Photo by Ryan Gasper, Student.

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For Parents

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    [post_author] => 21
    [post_date] => 2017-12-01 10:09:11
    [post_date_gmt] => 2017-12-01 17:09:11
    [post_content] => 
The aim is a cross-cultural, experiential education, Vanek said. That means no five-star hotels or fancy buses, but rather home stays with local families, volunteer work, trips on public buses and often, language immersion. The small-group trips "aren't touristic. They aim to broaden students' perspectives about the world and themselves through these really intimate experiences," she said.
You can read the full piece on the ChicagoTribune.com [post_title] => Dragons in the Chicago Tribune [post_excerpt] => We're excited to see our Admissions Director, Eva Vanek quoted in the Chicago Tribune... [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => dragons-chicago-tribune [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2018-03-07 08:47:38 [post_modified_gmt] => 2018-03-07 15:47:38 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/news/ [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [categories] => Array ( [0] => WP_Term Object ( [term_id] => 700 [name] => For Parents [slug] => for_parents [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 700 [taxonomy] => category [description] => Blog posts specifically curated for parents wishing to know more about Dragons culture, programs, company, and community. [parent] => 0 [count] => 46 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 5 [cat_ID] => 700 [category_count] => 46 [category_description] => Blog posts specifically curated for parents wishing to know more about Dragons culture, programs, company, and community. [cat_name] => For Parents [category_nicename] => for_parents [category_parent] => 0 [link] => https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/news/category/for_parents/ ) [1] => WP_Term Object ( [term_id] => 641 [name] => About Dragons [slug] => about_dragons [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 641 [taxonomy] => category [description] => Press, Essays from Admin, and Behind-the-Scenes HQ. [parent] => 0 [count] => 47 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 9 [cat_ID] => 641 [category_count] => 47 [category_description] => Press, Essays from Admin, and Behind-the-Scenes HQ. [cat_name] => About Dragons [category_nicename] => about_dragons [category_parent] => 0 [link] => https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/news/category/about_dragons/ ) [2] => WP_Term Object ( [term_id] => 654 [name] => Mixed Media [slug] => mixed_media [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 654 [taxonomy] => category [description] => Featured Photography, Videos, Podcasts, Photo Contest Winners, Films & Art [parent] => 0 [count] => 50 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 12 [cat_ID] => 654 [category_count] => 50 [category_description] => Featured Photography, Videos, Podcasts, Photo Contest Winners, Films & Art [cat_name] => Mixed Media [category_nicename] => mixed_media [category_parent] => 0 ) [3] => WP_Term Object ( [term_id] => 651 [name] => Announcements [slug] => announcements [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 651 [taxonomy] => category [description] => Announcements on: New Programs, Surveys, Jobs/Internships, Contests, & Behind-the-Scenes Activity. [parent] => 0 [count] => 56 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 14 [cat_ID] => 651 [category_count] => 56 [category_description] => Announcements on: New Programs, Surveys, Jobs/Internships, Contests, & Behind-the-Scenes Activity. [cat_name] => Announcements [category_nicename] => announcements [category_parent] => 0 ) ) [category_links] => For Parents, About Dragons ... )
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    [ID] => 151744
    [post_author] => 21
    [post_date] => 2017-09-18 14:23:38
    [post_date_gmt] => 2017-09-18 20:23:38
    [post_content] => On my Bolivia course this past summer, one of my students posed the question “Why should we care about diversity?” (thank you Rebecca!). Initially, I had a knee-jerk reaction to the query, thinking about the myriad and strikingly apparent reasons why diversity is something that we inherently want to value. But the more I considered Rebecca’s sincere and honest inquiry, I found myself increasingly tongue-tied. My efforts to produce an eloquent and comprehensive response to what seemed a self-evident human truism tugged at the very core of my being and values as an individual and as an educator. Rebecca’s question has remained ever-present in my mind these past months, and I have come to realize that it speaks to the fundamental nature of the work that we do as educators.

