It takes guts to get outside your comfort zone, travel to a foreign country, conquer your biggest fear on the side of a volcano (yes, seriously), and ground yourself in your goals for your career, education, and life. It wasn’t easy, but that’s exactly what UnCollege Fellow Manna achieved during her gap year.
One year ago, Manna was just another frustrated, rebellious teenagers in India unsatisfied or disinterested with the direction her life was headed.
So what changed?
“I felt this urge to travel and explore the world outside my comfort zone.”
When research on alternative options led her to UnCollege, Manna took the plunge into what she now refers to as “the most liberating, life-changing, mind-opening experience of my life.”
To kick off her gap year, Manna traveled to Bali, Indonesia – her selected destination for the Voyage phase. Immediately, she found herself in an environment that threw her out of her routine and forced her to embrace another culture, people, and way of life. “I didn’t think I was ready to do that – but I knew I wanted to; I knew I had to.” She spent her days educating local students from the village of Tianyar, a poverty-stricken area of northern Bali. Despite the challenges and efforts needed to integrate herself into the community, Manna explained that she explored more internally than outwardly during her Voyage, saying that it was “healing” and observing that she “realized things about myself I had never thought existed in any human.”
All that self-exploration came with a healthy dose of adventure, Bali-style. “I came face-to-face with my biggest fear when I trekked up a volcano with a bunch of strangers in the middle of the night,” Manna recalls, “and made it on time to watch the most incredible sunrise I have ever seen.”
Next up came San Francisco, where Manna and the other UnCollege fellows dove headfirst into hands-on learning with workshops, networking, and personal projects. For Manna, that included trying to figure out how to turn passion into purpose. “I had known for a long time that I was passionate about photography, I just didn’t know how much it took to do something constructive with that passion until I got to Launch,” she says. Her focus shifted quickly upon realizing her true interests.
In addition to the volunteering Manna had done in Bali, she had volunteered for nonprofits in Mumbai, which meant she had experience and interest in the development sector. “Before UnCollege I worked as Program Manager for The Green Batti Project, a one-on-one mentoring program for children in underserved communities,” Manna explains. “I enjoyed my time there but felt I lacked experience and didn’t quite feel ready to run an entire program by myself. It was all very overwhelming at the time.”
Enter the clarity of Launch phase: “UnCollege helped me ground myself and allowed me to see the next step instead of the next five.”
What Manna realized was that she was more passionate about working in the social sector than pursuing photography as a full-time career. Noting an innate desire to follow her heart, Manna began brainstorming ways to fuse her two passions.
Manna says that the Launch Phase and this discovery was “so exhilarating and by far the most excited I’ve ever felt for anything,”and tells us she “hold[s] this idea in my heart everyday and still take small steps to make it happen.”
In fact, that’s one of the biggest lessons Manna says she learned during her gap year. “I learned that it isn’t about our destinations, it’s the journey that matters and most of all, the connections you make, the memories that last and the gratitude for the little things.” She references a quote she read every day before leaving for Voyage and following Launch: “If we wait until we’re ready, we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives.
As an international fellow, Manna says the transition to life in the USA was pretty seamless. Her sister spent five years in Academy of Art University in San Francisco, which gave her insider information on how things worked--minus a dependance on Google Maps to get from point A to point B (which happens to the best of us, right?).
What was the only thing that threw her? “I experienced so many things that it didn’t ever feel stressful until it started to get incredibly cold during December and I had never felt that kind of cold before, coming from India.” Despite getting “terribly sick” toward the end of Launch, Manna maintains “it was all very exciting and now I have a simple, continuous excitement for life itself.”
Even outside the intense learning happening through experience, Manna also learned from other fellows and experiences that didn’t fit into the UnCollege curriculum or volunteering. She recalls meeting her roommate, Jade, and being shocked that Jade only brought along one bag: “I couldn’t fathom it at the time and figured she had her real bag with her downstairs. I was nervous but I was too hungry to care, we ate pizza and had a blast,” Manna explains. “I caught myself alone in the room with her and just that one bag she had. I had to ask “Is that all your stuff?” I had probably formed an opinion about how I felt before she said “Yeah!” but I just couldn’t or maybe didn’t want to process it being possible at the time.” It proves we seriously learn all the time from everything around us--”I realized a lot about myself, just by sharing a room with her and observing how minimalistically she lives her life,” remarks Manna.
So, life-changing experiences? Check. Making discoveries about what you want to do with your life? Check. Finding yourself on the side of a volcano in the dark? Check.
But adventures aside, we still had to ask Manna: Why take a gap year?
“It is a life-changing experience. I have genuinely grown in ways I never knew I could and it’s totally magical,” she says. “Travel, friendships and experience - it’s a good idea for anybody.” That pretty much sums it up.