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  • Writer's pictureAlmeera Eman

From Shy to Bold: Unveiling the Transformative Power of a Gap Year

Today's episode is all about Maddy's incredible gap year and travel journey with Carpe Diem Education! She shares how this transformative experience helped her to become more confident, tackle her fears, discover new passions and jump start her career towards environmental conservation at World Wildlife Fund. Michelle and Maddy also discuss Carpe Diem's authentic community engagement, emphasizing experiential learning and highlighting how the gap year is a valuable investment to self-discovery and personal growth.

So, dive into Maddy's story and check out the Carpe Diem Education links in the show notes for your next adventure!

Topics Discussed

  • Transformative Journey: Maddy's shift from a shy individual to a confident public speaker after a life-changing gap year experience.

  • Impact of Immersive Learning: How Maddy's gap year with Carpe Diem Education reshaped her career towards conservation and sustainable travel.

  • Addressing Social Anxiety: Discussing the relevance of experiential education in combating anxiety issues prevalent among youth today.

  • Ethical Community Engagement: Exploring Carpe Diem's approach to community partnerships and the importance of authentic, sustainable voluntourism.

  • Gap Year as Personal Investment: Highlighting the gap year as a pivotal time for self-exploration and its enduring impact on personal and professional development.

Resources Mentioned In This Episode


Michelle Dittmer - 00:00

I know we talk about transformations a lot on this podcast but today we bring Maddie in who takes us along on her journey on her gap year with Carpe Diem and the process of transformation that happened taking her from shy little Maddie into a person who routinely does public speaking and is confident speaking on our podcast today.

Take a listen to Maddie's story.

Michelle Dittmer - 01:14

Hey there, everybody! Welcome to the Gap Year Podcast.

My name is Michelle Dittmer. I'm your host and Gap Year expert. Today is all about the amazing transformations that can happen on a gap year and you don't have to take it from me. We have brought in a very special guest today. Maddy is with me, Gap Year alum, and she's going to share a little bit of her story with us.

Maddy - 01:40

So Maddy, welcome to the podcast! Thanks, Michelle. I'm so happy to be here.

Michelle Dittmer - 01:45

This is so awesome. You have such a great story, but I don't want to give away any of the details. So why don't you share a little bit about who you are and maybe what you're up to these days and maybe a little bit about your gap year experience.

Maddy - 02:03

Sure! So yes, my name is Maddie. Currently I'm based in Denver, Colorado and I work for World Wildlife Fund, which is a conservation organization, specifically, I work in our travel department. So getting people out and experiencing the world and environment and seeing wildlife firsthand.

My gap year was way too many years ago, at this point, it feels like I took it in 2016 with Carpe Diem Education, did a full year experience, a couple months with a group and then a couple months more on a solo volunteer placement. with them and then I was so excited I just wanted to keep traveling so I did that the travel portion after by myself as well.

Michelle Dittmer - 02:48

Amazing, so you had quite an immersive year which I think is really such an incredible experience to be able to fully jump in and dive in and really experience stuff and when we have those types of experiences whether they last three weeks or a full year That does stuff to us. It helps us to grow and to learn and to become a different version of ourselves, often a better version of ourselves.

So what was the kind of biggest transformation that you saw within yourself?

Maddy - 03:25

Yeah, Michelle, that's a great question. I think for me was just this sense of confidence and excitement about life and everything. But little Maddie was this shy high schooler, middle schooler, only really had one friend in high school, we were besties, I didn't really need anyone else. And I had a lot of anxiety about social interactions. I hated going to the grocery store, I hated calling a doctor. I really leaned on my parents to do that, even when I was 16, 17, 18 years old. And I think the idea of going to college was exciting for me. But I wasn't ready for it and I wanted a bigger and better experience first to kind of level set me and point me in that right direction.

I didn't really know what I wanted to do after high school graduation and I always wanted to travel. Like it sounded so cool to me. I was the only person in my family that hadn't been out of the country and I was like, why is that? Like that needs to change.

And so yeah, I think just that confidence in myself, I no longer am afraid to go to the grocery store. I actually love it. I love talking to strangers. I hated public speaking, but now like throw me up on stage. Like I, I thrive like in those environments now, which is a pretty huge transformation. And my mom can definitely attest, I came back and she was like, who are you? And like the best way possible.

Michelle Dittmer - 04:55

I love that and you've experienced two things that are super common with young people today so even though you had your gap year many moons ago a lot of your experience is very true today.

So when we are talking with families we're hearing a lot of talk around anxiety and social anxiety And I think that that's a very real element for a lot of parents and a lot of students.

We've had the pandemic which we obviously have to mention here and how that has impacted a lot of folks with their anxiety struggles and I think that you're a great example of being able to kind of address it head on to get out of your comfort zone to try something new and to be successful at it. So that anxiety is one piece that I think is really key. And the other piece is kind of like that uncertainty about what you want to do with the rest of your life or where you want to go to college or what is that step after high school. And that's super common as well. I think it's almost unfair to ask 17 or 18 year olds to know what they want to do when all they've experienced is the inside of a classroom. And so to step out there and get outside of that, I think is just such a pivotal thing that you can do for yourself and kind of level up yourself for the future and make better choices for yourself.