Over the past four years, I have spent approximately 610 days in the field as an instructor with Dragons. That works out to be just over 40% of my life in that period, not counting the additional days and weeks that I’ve spent preparing for courses, pouring over paperwork, doing administrative work at the office in Boulder, scouting new program areas, staffing instructors, liaising with potential students and families, outreaching with our local contacts, and participating in Dragons orientations and trainings. I think I can safely speak for our wide community of instructors and administrators when I say that we do this work for reasons that drive us spiritually, emotionally, and intuitively as human beings. We work long hours, late nights, we get sick and exhausted, we travel and sweat and sometimes pull off feats of theatrical and improvisational educational acrobatics in rugged cross-cultural settings. And we love what we do.
The ethnosphere, a notion perhaps best defined as the sum total of all thoughts, beliefs, myths and intuitions made manifest today by the myriad cultures of the world. The ethnosphere is humanity’s greatest legacy. It is the product of our dreams, the embodiment of our hopes, the symbol of all that we are and all that we have created as a wildly inquisitive and astonishingly adaptive species. -Wade Davis, Light at the Edge of the World
Over the course my years as an instructor, my work with Dragons has poured over into other elements of my life, influencing my relationships and community, driving my schedule, and molding in significant ways the manner in which I perceive and interact with the world around me. My husband would say that I live and breath Dragons and, in that regard, I am very much not alone. There are many of us, some much more devoted than I, who are dedicating their professional lives to living against the grain, jumping from course to course and continent to continent, traversing cultural and conventional boundaries and redefining, every single day, the potential of experiential education and meaningful cross-cultural engagement to touch and (hopefully!) transform the lives of young people. Every single one of us is engaged in this work because we believe that it has the power to break down prejudice, to connect the sometimes seemingly disconnected threads of our planet, to redefine the contours of our human relationships and global interactions in ways that are more compassionate, meaningful, and productive for humanity and the planet that cradles us. I know that for me personally, my early travels left a profound mark on my identity and life trajectory, and contributed in countless ways to the path that led me to my home in Bolivia. As instructors, we do not claim to change lives, but we believe that placing young people in situations of inter-cultural dialogue, reflection, and exposure to the planet’s mind-numbing diversity – and vulnerability – can do just that. We are motivated by living a life of intention, constant exploration, boundless curiosity, and a profound respect for difference. As instructors, educators, mentors, guides, teachers, friends, and cultural translators we work ceaselessly, improvise daily, and demand incredible resiliency from ourselves and from our students. The work of an instructor with Dragons is an incredible leap of faith. Each student arrives to our programs with different life experiences, perspectives, expectations, world-views and ways of absorbing and making sense of new experiences. Over the course of our programs, we consciously and intentionally challenge those world-views and push our students out of their fields of physical, mental and emotional comfort. In return, we hope the places and experiences they encounter will plant a small seed of understanding that may in some way influence their future attitudes, decisions, and interactions with the world around them. On a basic and aspirational level, the seeds that I would like to scatter into this world have one elemental goal: respect for diversity, both human and natural, and the right of all beings to dance, to dream, to flourish in ways that cherish the magical and dizzying colors and variations of our planet. More often than not, we have no idea if those seeds will ever take root, if the experience will stay alive and resonate out into the world or be swallowed by other forces beyond our reach. It is impossible to measure the impact of our work, to quantify our accomplishments, and at times, the meaning of this journey may only manifest months or years down the line. But that leap of faith keeps us going in forests and villages, on buses and riverboats and across mountains and deserts around the globe. It is a daunting and sometimes terrifying task. We seek to build moral characters while knowing full well that we are flawed and fallible individuals ourselves. We teach to and probe some of the fundamental questions around human nature and difference. We challenge conventions around privilege and prejudice, legacies of violence and oppression, and our role and responsibility as engaged human beings in a fragile and complex natural and socio-economic landscape. And we ask ourselves, at every turn, how we can be better teachers and educators and more compassionate human beings. It is a constant dance of perpetual planning, experimentation, big questions, and the winds of spontaneity. Was I patient enough? Did I ask the right questions? Are my students being awakened by the beauty and tragedy at every turn? These themes were thrown into stark relief this past week during our excursion into the Amazon, a place where the myth of our isolated human experience is lifted at every turn. There is perhaps nowhere on the planet where you are more immersed in diversity and fragility, where the minute interconnectedness of our natural biosphere washes over us, where the delicate threads that make up the texture and brilliance and intricate quilt of our world wrap around us in a suffocating and at once liberating embrace. The Amazon rainforest is the apothecary of our world, the source of so many of our remedies and resources, while also posing exhilarating threats. It is a place where the fate of the planet and our place within it stands on a precarious and unfathomable precipice. As young people in the face of unprecedented challenges, it is our lives in this ultimately miniscule moment in time that may determine the winds of that scale. The healers of the Amazon forest claim to be intermediaries between our species and the secrets of the animal and plant world. They unlock the healing properties of the forest while reminding us of our beautiful and fragile condition as humans. Traditionally, those healers have navigated and in some ways maintained that intricate and invisible balance – between humans and the natural world, and between the spiritual and physical realms of being. If you ask an Amazonian healer how they learned of the healing properties of the forest, he or she will tell you that the plants spoke to them, that ultimately we are an integral part of the forest and it will speak to us if we only know how to listen. On one of our last days in the jungle, the sky opened up and we were relieved, for a time, from the oppressive heat and insects. A group of us found ourselves out on an excursion to a nearby lake, and we were swallowed up by a torrent unlike anything we’d ever experienced. Engulfed by the depths of the tropical rainforest, we were humbled and overwhelmed by this majestic force of nature. We stripped off the layers that were nominally protecting us from the insects, and allowed the water to wash over us. I was struck by the sensation of feeling like a tiny, insignificant drop of rain on this infinite and multi-chromatic planet. I think that all of us that day also felt connected, awakened, involved in something beautiful and fleeting and altogether significant. It was a moment that cannot be planned or scripted, when forces beyond our control come together overwhelmingly to remind us to be grateful, to dance in the joy of a magical and unrepeateable moment, to revel in the abundance and diversity around us. A moment when feeling small also means feeling a part of something greater. As the strength of the storm diminished and the rain settled into a steady rhythm, the six of us trudged through the jungle soaked to the bone, knee deep in water, but also with a bounce to our step. Nothing significant was said, but we all knew in our silence that something special had passed between us. And I realized that those magical, unplanned, irresistible moments are the real joys and lessons in this life, the seeds that we hope to plant but sometimes just fall over us like water from the sky. We were cleansed, invigorated, exhilarated by the storm, by the majesty of the jungle, and by our utter gratitude at being here, together, on this altogether mundane and extraordinary day in the Amazon. Nature spoke, and for an ephemeral moment in space and time, we listened.   [post_title] => Confessions of a Dragons Instructor [post_excerpt] => We work long hours, late nights, we get sick and exhausted, we travel and sweat and sometimes pull off feats of theatrical and improvisational educational acrobatics in rugged cross-cultural settings. And we love what we do... 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    [post_author] => 21
    [post_date] => 2017-09-05 12:37:31
    [post_date_gmt] => 2017-09-05 18:37:31
    [post_content] => Even though Steven is a well-traveled photographer (it's his third time traveling to Africa) and an experienced film maker, he still doesn't feel like this fully represents the Madagascar he experienced.

