Caryn Oppenheim, EduCARE India

Wearing the sari I bought in India

gyg-logo-teal-transparent1Name: Caryn Oppenheim
School: Bowdoin College
Type of Work: Medical/Public Health, Environment/Conservation, Education, Community Development, Arts, Language, Human Rights
Region: North America, South America, Middle East, Asia
Length of stay: 3-6 months

Tell us about the organization you work for and what you do for them.
I interned for a grassroots NGO, EduCARE India, in rural Punjab, India for three months. EduCARE India’s vision is to promote pathways to intellectual freedom, social justice, community welfare, economic liberty, and sustainable development for individuals, families and social groups working to achieve their rationalized life dreams.

Share a favorite memory.
Hannah Wolkwitz, coordinator of health day, spent weeks organizing transportation, supervision, and free check-ups with local hospitals for the Trash Pickers community in Adampur. The health day was realized several days before her departure from EduCARE. The Trash Pickers community suffer from constant health problems due to poor sanitation, water, and other conditions in which they live. The goal for the health day was to complete a general physical for the majority of the community, numbering around thirty people. An English student and friend of EduCARE’s, Sukhjinder Singh, extended a helping hand, as usual, by transporting, in multiple shifts, the community to both locations. After initial disorganization and delay at the Lion’s Club during the first shift, interns developed a system to oversee that each person would be attended to. At the Civil Hospital the children bravely beared finger pricks. I sat with several of the adorable little ones in my lap, while they got their fingers pricked. The community’s dog, Tiger, accompanied them for moral support, at times over-extending that support by lounging in the lobby. Although my main responsibilities as an intern did not involve work with the Trash Picker and Snake Charmer migrant communities, I enjoyed visiting their camps and assisting with education and sanitation lessons. After a long exhausting day witnessing the joy of the children, the personalities of the buffalos, kittens, puppies, goats, and chickens, and the resilience and modesty of the adults rejuvenated my spirit. Even without language sharing we could communicate in smiles, play, and hand gestures. I will always remember Krishan, a young bright boy from the community, journeying to our office before I left and sitting in my chair with me. He had drawn a mustache on his face—a face I will not forget.

hree young Indian boys on their way to school, male affection is common.

What have you learned from your experience? How has it affected your long-term goals?
The opportunity of interning for EduCARE allowed me to gain more practical grassroots experience related to many different overlapping social projects. The independence and responsibility I enjoyed in several social fields made me realize I should broaden my future career scope and consider social work. My job role as the Communications Manager has renewed my interest in Communications and encouraged me to look for a more creative approach to a career. I have improved my team work skills and gained knowledge of what makes an organization successful. In addition, I developed adaptation skills due to living and working in a culturally and physically challenging environment. I have always valued clear communication and witnessed the importance of it firsthand this summer in my internship.

What is the most challenging part of your job?
Living and working in a climate, culture, and NGO management system different than one’s own country required adjustments. In rural Punjab transportation is an adventure in and of itself. Many see foreigners and money as synonymous and see foreign women as candy. It took time to get used to existing uncomfortably in terms of the heat, bugs, and water supply. Cultural concepts on bill paying and communication are treated differently in India as well. Despite these experiences, I consider my time in India one of my most worthwhile adventures. When I think of India I think of vibrant colors, decorative fabrics, resilient and playful people, breathtaking vistas, and life changing wildlife. My fellow interns, who inspire me with their travels, interests, and dedication, remain one of my most valued keepsakes.

Shama from the Snake Charmer community making a calendar.

Do you have any advice for prospective gappers?
Travel the road less traveled and do so with an open mind, flexibility, and as few expectations as possible. It is to your advantage to work abroad with a feeling that you may offer something to the program, but more likely your experience will change you. Learn as much as you can and document your time through pictures, blogs, writing, and other forums. If you are fortunate enough to be able to do some type of gap experience take full advantage of all the people and places you connect with— time moves quickly. Future employers may value the skill sets and knowledge that you developed.

Jacob Blanc, English Opens Doors

Name: Jacob Blanc
School: University of Wisconsin-Madison
Type of Work: Education
Region: South America
Length of stay: 3-6 months

Tell us about the organization you work for and what you do for them.
I taught English in a public school in Chile through a Chilean Ministry of Education-sponsored program called English Opens Doors. I worked about 30 hours a week in my own classroom in a small public school with students grade 7-12. A lot of my job responsibilities and tasks were figured out on the run, meaning that there was either a lot of flexibility or disorganization in the program, depending on which perspective you want to take. Being in such a small school made me immediately feel a part of a close community, and my students and their families warmed up to me very quickly. The program facilitated all of the regional placement and travel, set me up with a home stay, provided health insurance and even provided a small monthly stipend. So unlike a lot of work abroad programs that charge you to teach, EOD actually gives you a bit of pocket cash and all you have to do is pay for your airfare.

Share a favorite memory.
We put on an “English week” toward the end of the year, and the highlight for me was dressing up in drag with the 12th grade students to sing and perform Barbie Girl by Aqua. The whole school was at the performance and we all had a blast learning the song, making up a dance and putting on a silly show for the community.

What have you learned from your experience? How has it affected your long-term goals?
The patience of teaching a foreign language, and doing so in a way that respected my students cultures and world-views. Living in South America was a fantastic way to gain an intimate perspective in the region’s culture and history, all of which has been a huge help now than I am in graduate school for Latin American history. Working with EOD really reinforced my desires to be a teacher and connected my abstract research interests to specific trends in my daily experience working abroad.

