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A fulfilling 'gap year'

Ashland High School graduate Erik Oline is spending his time off before college in a place he'd barely even heard about before, and that is the point.

“Before I committed to a gap year in Senegal, I knew two things about Senegal: where it is — I probably could have found it on a map — and that the capital is Dakar,” Oline says. “In other words, I knew nothing about the place I was moving for the better part of a year, and that is exactly why I chose Senegal. … It would be very different than anything I've experienced before.”

Oline spent the past six months on the Western coast of Africa, living in a small village and working on his host family’s farm, thanks to the Oakland, California-based nonprofit organization Global Citizen Year. Oline was chosen after extensive essays and interviews.

Successful applicants can choose between Brazil, Ecuador, India or Senegal to “build self-awareness, global skills and grit — the foundations for success in college and beyond,” according to Global Citizen Year's website.

The small village he lives in is called Keur Birima and consists of roughly five homes and 50 people. Oline says the most influential aspect of his experience has been his host family — mom, dad, their 10 children ages 16-37, and an abundance of host nieces and nephews.

Oline says his host family speaks only the native language, Wolof, and that helped him learn it much faster.

“By month three I was conversationally fluent, by month four I had my first dream in Wolof, and now in March, the language barrier no longer exists,” Oline says.

He’s also learned the proper way to cook the local food ceebu jen (rice and fish), how to birth lambs and how to transplant mango trees.

He says the first couple of months living with strangers who speak a foreign language were exhausting, but now he considers his hosts to be his second family. He describes his first week as thought-provoking.

“I think I learned more about myself, the world and everything in that week than all of high school,” Oline says.

His host family lives on a large farm where members grow everything from millet to hibiscus, and so most of his time is spent working alongside his host father and brothers. Oline says he cherishes the relationship with his host father.

“My favorite moments are when someone asks my host dad who is the random white guy hanging out with him,” Oline says. “My dad always has one response: 'My son.' ”

When he’s not working on the farm, Oline volunteers at the local high school in a neighboring village, where he teaches English to students around his age. He says he’s made numerous friends who started out as his students. He also spends his free time cooking with his host mom and sisters, and working out with his host brothers in a makeshift gym they built from scrap metal gathered around the farm. Physical fitness is important to the Senegalese, he says.

Oline says he accomplished a lifelong goal in Senegal: to catch a tiger fish. His passion is fly fishing, and he’s spent the past few summers working at an annual fly-fishing summer camp in Northern California. Oline says he landed the tiger fish on his fly rod in January on the Gambia River in Southeastern Senegal’s Kédougou region.

His meals are the same every day without change, except for special occasions. There's bread for breakfast, ceebu jen and vegetables for lunch, and couscous for dinner. He says it’s taught him to be immensely grateful for the variety of food and the daily option for meat in the United States. Above all else, this experience has humbled him.

“Senegal is known as the 'country of teranga,' which means hospitality. This is a massive understatement,” Oline says. “The Senegalese people are the most open-hearted, warm, welcoming people I have ever met. I had no idea that this large of a group of people could be so amazing, down to the last man. When it is lunchtime it is commonplace to see complete strangers invited into homes for meals.”

Oline says he hopes to take another gap year, this time as a fly-fishing guide in the Argentina Patagonia. If that doesn’t work out, then his plans are to attend the University of Montana.

Abby Falik, CEO and founder of the Global Citizen Year, says her transformative experience volunteering in Latin America during her gap year inspired her to create an organization that ensures this type of experience “becomes the norm, not the exception, for our next-gen leaders.”

Falik says the participants, or fellows, stay longer and experience more depth than a traditional study abroad program generally allows. She says these experiences are crucial to the identity-forming period of young adults because it molds them for the rest of their lives, and they are the country's future.

“They come home humbled, empowered, and forever changed,” Falik says. “Our fellows build the human bridges that withstand the winds of political change. And when they come home, it is with a foundation of empathy that informs their leadership, and through them, America’s leadership in the world.”

One of the requirements of the program is that fellows keep up a blog during their time abroad.

“I enjoy writing in my blog,” Oline says. “It allows me to think retrospectively about my time here in Senegal and tell some jokes and funny stories, as well as inform my mom that I am still alive.” (Oline’s blog is at www.globalcitizenyear.org/author/erik-oline/.)

Oline says he highly recommends a gap year through Global Citizen Year and ultimately compared his experience to a “smaller Peace Corps.”

“Traveling abroad through GCY is a full-time commitment,” Oline says. “You are never not in the program.”

His advice to future applicants: “Don't sweat the interview, it's all done by alumni who just want to get to know you.”

Oline says he misses the Pacific Northwest, and the hardest adjustment he’s made was adapting to a slower pace.

“At first it was tough adjusting to so much free down time, but now I've gotten used to slowing down and enjoying the Senegalese sunshine,” Oline says.

His gap year ends mid-April.

“After six months in Senegal, it feels like the reason I'm here is to improve myself through mental and physical discipline,” Oline says.

— Contact Ashland freelance writer Caitlin Fowlkes at Caitlin.fowlkes@gmail.com.

Erik Oline and his host brother Mame Mor. [Courtesy of Erik Oline]
Erik Oline gets close to a lioness at Fathala, a wildlife breeding center near the town of Toubacouta in Senegal. [Courtesy of Erik Oline]