Book Review: A Gap Year Volunteering


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Jason Birkenstock’s debut work, A Gap Year Volunteering: The College Student’s Guide, is the book I wished I had when I was planning my travels abroad.

Three years ago I sat in my parent’s living room crying next to piles of clothes, electronic converters, and unpacked suitcases. I was planning for a year abroad in France through the Adventist Colleges Abroad program, and I felt vastly unprepared. Here I was, moving halfway across the world, and I had no idea what to expect. Was I packing the right things? Was I making the right decision? What is it really like living in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language? I was terrified.

In the end, I made it to France alive and well. The people were kind, and the experience was unforgettable, but I will never forget those weeks of panic leading up to my departure date. I lay awake at night worried that I had made the wrong decision, and I felt very alone. Wasn’t I supposed to be excited about moving to France? I thought I was fulfilling my seven-year-old dream; but I was afraid.

Birkenstock’s book addresses all these fears and more as he describes his own experience in choosing to take a gap year between his graduation from Walla Walla University and continuing his pursuit of a law degree at Pepperdine University. Never intending to take a year off from school, Birkenstock’s plans were thrown for a loop when he received his Law School Admission Test score. Earning what he described as a “mediocre score,” Birkenstock was suddenly unsure how to proceed. After some panic and prayer, he decided to take a year off after graduation to volunteer.

Like most students who are deciding to take a year off to volunteer, Birkenstock was met with challenges. Where should he volunteer? Which program should he go through? Was this really what he wanted to do?

He explored all his options, researching volunteer programs across the United States, including Greenpeace. In the end, he chose to go through the Student Missions Office at Walla Walla University because it was the most convenient for him. Birkenstock offers up the research he discovered through his investigation and encourages students to look toward their own schools to see what programs are already in place, as they are likely the easiest option.

Even though Birkenstock’s experiences are shaped by his Seventh-day Adventist background and the Adventist program he went through, his guidebook is applicable to anyone who is struggling through the process of volunteering abroad. Published through an independent publisher, Birkenstock hopes that any student can pick up his book and learn from his missionary experience. A Gap Year Volunteering: The College Student’s Guide is for the student who is considering to volunteer, and wants information on how to proceed. Birkenstock’s book isn’t aimed to advise about a certain region to volunteer; it instead focuses on the process of someone preparing for a trip abroad and how to acclimate culturally once they arrive.

Written from his open-air room in Ecuador, Birkenstock offers honest advice to those thinking of taking a gap year to volunteer. He walks readers through the entire process, from decision-making grids, to plane tickets, to mental preparedness. He reminds readers to vaccinate themselves properly, not just for where they’ll be living, but for any potential regions they might wish to travel. He recommends the best companies to buy flights through and makes suggestions on the kinds of questions to ask before departure, such as if there is a dress code requirement on location or if there are laundry facilities?

While not earth-shattering advice, the information Birkenstock offers in his book is the kind of things travelers forget to consider in the hectic countdown to moving day. Sure, you remember your camera, but did you remember to pack a USB to transfer files? Yes, you remembered your passport, but did you think of making a digital copy and emailing it to yourself so you can access it from any computer in the event it gets stolen? What Birkenstock offers his readers is concise, organized advice in easy-to-read language. The 106-page book, which can be ordered online here, can be consumed in one evening sitting. It’s the back-pocket guide for gap year volunteers.

Although Birkenstock’s experience is centered on his own personal exposure to Ecuador, his book encompasses knowledge and advice for all destinations, reminding readers that the best piece of counsel for those traveling abroad is to be open-minded. He mixes his advice with anecdotes from his own life as a six-foot-four, English-speaking gringo living in Ecuador. His laugh-out-loud stories assure readers that no matter how awkward or out of place they feel, everything will be all right.

A Gap Year Volunteering: The College Student’s Guide doesn’t end with the traveler’s arrival; Birkenstock utilizes all his knowledge as a volunteer high school teacher to guide those who are also spending their time abroad teaching. He offers advice on how to control a classroom; he suggests methods to prevent cheating; and he gives step-by-step instructions on several games to teach English vocabulary while still having fun.

What is refreshing about Birkenstock’s guide is his brutal honesty; he isn’t afraid to hold back. He doesn’t describe how every moment was perfect; he doesn’t say he wasn’t homesick; he doesn’t say there won’t be moments of frustration. Instead, he offers something else: an attitude.

“I won’t say that organizations are dishonest in regards to their facilities, but I will say they often leave out quite a bit,” he warns in his chapter entitled Shock Factor. “Laundry facilities may be a washing machine in a field. A pool may be a dried up hole in the ground. Don’t worry about it.”

He reminds his readers that once they have arrived at their gap year location that it’s time to commit. They’ve agreed to come volunteer — they need to decide to have a good time or not. They are in control of their experience. He doesn’t just leave readers there, though. Birkenstock recommends ways to gain control of homesickness, methods to channel negative energy, and good tips to making local friends.

Jason Birkenstock knows what it’s like to be abroad and alone. He also knows how to not only live through the experience, but to conquer it, and to thrive.

Rachel Logan is an intern in the Spectrum office in Sacramento, California. She recently graduated from Walla Walla University where she studied creative writing and was a page editor for the campus newspaper, The Collegian.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6211