What is the most challenging part of your job?
Finding ways to connect learning a language with the students’ individual interests and backgrounds.

Do you have any advice for prospective gappers?
Be as easy going as possible, since working as part of a government program in South America means unavoidable problems in bureaucracy and processing. There will be many challenges and unforeseen obstacles, but just know that they will get resolved eventually and that those moments of frustration are perhaps the best opportunities for truly understanding new cultures and daily lived experiences.


Margot Schein, Cultural Embrace

gyg-logo-teal-transparent1Name: Margot Schein
School: University of California, San Diego
Type of Work: Education, Childcare
Region: Central America, South America
Length of stay: 3-6 months

Tell us about the organization you work for and what you do for them.
I worked for Cultural Embrace when I volunteered in Guatemala and Costa Rica. I was doing considerably more meaningful work in Guatemala as I was teaching Mayan children basic math, reading, and writing (whereas in Costa Rica, I was teaching English). My day included taking a chicken bus out of Antigua (where I was living) to a small town called Santa Maria de Jesus. It would come to work at a small school that was almost all volunteer based. I would help the teacher with individual students or run lessons for groups. I helped distribute food and donated clothing and toy items to students. This work is particularly important because these children do not have the opportunity to attend state public schools and would end up working in farms like their parents who earn about $2/day. With basic skills, they can work in a shop or in town. It is not a huge improvement, but I learned the value of baby steps.

Share a favorite memory.
At the end of my stay, the students and teachers were so enamored with me that they sewed me a a thank-you note and preformed a dance in honor of my departure. I was extremely emotional in leaving the people who I was helping. They group hugged me goodbye and I nearly fell over! Their show of appreciation has caused me to dedicate my life to helping others.

What have you learned from your experience? How has it affected your long-term goals?
I have learned that one person can change lives. I constantly have to fight disillusionment with the slow progress of world aid, but I am filled with hope when I think about the children who I know I helped directly. And there are those out there just like me- helping one little girl or boy at a time learn to do basic math. My future goals include anything that involves doing good. I want to use my education as a force for the betterment of all people.

Some of the female Mayan children.

What is the most challenging part of your job?
The most challenging part of my job was being brave. I was in a third world country as a young female. But I still got on that over-crowded bus everyday and walked up a hill to that small school because I was in love with helping. There was one day with torrential rains, but I suffered through, arrived and left work quite soaked, and smiled the whole time. Stay Brave.

Do you have any advice for prospective gappers?
Love what you are doing. If you don’t love it, change volunteer positions. You can only be beneficial if you are totally dedicated. Volunteering is not easy, so you better be in for the long-haul. And again, be brave and try new things. I know it is cliche, but it will take you very far.

Stephanie Usry, WWOOF


Name, Age: Stephanie Usry, 23
University, Major: UC San Diego, Sociology
Region: Europe
Length of stay: 3-6 months
Type of Work: Environment/Conservation

Tell us about the nonprofit/social business you work for:
During the summer after my senior year of undergrad, I decided to take some time to travel, catch up with my international friends, and live on a farm in Italy to help with the Vendemmia (grape picking and wine-making) through the Italian branch of WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms).

How did you find your position?
I found my farm through WWOOF, the nonprofit World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. I chose to join the Italian branch of the organization, paying 30 Euros for a membership and access to the list of farmers looking for WWOOFers. From the list, I searched for places looking for help with ‘wine making’ and then sent out a ‘cover letter’ of information about myself to a bunch of farms, letting them know when I was available to work and asking if I could come help them.

What’s your typical day like?
I’d wake up in the morning and have a breakfast of fruit from the trees outside and yogurt from the local Coopertiv. After that I’d join with the head of household and he’d determine what our work would be for the day. We’d work, picking grapes, apples, basil and more, from 9-noonish and break for lunch, cooked by the matron of the house. Some afternoons we’d work until dinner, otherwise I’d hang out with the family or go on an adventure (they let me borrow the Kangoo, their extra truck if I wanted to go far).

What are your living accommodations?
In many cases for WWOOFing you live in a room provided be the hosts. It truly varies by farm. At one farm I stayed in their extra apartment which was simple yet perfect.

What do you do in your free time?
Hang out with the host family, go on walks, read, learn to speak Italian.

What inspired you to do this kind of work? If you are taking a gap year, what motivated you to do that?
I wanted to go visit my friends in Europe, and I needed some time away from the hustle and technology to de-stress after the 4 busy and intense years of college. Living on a farm in Italy and learning about wine making was the perfect solution!

How are you financing your time?
WWOOFers are not paid. They are given a place to live and at least 2 meals per day. Many farms are happy to provide all 3 meals and to really make you feel at home. To get to Europe, I saved money throughout college for the trip.

What kind of special skills do you need to do your job?

What’s next?
I now work at a start-up in San Francisco. I’m getting involved in the local community again as I get settled back into California life and I hope to find some local California vineyards who want help during their Vendemmia’s so that I can go and be part of the experience again.

Are you blogging about your work or travel? How can we stay in touch?
I did! I blogged about the entire experience. You can contact me at

Would you be willing to take questions from potential Gappers?