Shayna Zema - 2011 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad? 

I had never anticipated taking a gap year, but when I found myself in my senior year of high school with options that just didn’t seem to excite me for college, I began to seek out other options. I had spent a couple weeks the summer before my senior year volunteering solo in Costa Rica, and I wanted to pursue more options that inspired me and led me to challenge myself on a deeper level. Going abroad was honestly something that seemed to just happen, and I can’t imagine where I would be if it weren’t for the seemingly random choice.

Foreign teacher with students in Nicaragua

My students in Nicaragua

Why did you choose Carpe Diem Education?

After investigating a myriad of programs in the U.S. and abroad, I chose Carpe Diem Education. It wasn’t a difficult decision at all. As soon as I spoke with the CD headquarters on the phone, I knew we’d be a good match. I’m a vegan-Celiac who also has religious observances, and Carpe Diem was understanding and willing to accommodate me. I remember one program gawked at me for not “integrating” into the communities I’d be part of by refusing to eat meat; immersion doesn’t have to mean one sacrifices one’s own beliefs!

Additionally, Carpe Diem programs offered college credit, and since I didn’t know my future plans for education at the time, I decided to go with a program that offered me such an option. Ultimately, I chose Carpe Diem because its program structure offered volunteer work and language study in an integrative manner unlike any other program, and their representatives were genuine, real, inspiring, and compassionate individuals who I could trust and respect. I was able to do a “group trip,” gaining skills and comfort, and later embark on a solo internship, all during the course of one year on their Latitudes program. Crazy!

What was your favorite part about your location?

The best part of Carpe Diem group trips is that they are mobile. I get bored easily, and I loved the dynamism of teaching English, building ecological bathrooms for a pre-school, rescuing baby sea turtles on the beach, and leveling a plot of land for an indigenous community center, all in the same month. My favorite part of traveling in Central America as part of Carpe Diem’s CAM trip was that I was able to experience “urban” life in big cities, like Xela, Guatemala, while also living without contact from the outside world at Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica.

I had the opportunity to learn from my host families, from locals, and from other members of my group, as each and every experience pushed me, challenged me, and encouraged me to grow.

During my independent internship in the rural Cotopaxi region (Sierra) of Ecuador, I was able to develop my own sense of home abroad. I fostered a sense of family with the other workers at the Hacienda, and because we all lived on site, or were from the neighboring indigenous neighborhood, we created a community. I was able to dramatically improve my language skills to native fluency, learn how to prepare delicious Ecuadorian cuisine, teach English in the local school, work in the garden and farm, translate documents, and ultimately, put Ecuadorian Sierra culture into perspective. During my year abroad, I developed a love for the rich, vivid, and loving cultures in Latin America, while I felt constantly supported, safe, and challenged to push my comfort zone.

Volunteers with Nicaraguan host family

A traditional Maya Homestay

What made your experiences traveling in Latin America extraordinary? 

I believe everyone, whether they travel or never leave their hometown, has experiences that are uniquely their own. Throughout my time in Latin America, with its diverse activities and beautiful group of locals and volunteers, I never felt like I was a tourist, volunteer, or foreigner. I just WAS. Each day, I felt like I was, divinely, in the exact place I was supposed to be.

I met people on park benches, overnight buses, arduous hikes, and lounging on beaches who would soon become dear friends and impact my academic and personal life till today. So I believe that’s what makes my journey so unique; it’s connective quality that allowed me to see how beautifully divine our journeys are in this world.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

During the CAM semester trip, my two trip leaders, Adam and Allison Haigler, filled in as parents, friends, and role models. The dynamic duo fostered an amazing family among the other participants and me, despite us all coming from different backgrounds and places. They were there to push you, helping you reach your potential, while also being able to step in during moments of weakness to bolster you. They taught me so much about myself, the qualities I wanted to enhance, those I wanted to change, and the ones that are uniquely mine. They helped teach me to be more confident in myself and my abilities, and inspired me to keep traveling and connect more with my environment. They organized group meetings multiple times throughout the weeks of the group trip. They created events for participants’ birthdays, as well as dinners-out for the group “just because.” They were a source of stability sometimes in the seeming chaos of the outside world with words of wisdom.

The ground staff at our various volunteer projects was also incredibly friendly, resourceful, and took a real interest in getting to know each and every one of us. As a Latitudes student, I was also assigned a coordinator to help me with an internship placement for the spring semester. My coordinator helped guide me to hone in on options in Latin America to further enhance my language skills and allow me the opportunity to dabble into multiple fields for my diverse interests. Most importantly, over emails and phone calls, my coordinator gave me the freedom to truly craft my own internship. I took the reigns coordinating my internship with the Hacienda through its completion in Ecuador, and was blessed to have the support of Carpe Diem, and my new found travel skills, behind me the whole time.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

Nothing. Every single thing during my year abroad taught me different lessons, and if I were to have approached them differently…well, I’d be in a different place, have had a different experience, and be a different person.