He says:
The Madagascar I remember is filled with rice paddies, host families and times when we rested on each other’s shoulders during the long, painful Taxi Brousses ride, the time when we shared whatever we owned with each other, when we pulled pranks, told jokes, and acted funny, the time when we marched down the street of Morondava at the Baobab festival singing and dancing, and the time sitting on top of our camp, watching the earth forming beneath our feet.
Steven says that he hopes, "everyone should at least at one point of their lives, take a trip like this, travel as a traveler." We hope you enjoy his film as much as we did at Dragons HQ! [post_title] => A Short Film by Madagascar Student, Steven Gu [post_excerpt] => A short film made by one of our Madagascar summer abroad students. Steven GU created this video with the hope to share with everyone his 6-weeks in Madagascar... [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => a-short-film-made-by-summer-madagascar-student-steven-gu [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2018-03-07 08:36:13 [post_modified_gmt] => 2018-03-07 15:36:13 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/news/ [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 2 [filter] => raw [categories] => Array ( [0] => WP_Term Object ( [term_id] => 638 [name] => From the Field [slug] => from_the_field [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 638 [taxonomy] => category [description] => Featured Yaks, Reflections, Quotes, Photo Spreads and Videos from the Four Corners. [parent] => 0 [count] => 71 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 4 [cat_ID] => 638 [category_count] => 71 [category_description] => Featured Yaks, Reflections, Quotes, Photo Spreads and Videos from the Four Corners. [cat_name] => From the Field [category_nicename] => from_the_field [category_parent] => 0 [link] => https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/news/category/from_the_field/ ) [1] => WP_Term Object ( [term_id] => 700 [name] => For Parents [slug] => for_parents [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 700 [taxonomy] => category [description] => Blog posts specifically curated for parents wishing to know more about Dragons culture, programs, company, and community. [parent] => 0 [count] => 46 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 5 [cat_ID] => 700 [category_count] => 46 [category_description] => Blog posts specifically curated for parents wishing to know more about Dragons culture, programs, company, and community. [cat_name] => For Parents [category_nicename] => for_parents [category_parent] => 0 [link] => https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/news/category/for_parents/ ) [2] => WP_Term Object ( [term_id] => 646 [name] => Alumni Spotlight [slug] => alumni_spotlight [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 646 [taxonomy] => category [description] => Featured Student Alumni and their projects/organizations/visions. [parent] => 0 [count] => 47 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 10 [cat_ID] => 646 [category_count] => 47 [category_description] => Featured Student Alumni and their projects/organizations/visions. [cat_name] => Alumni Spotlight [category_nicename] => alumni_spotlight [category_parent] => 0 ) [3] => WP_Term Object ( [term_id] => 654 [name] => Mixed Media [slug] => mixed_media [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 654 [taxonomy] => category [description] => Featured Photography, Videos, Podcasts, Photo Contest Winners, Films & Art [parent] => 0 [count] => 50 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 12 [cat_ID] => 654 [category_count] => 50 [category_description] => Featured Photography, Videos, Podcasts, Photo Contest Winners, Films & Art [cat_name] => Mixed Media [category_nicename] => mixed_media [category_parent] => 0 ) ) [category_links] => From the Field, For Parents ... )
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    [post_author] => 21
    [post_date] => 2017-08-29 08:00:56
    [post_date_gmt] => 2017-08-29 14:00:56
    [post_content] => There's no better way to understand (or re-experience!) a Dragons program than a clickthrough of Dragons Yak Board. Our freshly re-designed forum features intimate, first-hand, perspective via stories, reflections, and images shared directly from the field.