Maddy - 06:28

I absolutely agree. Couldn't have said it better.

Michelle Dittmer - 06:31

So if little Maddie had made a decision right out of high school, what would she have studied? And then how did that differ for this new version that came out of your gap year?

Maddy - 06:50

Yeah. Oh, that's so interesting. I'm going back in time. I think little Maddie, she always liked the idea of travel. And so I had always planned on going to college and studying hospitality management, hotel management, that kind of sector.

However, whenever I went on my gap year, I knew that I really liked travel and I saw travel in this completely different way. I saw the powerful benefit of immersive education and learning from locals, learning from the land itself, learning from indigenous communities about the positives of nature and how they use agriculture. All these different things.

And so I then went to study travel but in a different lens, more through a sustainable or responsible travel lens and like conservation kind of angle. And so I had this really impactful experience on my gap year where I went to this local community in Ecuador called Hunin and they have historically been a mining community.

However, a couple decades back this mining company, they wanted to keep mining and mining, but the locals started being like, I don't know if we want that, like this is the main economy for our community, but there's a lot of health risks to us. A lot of people were developing different cancers and actually people were dying a lot earlier than they should have been. And a lot of people were getting displaced from their community.

So when we were there, we were talking to one of the local activists against mining and he took us on a hike and we saw the acid mine drainage from the mines there and saw what it was actually doing to the streams and the soil. And the community was no longer able to plant fruits and vegetables and be able to eat off of their own lands and drink their own water. And so hearing how that the environment and the impacted direct people and how we were so far away from this issue and I had never learned about it growing up in Pennsylvania. Even though it is happening in Pennsylvania, stepping into a different community and learning about it there and seeing the impacts of it was so transformational for me. And this activist, he prompted a question that really stuck with me all these years.

He said, how can you use your passion to You know, raise awareness or tackle this issue.

And so it got me thinking, how can I use tourism and my love for travel to really counteract this problem?

And so that's kind of how it got me into the field today of, I wanted to study sustainable travel because I think there is a huge impact for people going and seeing these issues and being like, Oh my God, like I had no clue that was happening and being able to bring back that knowledge and That now awareness and being able to think about the bigger picture and not just like, you know, we are using those parts to bring back and make iPhones and TVs and cars and all these things that we don't have a lot of awareness about. And so I think seeing it and seeing what it's doing to communities made me have a bigger scope and more empathy for the decisions that I make in my day to day life, but also Seeing that tourism can be this change for good and bringing people there and seeing it can really bring back all of these,

this new lens perspective, so yeah.

Michelle Dittmer - 10:31

That's awesome and I want to kind of underscore two things that you were highlighting there.

First of all, I got goosebumps when you said like how can you use your passions to bring about change because I think that is something that experiential education is so good at doing, not only helping you find your passions but also to think outside of the box because so often when we're high school students we're exposed to like six or seven different career paths and You kind of have to slot yourself into one of those, but when you get out and you see the world and you start thinking more broadly and you're exposed to more ideas, all of a sudden these different areas of study emerge, these different career paths emerge, these different passions that maybe we just needed to ignite a little bit can really take off and I know some parents are like, my kid doesn't like anything, they just want to play video games and sometimes it's just a lack of exposure to things and being able to get out there and try something new or be part of a big experience like that can be so powerful.

And then the other thing that I wanted to kind of circle back to is this idea of this group travel.

And being able to work with a local community and how Carpe Diem was able to facilitate that connection with the local community and to do it in a really respectful, authentic, sustainable way. So I was wondering if you could touch on that a little bit and what would you not have had access to if you had chosen to do it kind of on your own?

Maddy - 12:20

Yeah, I think Carpe Diem does a fantastic job with this. I think they have a lot of, and I think there are long lasting relationships. They've had them for years and years and I think they go into these communities in a way of like, what can we do for you? What can we learn from you? We don't want to like, I don't know, do anything wrong. And so I think this whole idea of voluntourism, which I know is a huge topic in The gap year space and just more of like the travel space as well. They didn't want it to be this, like, I don't know, like this white savior type of thing where we go and we do our service work and like, haha, like here we are, like, congratulations. We were here one week, you did it. Here's your gold star. And now we're going to leave and never come back.

But more of this, anytime we did a volunteer project with a community, it was all The intention was all about us learning from them and not us helping per se. Like it was a skill building, awareness growing kind of aspect. And I think Carpe really has a good grasp on these partnerships and they go into these partnership conversations with, Hey, this is our intention, we're not trying to do XYZ. And I think that's a really good way of looking at it.

And I think for me, I wanted a gap year where yeah like doing some of the more touristy things like I went to Machu Picchu which was amazing but we also got to do a lot of other random things that I would have never had exposure to like working on a banana farm for a week.

