College, by way of Guatemala

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A year ago, Devereaux Swaim was heading down a familiar path of many high school seniors.
She had applied to four colleges, been accepted at three and was on a waiting list for her top choice, Emory University in Atlanta.
But something kept telling the Salisbury High student it wasn’t the right time for entering college.
Even as she decided to attend Wake Forest University and her parents, David and Marianna, put down a $500 deposit, Swaim was thinking more and more about waiting.
She investigated the gap year concept, which is more prevalent in Europe and Australia but growing in popularity in the United States.
In a gap year, graduating high school students opt for a period of transition in which they look to work and grow. Often, it involves heading off to live and volunteer in foreign countries for at least a semester, with the intent of entering college a year after most of their peers.
By the end of May, Devereaux had decided to participate in the Travellers Worldwide program, signing up for a month in Argentina and two months in Guatemala. She would not be a freshman at Wake Forest.
“It was a huge decision,” she says.
Swaim has returned from her fall adventure with greatly improved conversational Spanish, new friends from across the globe and a broader understanding of Central and South America.
She will be heading back to Antigua, Guatemala, for two more months in February, taking locally donated staples such as food, clothing and soccer balls with her.
Back in Antigua, Swaim will reprise her role as a teacher’s assistant at the same primary school and live again with her host family, the Marins.
“Doing this before going to college is definitely a great thing,” she says. “It’s been a really great experience.”
More colleges and universities are seeing the benefit of students who take the gap year before coming to their schools. Most of the students they’re making admission decisions on have good grades and test scores, but not many have shown the personal initiative and courage to live and work for several months in foreign countries.
“A lot of schools see it as a positive thing,” says Swaim, 18. “I don’t regret it at all. It definitely was a good decision.”
During the month of December, Swaim has come back to Salisbury, where she’s working at L.A. Murph’s. Interestingly, she has been applying again to colleges, but this time she’s looking forward to her freshman year in the fall.
Swaim has reapplied to Emory and has interest in schools such as American University in Washington and Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Her areas of interest include Spanish, archaeology and, now, Latin American studies.
Swaim kicked off her gap year in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she worked at three separate volunteer projects.
In Colegio Guido Spano, she served as an English teacher assistant, helping to check homework and lead students in correct pronunciations of their English words. She also taught English at a boarding school for young girls where she and a British sidekick, Helen, devised lesson plans and coped with the discipline of rambunctious girls in the fourth through seventh grades.
Her most rewarding Argentine project involved taking a bus a couple days of the week to Milhouse Hostel, where she tutored three adult members of the hostel staff. Swaim helped them learn English so they could communicate better with their English-speaking guests.
She became close friends with Adrian, a man of about 50.
“I always assigned him homework because he would ask me for it, pumping his fist in the air and saying, ‘Yes! Homework!’ she says. “… I loved spending time with him and helping him fill his little notebook with vocabulary and verb conjugations that he then studied during his work breaks.”
In Buenos Aires, Swaim stayed with a host mother and her son. She was able to explore the city with British friends from her program, visiting all the tourist sites such as Recoleta Cemetery, San Telmo Market, La Boca and Tigre.
They also took a day trip outside the city to Rosario for a huge soccer match between Argentina and Brazil. On her final night in Buenos Aires, Swaim and her friends were able to attend “El Fantasma del la Opera” (“Phantom of the Opera”), “which was incredible.” she says.
Swaim had gone to Argentina with church mission trips to Mexico under her belt. Her six semesters of Spanish at Salisbury High had made her proficient in reading and writing Spanish, but she discovered quickly that her conversational Spanish was weak.
The Spanish spoken in Argentina also was “very different” and more difficult to follow than what she found during her two months in Guatemala. There, the dialect was familiar and the Guatemalans spoke a lot slower.
Her Spanish improved quite a lot over dinner conversations with her Guatemalan family, which included a grandmother, her two daughters and one of the daughter’s children, a 7-year-old “sister” to Swaim.
“I feel as if I became a part of the Marin family during my stay with them,” she says.
Swaim also built good friendships with fellow gap-year program participants from countries such as Norway, Germany, Austria, Australia and Holland.
They traveled together to Lake Atilan, billed as the most beautiful lake in the world; Chichicastenango, home of Saint Maximon; Livingston, a village next to the Caribbean Sea and accessible only by boat; and Tikal, home of ancient Mayan ruins located in the Peten jungle.
Devereaux’s older sister, Allison, visited her for 10 days during Allison’s fall break from Oberlin College. Allison accompanied Devereaux and her friends when they climbed Volcano Pacaya and stood just meters away from slowly moving lava.
The group roasted tropical flavored marshmallows on the end of a walking stick, Swaim says.
“What really made the trip for me was my volunteer placement,” Swaim says. “… Most of my 24 students wore the same outfits for several days in a row and had a single pair of shoes, which were very worn with frayed laces or holes in the toes.”
But she never considered the children dirty or unkempt. They had neatly combed hair and brought wide smiles to class, never embarrassed by hand-down clothes that were usually too big for them.
Swaim learned that the Guatemalans never throw anything away, believing their things can always be used by someone else.
While Swaim seldom pictured herself as a teacher in the States because of all the rules, tests and bureaucracy, she enjoyed teaching in a place such as Guatemala where students consider school a great opportunity, not a chore.
Her students’ homes sit on the side of a mountain and are essentially sticks held together by corrugated metal sheets. Despite the poverty, the country offers a beautiful backdrop and breathtaking views, while the friendliness of the people took even Swaim, a true Southern girl in her upbringing, by surprise.
“I love the people of Guatemala,” she says.
In January, Devereaux and Allison Swaim plan to drive to Arizona where they will work on an organic farm near Tucson for three weeks.
Then it’s back to Guatemala for Devereaux, who says her gap-year experience has opened her mind to the notion that she could live anywhere in the world, if that’s what the future holds for her.
While some might think her high school friends are now a year ahead of her, Swaim says she no longer considers putting college off that big of a deal.
“In a way,” she says, “I’m a year ahead of them.”