[caption id="attachment_151654" align="alignright" width="300"] Dragons Newly Remodeled Yak Board[/caption]

You can even sort the essays on our Yak Board by program element: Do you want to know what a homestay is really like? Visit our Homestay Yaks. Worried about the intensity of the trekking element? Read about student trekking experiences. Curious as to the challenges of "learning service" abroad? There's participant reflections on the themes of service learning too. Wondering about the end-goals of Dragons programs? Here are some essays in "Transference" (the act and art of applying newly learned skills and perspectives to life back at home).

Ready to dive in?

Here's some participant quotes and essays that might interest you. Just follow the links to read the full essay on the Yak Board:

 

****************

  "I will always remember what it feels like to be a part of a community that values loving one another above everything else. For the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about what home is and what that feels/looks like. I now understand the concept of home a little better and feel as though I have found that on the other side of the world." Anna Maguire on the TRANSFERENCE Yak Board.  

****************

"That struggle, one with vague political origins, has morphed into an undeniably human one, one in which the good side is determined not by unspeakable acts of evil but by where on a moral Venn Diagram some far-off policy maker sits as he asks himself if ensuring the health of the Indonesian republic by keeping Sampela a permanent Bajau community regardless of the toll it places on nearby reefs and its human inhabitants is worthwhile. Should the strictly protected reefs of this island chain be enlarged, risking a war but preserving an ecosystem that was here long before there were people in it? Should the elite few who may make those decisions be more concerned with a fisherman and his kin going hungry or with the loss of life from the most diverse ecosystem on the planet or, on a larger scale, does the wellness of a nation of over two hundred and fifty million people or uncountable oceanic animals matter more than the wellness of thousands of laughing, crying, feeling humans?" - Owen Yager on the DEVELOPMENT Yak Board  

****************

    "Personally my mind was the defining factor, I was never excited about hiking because I didn’t have faith in myself. I never felt accomplished, thinking "big deal" -- everyone else had made it up the mountain too. I viewed myself as a weak hiker, when in actuality there’s no such thing. We all arrive at the same destination in our own time, in our own way. Have faith in yourself, you can do it." - Lily Hobbs on the TREKKING Yak Board    