Foreign students dressed up for dinner in Nicaragua

Dressing up for a "family" dinner

Describe a typical day in the life of your program. 

Is that possible? Oh wow, I’ll try…wake up early with the roosters at sunrise, eat breakfast with my host family/friends/coworkers, spend all day volunteering (teaching, cooking, translating, gardening, digging dirt), with a break for lunch till about 3 p.m. When there were language classes, they comprised the “volunteer” hours for the whole day. Then the afternoon and evening: explore, continue working, talk with friends, do yoga, write in my journal. Rest early at night after candle-lit dinners (sometimes because that was the form of “electricity”). Repeat with a smile the next day!

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

It’s amazing, a whole year “off” on a gap year, yet “free time” seems so fleeting! Since during the group trip time was very structured with volunteer work, language classes, group meetings, etc., during free time my favorite thing to do was simply explore. Some days, like in the urban city of Xela, I’d sit in the rotunda in the middle of the central park and people watch. What and who is a “Guatemalan”? What was the rally happening in front of the municipal building about? How did the locals spend their free time? Why do or should I care? I would ask myself questions like these as I sat and wrote in my very detailed journal.

During free time in rural areas, I enjoyed simply sitting and conversing with the amazing other people on my Carpe Diem trip. Some of my fondest memories are from Rocja Pomtila, an indigenous Mayan village outside Cobán, Guatemala. After a long day of physical labor in the hot sun, a delicious lunch, and a refreshing bath in the nearby river, all the girls on my trip would gather on a couple of beds in a homestay house, huddle under the mosquito net, and talk about silly things in our personal lives. Sometimes our host families would join too, and bring us some freshly chopped coconut!

When I was in Ecuador, I loved my service work so much, and because it involved so many diverse tasks, I guess I never used my “free time”! When I finished my volunteering at the Hacienda, I explored the rest of the country on my own, which was breathtaking, inspiring, and taught me so much as a single, female traveler in the developing world.

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?

During my Latitudes year with Carpe Diem, my accommodation varied immensely. During the group trip, accommodation included both urban and rural homestays (sometimes with and sometimes without a Carpe participant as my roommate), hostels, and farms. My favorite part about the variety was that it allowed for cultural immersion and simultaneously community strengthening among the participants, and I could never forget my first outhouse experience in Guatemala!

When I lived in Ecuador, during my independent internship, I stayed in the workers’ quarters of the Hacienda. We woke up at the same time, ate our meals together, and all worked in incredibly wide-ranging capacities to ensure the smooth operation of the place. I felt an unparalleled sense of home as I lived and breathed in the environment for several months. All my environments were incredibly supportive, which is what I needed to carefully follow my personal path.

What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?

WARNING: If you are looking for a program to stay in your status quo, be “comfortable” (Western luxuries and emotionally), and bring America with you abroad, then stay far away from Carpe Diem! Living conditions will, at times, be very rural. Food, at times, might be different than that to which you are accustomed. Sometimes, you’ll be so overwhelmed by the foreignness of being away that you’ll wish you were back home. But, if you want to embrace those feelings and push through them to get to know yourself better, then find your way onto a Carpe Diem program ASAP!

Man speaking at a political rally in Xela, Guatemala

A political rally in Xela, Guatemala

Now that you're home, how has your time abroad impacted your life?

Everything in my life post-Carpe is a direct result of my gap year. Being away and participating in selfless activities allowed me to better hone what it is that I want to do, and it taught me how to best achieve my goals. I applied to new schools, enrolled at Brown University for its open curriculum and academic freedom, and embraced disciplines that allowed me to follow my curiosities. I used my resourcefulness and newly gained fluency in Spanish to travel frequently, gained comfort engaging in independent research abroad, and, most importantly, worked closely with contacts made in Latin America during my gap year to create an entire network that allowed me to access the ministers in the government for my thesis work in Ecuador.

Even after college, Carpe Diem still plays a role in my life. It has shaped my priorities and values to not jump at any job offered, and it has allowed me to pursue an unconventional path writing and exploring, at present, in the Middle East.

Would you recommend Carpe Diem Education to others? Why?

I would wholeheartedly recommend Carpe Diem Education for the best possible gap year experience. Their group trips teach you the necessary skills for traveling on a budget, maneuvering a foreign space, and staying safe. Additionally, their programs imbue a sense of confidence into the participants, something that post high-school and before college is essential, so that they can carry on your path without having the voices of others stop your stride. The only problem is that once you seize the day, you’re never going to be able to stop doing it the Carpe way.