world so that I would know if my position within it was what I wanted it to be. Unknowingly, I hoped to come out of gap with my understanding of myself enhanced. Doing this program was about revolutionizing who I was as a person so that I could finally be who I wanted to be.
I know the primary goal was to learn from those we served, but I was also taught by the members of gap. Throughout this journey, I have been committed to serving ‘the common good’ of each place we went, but also the common good of our cohort. Time and again I would slip up, isolating myself or falling into the rut of a ‘bad day’, but each member of gap gave me a reason to center myself and return to the service we aimed to provide. To serve the common good, for me, is done by learning from those around us. I believe I have made it clear in the paragraphs above just how highly I regard my cohort, but enough could never be said to thank them for everything they have done for me.