****************

  "Asalaamalekum mbok yi," This sentence could be the shortest description of who I am. It says ‘peace be with your family.’ The first word is of Arabic origin and was brought to Senegal centuries ago with Islam. Religion and the culture of peace and tolerance found in my country are one of the cornerstones of Senegalese culture. Almost all local language greetings ask how peaceful you have been. My father is a Sufi teacher and he has impacted my life in various and wonderful ways." - Babacar Mbaye on the COMPARATIVE RELIGION Yak Board  

****************

  "About 20 minutes before the top of the pass, Fabian stopped the ground and reached for a rock. He held it in his left hand and told us that this rock symbolizes the weight that each of us carries. I picked up my rock, a black heart shaped rock with white stripes, and thought about the weight that I carry. Is it the worry over registering for classes and rooming next semester? The distress of my friend group at school growing further apart? The uncertainty and sadness of my parents moving away from the community I grew up in? These thoughts and more moved up with me as I walked to the top of the pass." - Emily Smith on the WILDERNESS EXPLORATION Yak Board
****************

Or just head over to our Yak of the Week section for the best of the best!

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Updated Yak Board Featuring Intimate, Firsthand, Perspectives

Posted On

08/29/17

Author

Dragons HQ

Description
There’s no better way to understand (or re-experience!) a Dragons program than a clickthrough of Dragons Yak Board. Our freshly re-designed forum features intimate, first-hand, perspective via stories, reflections, and… Read More
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    [ID] => 151451
    [post_author] => 21
    [post_date] => 2017-07-17 14:13:18
    [post_date_gmt] => 2017-07-17 20:13:18
    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_151452" align="alignnone" width="4592"] Photo by Christina Rivera Cogswell, Princeton Bridge Year, Ladakh India.[/caption]

HERE ARE THE MOST COMMON REASONS WHY STUDENTS CONSIDER TAKING A GAP YEAR:

  • To get hands-on life experience
  • In search of relief from the pressures of high school
  • To find out more about themselves
  • To gain language fluency via cultural immersion
  • To clarify personal interests and possibly hone in on a course of studies or career path to pursue
  • To gain exposure to different worldviews
  • To practice professional and personal development skills through experience
  • To slow down and find time for personal reflection
  • To adventure in the mountains, open spaces, and wilderness
  • To learn about service and/or apprentice with a problem in the world of personal importance
  • To build meaningful (and offline) friendship and relationships
  • To try something new, daring, and challenging

HERE ARE MORE REASONS, BASED ON THE LATEST RESEARCH, WHY YOU SHOULD CONSIDER TAKING THE LEAP WITH A GAP YEAR OR SEMESTER ABROAD EXPERIENCE…

Research shows that students who take a Gap Year graduate with higher GPAs than their peers and are more satisfied with their careers. This advantage held when controlling for socioeconomic background or academic performance in high school. Clagett, 2011.

  • 98% of colleges and universities accept deferrals for planned Gap Years. In fact, Harvard, Princeton, University of North Carolina, Colorado College (to name a few) encourage it because students enter more focused, mature, and passionate.
  • A majority of students now take five or more years to complete their college educations, while a majority of Gap Year students graduate in four years. If you think a Gap Year is expensive, try six years of college tuition.
  • Gap Years are serious endeavors and, in our experience, it’s often the most ambitious, curious, and motivated students that are called to them. A high quality Gap Year program is holistic and experiential; students learn about place and global issues, but more significantly they gain clarity on who they are, what they believe in, and what they’re capable of achieving.
  • More than 90% of students who do a structured Gap Year program enroll in university within one year of their time-off. When researchers tried to identify what major factors distinguished facilitated programs from unstructured time-off, they discovered that a significant homestay experience in another culture and excellent mentorship were two factors critical to making the Gap Year a transformative experience.
  • Many more interesting Gap Year facts can be found at: WWW.GAPYEARASSOCIATION.ORG/DATA-BENEFITS.PHP

WHERE CAN I FIND MORE INFORMATION?

The best way to learn more about Gap Year programs is to connect with other students who’ve done them. If you’d like to speak to any of our alumni personally, please give us a call and we’ll put you in touch with some! In the meantime, here are a few student quotes from past Dragons Gap Year students.

