For about half of its existence, Africa could have been appropriately termed “The Dark Continent”. That half is more commonly known as nighttime.
Have you ever wondered how the bottom 5% of your freshman class’s SAT takers gained admission? Did you ever take consolation, as I did, in your faith that no matter how poor a student you are, any school that admits a 1610 can’t be that bad? Chances are you never met Mr. or Ms. 1610, but they’re not always who you expect.
Perhaps he is a Rwandan who has only had a citizenship for two years, reads a book a day, has met his own president, and is a frequent and consummate preacher.
She might be a Moroccan who gave a speech so good that Bono talked about it on the radio, and is involved in everything, whether it’s basketball tournaments, guest speakers or protests against a botched regional exam system.
Or maybe he is from Senegal, where as the president of his student government, he arranged a town forum to discuss the problem of arranged, early marriages. As a direct result, one of his former classmates was taken out of an engagement by her parents and sent back to school.
Still feeling superior about that 760 on the Critical Reading?
These are the sorts of people I spent my gap year with. They make those around them better people just through their presence, and they are what made this past year worth it.
Like many of the best experience of my life, ALA is something that I would never have done had I been given an honest, complete description beforehand. The school has a tremendous reputation, but as a teacher once told me, it’s a reputation of a vision. ALA has an incredible ability to pull together and put on a show, but on a day to day basis it has all of the organization of first-year Neville Longbottom, and all of the cohesion of a dry sandcastle.
As a result, ALA gap year students are not yet defined. In order to feel a part of the ALA community, they need to submit themselves to the same rules as everybody else. But they are also on a fun year off, and to the average American, ALA’s rules would not seem out of place in a Soviet era prison. By the end of the year, I was tired of being treated like a child and suffering from extreme cabin fever, despite achieving an awe-inspiring record 11 off campus visits in one week. Balancing the two is hard, and since the school has no official policy, teachers treated us in a variety of ways.
The strict off campus rules are understandable given that the surrounding neighbourhood is statistically one of the least safe in the world (shockingly, that is not hyperbole), but the restrictions were part of a broader African boarding school culture. And that culture in turn is part of the thousands of individual societies that make up the continent. A year at ALA taught me enough about those societies to not only accept and understand ALA’s rules, but also to truly celebrate what I now know about Africa. What little gap years understand about the continent is an invaluable privilege that few Americans have a chance at.
When we read Things Fall Apart in December, I saw the sentence below, and laughed, almost mockingly.
“It is good in these days when the younger generation consider themselves wiser than their sires to see a man doing things in the grand, old way.”
Now, I see the tragedy in it as well. This year, I learned how deep ones customs can run, and how strongly they can clash with someone else’s, especially when it comes to running a school.
So I have a better sense of how the Xhosa and the Igbo differ, and I know the Senegalese don’t eat meat that could be found in the Lion King. I also know that almost all African formal wear for women is prettier than a black cocktail dress, and my conviction that I cannot dance has been reinforced 300-fold.
But what else makes the ALA gap year worth it?
It’s not the food. And it’s not the signature LEA curriculum, because as interesting as they are, those classes haven’t matured enough to be worth a year off. And it’s not the travelling, because if it were we would just use the tuition money on plane tickets.
In my opinion, ALA offers its gap years three unique gifts: a powerful, growing network, diversity, and inspirational peers. The first two are wonderful, but the last one is by far the best. Every single person at ALA will agree that the students make it worth it and keep the dream going. I have never admired so many of my peers so deeply than during my time in South Africa. This year, I met Mr. and Ms. 1610 (and Mr. and Ms. 2310 as well). I realised how lucky I am, and I learned how far some teenagers can make far less luck go.
Of course, people are good everywhere, and it is probably possible to take the same fundamental lessons from other more polished programs. Yet at the end of it all, it was an astoundingly worthwhile experience, and I know I will benefit from it increasingly in the years to come. You really can’t ask for more than that.