Why I Chose To Take Time Off From Penn
by Megan Bridges
The necessary paperwork has been processed, so it looks like I will officially be taking a leave of absence in the Fall 2015 semester to continue my internship with Nuevas Esperanzas until early January! Admittedly, the decision was impulsive. In less than one month of arriving in Nicaragua, I was already seeking the advice of my college mentors and family on the matter. Although I have since garnered a reputation for spontaneity, it should be noted that risk taking is also a key leadership quality sought by employers in the business and finance sectors, just to name a few. The decision will not only strengthen my resume for future employment, but it also promises to be personally enriching. Learn why I decided to take a leave of absence near the end of my college career, and how I hope to make the most of my time abroad.
1. Seizing opportunities as they come. One of the comments I heard over and over again while deliberating is why not wait until after graduation to work abroad: “Megan, you only have one year left of college. Be patient and graduate on time.” True, but who says I need to graduate in May? I am a huge believer in taking opportunities as they come. All the planets were aligned for me to take time off this upcoming semester–I had the approval of my supervisors to extend my internship, and I happen to have the financial resources to fund a seven-month stay (of course, it helps that living expenses are low in León). We all know it’s difficult (read: impossible) to anticipate the future, so if circumstances permit… and the opportunity seems worthwhile… and your academic advisors give the go-ahead… then what’s stopping you from taking a leave of absence? Trust me, classes and extracurriculars will be there when you return.
2. Networking. I was recently told by the founder of the International TEFL Academy in León that the city has approximately 58 non-profit organizations! As someone interested in a career in international development (preferably in Latin America), living in Nicaragua means I have tons of opportunities to network with expats and Nicas alike in the industry. León is not a huge city, meaning that those working in the non-profit sector have contacts at the NGO office down the street, or that one all the way on the other side of town. It is my personal mission to expand my professional network to not only better understand the local impacts of humanitarian assistance, but also to possibly land a job here or at another branch location when I graduate. (Stay tuned for an upcoming spinoff to my blog where I will feature one-on-one interviews with the movers and shakers of the non-profit world in León.)
3. Gaining an appreciation for other perspectives. As corny as it sounds, living abroad can expand your horizons. By engaging with locals and expats–especially the wonky ones–I have been challenged to learn a different set of ideas and values than those shared by the small Penn bubble I have come to know. Meanwhile, some of my expectations have completely burst. For example, most of the rural campesinos with whom I work wear brand-name clothing, own cell phones, and have Facebook accounts (I’m friends with many of them online). While they undoubtedly have high financial need, they do not conform to the stereotypical “victim” imagery propagated by international charities in the United States. Additionally, living in León has exposed me to an entirely foreign sense of humor–one that is both smart, but vulgar, and sometimes extremely dark. I quickly learned that nothing is off limits, and if you become the target of a joke, take it in stride.
Of course, there is also the ugly. As I wrote in my last blog post, Nicaraguan women face an uphill battle as they push for policy reform to expand their rights. Machismo is extremely pervasive here, and it extends from the street to the home and workplace. For example, many women distinguish wives from lovers. If their husbands are found cheating, they justify the infidelity by convincing themselves that as wives they hold a more privileged position than their husband’s lovers. The thinking: He chose to marry me, not her. Although discouraging, it is also exhilarating to live in a country where a women’s rights movement is underway and the prospect of achieving real progress is near.
4. Improving Spanish language skills. My Spanish was (and still is) far from perfect, but I have made a noticeable improvement since arriving in Nicaragua at the end of May. You could say that my Spanish has certainly… diversified. With slang like diaverga and diacachimba added to my lexicon, I can now concisely articulate that my time here thus far has been f***ing awesome. On a serious note, I am also learning how to communicate in a professional, Spanish-language setting at work. The majority of the Nuevas Esperanzas staff are Nicaraguan, and many do not speak English. Therefore, the primary language used in the office is Spanish, while you could say that out in the field it is Nicañol. I also have had the incredible opportunity to live with a host family, which means I practice the language nearly every waking moment. I’m looking forward to the day when I begin to dream in Spanish!
5. Living by the motto: Work hard, play hard. No, I’m not talking about getting black-out wasted and praying to the porcelain god every weekend. I mean finding a work-life balance that makes learning new skills fun and enjoyable. I am fortunate enough that play makes up a major part of my time both at and outside of work. My internship with Nuevas Esperanzas allows me to regularly hike, rappel (sometimes off waterfalls), visit volcanic craters, wield machetes, and play oofa (or tag) with children. Of course, I also do traditional work, such as writing web content, conducting research, teaching English, and, soon, fundraising and grant writing. Some may call me crazy, but I have just picked up a second internship for a Philly-based startup called LocalAventura, which aims to connect tourists with local guides in Latin America using an Airbnb-like platform. I am in the midst of writing a report for them on the state of the tourism industry in Latin America. While I have arguably spread myself thin, I find both internships fulfilling. That’s what’s important, right?
When I’m not blogging for Penn IIP, volunteering for Nuevas Esperanzas, or conducting market research analysis for LocalAventura, I am taking salsa dancing classes, supporting the local band Kinto Sol, swimming at the beach, or grabbing Toñas at my favorite bar with friends. While considerable pressure exists to graduate in four years, it is possible to channel that Penn drive and energy into cultivating new skills outside the classroom through work and play. Be bold, break the mold, and follow your passions through an exhilarating internship or abroad opportunity at any stage of your college experience.