“My semester with Dragons in Indonesia ignited a passion for environmental and social justice causing me to choose my specific majors and minors at school. It gave me so much direction for who I want to be. Even three years later, I think about my homestays, instructors, and friends from the trip all the time. ”

–CRISSY McCARTHY, INDONESIA SEMESTER

“The Ladakhi guides, the Buddhist monks and nuns, my language teacher, my host family —all these friendships opened my eyes to how diverse the world can be and how many lifestyles one might find to suit them.”

–CHARLIE SANTOS, INDIA SEMESTER

“ I am leaving with a foundation on how to travel, learn, expand my worldview , and connect with people on a deeper level.”

–GRACE POWELL, SOUTH AMERICA SEMESTER

“This will be the most profound experience of your life. It will be educational, exciting, beautiful, challenging, deep , and raw. The hardest moments will teach you just as much as, if not more than, the magical ones.”

–CLAIRE LINDSAY, AFRICA SEMESTER

“My biggest goal was to leave the trip more present, curious, and inspired. I came alive on this trip. I am excited to continue to push myself when I return home.”

–EL WILLIAMS, SOUTH AMERICA SEMESTER

HOW TO TAKE A GAP YEAR:

1. CONSIDER APPLYING TO COLLEGE FIRST. Most students prepare for college admissions as usual. When admitted, they then request a deferral, which 98% of colleges will grant if presented with legitimate Gap Year plans.

2. PLAN AHEAD WITH CLEAR GOALS. What do you want to learn? How do you want to be challenged? Spend some time sorting out your motivations as the more you invest in a vision for your Gap Year, the more confident you (and your family) will feel in your plans. Plus, the stage of dreaming and anticipation is fun!

3. GO ALONE OR GO WITH A GROUP? Do both. Educational consultants recommend that students start with something more structured in the Fall followed by a more independent experience.. For example, Michael Gellman spent the fall on Dragons Central America Semester. As a Dragons student, Michael learned to construct composting toilets while working with a Guatemala-based community organization. He stayed in Central America after his three-month Dragons program—where he spent four months applying his new skills to other community projects.

4. PREPARE TO MAKE THE INVESTMENT. A Gap Year can be a significant investment, but is well worth the cost. Investing in a Gap Year allows students to start college with greater focus and a stronger idea of what they want to achieve. This can help them connect their studies to potential career paths. Think of this year between high school and college as a bridge, not a gap.

5. DO YOUR RESEARCH. Compare and assess Gap Year programs based on safety, access to meaningful experiences, and the quality of mentorship. Ensure that your experience is with others who share your values and who are committed to the well-being of participants, but also to the well-being of local communities. You can visit Dragons Blog for a full list of questions that we recommend students ask when researching different Gap Year programs.


Here’s a PDF version of Dragons Position Paper on Why Take a Gap Year? that’s printer-friendly if needed.
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HOW DOES DRAGONS ENCOURAGE A STUDENT'S DESIRE TO DO GOOD IN THE WORLD, WHILE AT THE SAME TIME ENSURING THAT THESE EXPERIENCES ACTUALLY BENEFIT COMMUNITIES ABROAD?

Dragons believes that we need to shift the way we think of volunteer travel. Instead of focusing on “service work”—on the idea that short-term volunteers can contribute to communities abroad—we advocate a paradigm shift: we choose, instead, to focus on “learning service.”

Learning Service is a holistic experience that combines an intimate and authentic engagement with the local community, the study of effective development, and the contribution to an established community-driven project. It is the process of living, working alongside, and humbly absorbing the culture of those being served while coordinating closely with project managers to understand the trajectory of the project, from inception to completion and beyond. It is an acknowledgment that often it is the volunteer who stands to gain as much or more from the work. And it is a commitment to making contributions that create positive impacts in the communities coupled with the humility to always listen and learn first.

WE BELIEVE THAT EFFECTIVE, COLLABORATIVE SERVICE WORK BEGINS WHEN STUDENTS ARE GUIDED TO ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS:

  • Was the project initiated by the local community, and is there community ownership?
  • Does the project value sustainable community empowerment over infrastructure development?
  • Was the project initiated due to actual needs in the community, or because of the ease of integrating unskilled workers (us) into the tasks?
  • What is the lifespan of the project, and how will it evolve once outsiders leave?