I would probably never do that and sign up for that by myself but I think Carpe Sets up this itinerary in a way where you get exposed to a lot of different things that maybe you would never opt to do on your own but it's actually super interesting and you might not like love that week but you learn something from that week and you might fall in love with a new place and the rest of your group might not love it but like you're thriving there and so it's kind of cool to be exposed to so many different things within a 10 week 12 week kind of program so that you can have a better self-awareness of like oh I really liked that I want to do more of Like that's a skill I want to build or like a place that I really love or this local connection, this person that I talk to really sparked a cool idea for me. So yeah, I think they do a great job.

Michelle Dittmer - 14:48

Yeah, and I think that's really important for anybody out there who's looking for some sort of volunteer opportunity on their gap year is to really look for those organizations like Carpe that are really, they understand that it's not about the service you provide on the ground, that actually the largest impact you're going to have is taking that learning home and applying it to the rest of your life. And I think, Maddie, that really kind of segues really nicely into how did that gap year experience influence your career and how are you still living and breathing those things on a daily basis?

Maddy - 15:30

Yeah, that's a great question. Um, yeah, so my gap year was like the number one thing that inspired my entire career. I mentioned that I really wanted to go into travel before even taking my gap year. Um, but more so like working in hotels or more, more of that kind of realm. Um, but this gap year, and especially that experience in Hooning, um, the mining community really made me think about the bigger picture. And now I work at World Wildlife Fund, which is a conservation nonprofit. Working on environmental stuff, wildlife projects, oceans, food, pretty much anything that touches communities and the natural planet.

And in my role, I'm on the travel team, so trying to get more exposure to these places and the environmental projects that are happening there and that World Wildlife Fund is able to fund. And bringing people into those communities, having those interactions with these local communities and partners on the ground to say, this is what we're doing, this is the wildlife that you can see and we need to protect them or else you're not gonna, no one's gonna have this travel experience anymore. And so it is this kind of cool way of looking at environment education because you're getting people out into the field and we have guests that have always dreamed of seeing a polar bear or of seeing The Monarch Butterfly Migration and they're able to see that and it's such a special remarkable

moment and then everyone in their group kind of gets to share that moment together and be like okay in 50 years what does this look like if certain things with climate change is happening or if certain projects don't get funded or if this species no longer exists like what happens to the surrounding community the people there and what also happens to the surrounding environment So yeah, I love what I do and I think my gap year, I would not be in the field that I am in today if I didn't take my gap year because that year-long experience really inspired a lot of things and the way that I look at things and just my desire to help protecting the natural environment as well and the people that live in it.

Michelle Dittmer - 17:52

And I think too you also wouldn't be here talking to me because you would have been too nervous to go out of that task. And so it kind of like it really does show kind of that the butterfly effect to have like one decision to take a gap year can manifest and change the course of your life and help you develop a lot of skills and Help you to find that fulfilling life, that purposeful life that so many people are really struggling to find.

And sometimes slowing down really does accelerate you and puts you in the right direction.

So knowing that you were that person and you're this person now, if you had to go back and talk to little Maddie, what advice would you give her or what advice would you give to folks who are considering the gap year pathway or just starting their gap year journey?

What wisdom can you impart on the listeners?

Maddy - 18:48

I would say take the time for yourself, I think. A lot of times our entire path is kind of carved out for us between elementary, middle school, high school like you're kind of just shuffled through for the first 18 or so years of your life and there's not much choice that you have like you can choose like what sports to play or you know what extracurricular at school to take whether it be art or like music but there's not a lot of like You are in the driver's seat, like you're making a big decision until you hit that point of high school graduation and you're looking at, do I want to go to college? Do I not want to go to college? Do I want to go into this career path? Do I want to do that? And it can be really overwhelming.

And so I think Michelle, just what you were saying, like give yourself that time to slow down, because if you're able to make a quote unquote, selfish decision for yourself, like It is if it's what you want to do and if college is the next step for you and you want that like absolutely go for it. But college is maybe not for everyone right away or ever and that's okay too. So I think just giving yourself that time to slow down and experience everything that you want to experience because truly like taking a gap year. There's not a ton of opportunities throughout life that you have just that time period to not have a lot of obligations to maybe some children, like you maybe don't have kids at that point or you don't have a career that you have to leave and like take a break from. So really giving yourself, it's an investment into yourself.

Michelle Dittmer - 20:31

Yeah, I like that term in investment because people understand that when you invest it pays dividends, like your investment grows and grows and that's what you can do for yourself.

It's something that's going to continue to help you throughout your life, whether that's connections you've made, experiences you've had, lessons you've learned, Competencies you've built, things you've been exposed to, things you can put on your resume, making yourself the most interesting person in the room with all these stories that you can share.

All of those things are going to continue to be stories you tell, like this podcast, right?

This happened many, many moons ago and yet here we are still discussing it and it's still impacting you on a daily basis. It really truly is an investment that pays off right away, but it also continues to pay off down the line as well.

So thank you so much, Maddie, for joining us on the podcast today. It's been so great to hear about your journey and your transformation and what it was like on a Carpe Diem education experience and how that continues to feed you on a daily basis. I guess literally and figuratively paying the bills and keeping you motivated.

But thank you so much for coming and joining us today. Thank you, Michelle. And good luck on your gap years. And if anybody wants to check out Carpe Diem education programs, we will link to them in the show notes.

And as always, my friends keep on adventuring.

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