A growing body of evidence warns that travelers seeking to do good can end up inadvertently harming the communities they hope to support. In Cambodia, for instance, the growth of well-intentioned visits to orphanages may be perversely encouraging people to buy, rent, or kidnap children in order to maintain appearances for foreign travelers. According to a recent UNICEF report, 75% of children in Cambodian orphanages have at least one living parent. In Thailand, nearly 90% of foreign volunteers seeking to teach English are sent—week after week—to the same schools. As a result, the same Thai students end up subjected to the same introductory English lesson taught by well-intentioned but inexperienced Westerners. These schools end up becoming tourist destinations rather than places of learning. Effective community engagement often means investing in teacher training rather than feel good fixes. After all, how many children in Thailand really need one more Westerner to teach them “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”?

Dragons students gain a sense of what real service and giving back abroad should look like. Learning Service demands that we say “no” to an opportunity that may adversely impact the people and places we visit. It also requires that we sustain long-term relationships with communities abroad; while it is easier on schedules and budgets to plan short trips, we must not create a revolving door of unskilled helpers that locals accommodate.

Community empowerment is also paramount to the process of effective service and development work. At Dragons, we work closely with organizations and individuals that represent and work to support the collective voice of the communities within which the project is being undertaken. Students are then brought into ongoing relationships as honored guests and humble servants, adhering to the needs and goals expressed by those already in action, and adding their own contribution to a pre-established process. Projects that assume the needs of local people and operate with cultural chauvinism to implement a prepackaged service project often lead to inefficiency, miscommunication, and an overall disempowerment amongst individuals. Accordingly, Dragons often works with grass-roots organizations that were started within the community and are supported, run, and often funded from within the community.

As a cornerstone to Global Citizenship Education, Learning Service becomes a process of developing empathy for those whose resource-base and opportunity-levels may be less, but whose life-histories and cultures provide often profound lessons that aren’t available to those living in more developed countries. By emphasizing the “learning” in Learning Service, students are encouraged to critically engage with their values while they develop a knowledge-base that extends beyond their short-lived engagement. In Learning Service, students achieve a larger understanding of development issues and the efforts to address systemic problems in health care, education, access to clean food and water, etc. More significantly, students develop a moral compass in which they see how their actions and decisions impact the people and environment outside of their immediate communities.

NO ONE EXPLAINS OUR APPROACH TO LEARNING SERVICE BETTER THAN OUR ALUMNI.

Here are some quotes from past Dragons students on their Learning Service experiences:

“I was always hesitant to throw around that word (volunteering) because I deliberately did not choose a program that’s main focus was service – yet it was as though because I was traveling to developing countries, everyone expected me to volunteer – like if I was not going to volunteer, I was doing something wrong, being selfish. When I now recall the past three months, I do not immediately think of volunteer work. Instead, I remember being welcomed with open arms into families’ homes; I remember studying Spanish in a thirty-six family town; I remember learning so much about local cultures and life in general from the many characters we met along this journey. Our “volunteer work” has been vastly different from what the doubters imagined. We did not come into a town with the mentality that we were there to help and teach the “less fortunate” how to construct “superior” buildings or live in a “better” way. We were not imposing our building techniques on the locals. No, they were teaching us.”

–CAROLINE FENELON, GUATEMALA & NICARAGUA SEMESTER STUDENT

“After discussing with my supervisor and observing the organization, I realized that their needs did not align with my initial expectations of what I would be doing and I needed to drop my expectations altogether. At first, I thought I would be spending some of my time working at GLC’s store, but it turned out that my skills in English and computers matched best with their needs for an after-school English class and an additional teacher for the preschoolers. Every day is challenging, rewarding, exhausting, and exciting. The students are so bright and energetic, and I continuously feel grateful for the opportunity to teach them. Although I am their teacher, I truly think that they are teaching me even more, and maybe that’s what service is really about. As an instructor told our group in the first month of our trip, service is not a one-way road; it should be filled with exchanges between for lack of better words, the “server” and “the served.” I didn’t fully comprehend what that meant one month ago, but I think I have a much better understanding of that notion now.”

–CHRISTINE CHO, PRINCETON BRIDGE YEAR INDIA STUDENT

FOR MORE STUDENT PERSPECTIVES ON LEARNING SERVICE, VISIT THE LEARNING SERVICE SECTION OF OUR YAK BOARD.

Here’s a PDF version of Dragons Position Paper on Learning Service that’s printer-friendly if needed.
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