Zerah Hernandez - 2014 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

Ever since I was a child, I have dreamed of traveling to India. My great grandfather was born in India, and left India for Panama in the 1930s. He met my great grandmother in Panama, where they married and lived for the rest of their lives. My family's roots are in India and Central America, so I wanted to travel to those places to learn more about my own family's culture, to learn more about the world, and to learn more about myself.

Western Ghat mountains in Tamil Nadu, India
Trekking in the Western Ghat mountains in Tamil Nadu, India

Why did you choose LEAPNOW?

I chose LEAPNOW and the LEAPYEAR program because it integrated the outer journey of travelling to a new country and experiencing a new culture, with the inner journey of finding my own unique purpose in the world, and learning to be a conscious, whole, participatory member of our world community. LEAPYEAR is also accredited through Naropa University, and thus offers a full year of undergraduate credit and access to financial aid. So, LEAPYEAR was a natural choice, because rather than taking a year off, I was taking a year on. I was learning about myself, experiencing different cultures and ways of living, stepping into independence and adulthood, attending to my physical, spiritual and emotional health, making lifelong friends, and getting college credit while doing it.

You visited both Nicaragua and India on your LEAPYEAR journey. What was your favorite part about each country?

I travelled to both India and Nicaragua. My favorite thing about India was the devotion, tradition, and ritual so embedded in Indian culture. Ritual was part of everyday life. The culture is so rich and ancient, and it was really beautiful to see rituals and traditions thousands of years old, still kept alive alongside the Western invasion of media, marketing, junk food, and materialism. On Isla Ometepe in Nicaragua I was enamored with the everyday reverence and connection to the land that I saw within the indigenous people. The love that I saw my farm manager extend to a butterfly, or the respect to a line of leaf-cutter ants was something I rarely saw at home. Almost everyone I met had knowledge to share about the native plants and animals on the island, and it showed me that this connection to the land still does exist in many places in the world.

Volunteer leaning on a cob wall on Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua
Standing in front of a cob wall I helped build on Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua

What made your program abroad unique?

I think LEAPYEAR is really unique in the way that it nourishes the whole human being. The focus is not just on travel, but through travel and the retreats on campus, how we can connect more fully with ourselves and others, and live and work in community. It is as much about travelling the world and building bridges across cultures and borders, as it is about connecting to our very own essence and learning to be our most authentic selves.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

During group travel we checked in daily with our group leaders about our emotional and physical states, planned activities for the day, and talked about curriculum. They were incredibly supportive and did their best to accommodate everyone's needs and desires. During my internship we checked in weekly with staff and students and I had great support from the coordinators at my internship. They helped me choose projects and areas of interest to focus my internship on, and provided guidance when needed.

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

This is a hard one. I really loved my entire gap year experience, and honestly wouldn't change anything about it. LEAPYEAR was totally the right thing for me, and I'm so happy that I decided to take a gap year.

Describe a typical day in the life of your program.

While on campus a typical day starts with morning movement, meditation, and journaling time, followed by breakfast. Then we usually would have a morning workshop, followed by lunch, and then time working in the kitchen or on the land. After that we usually had free time to take a swim in the creek or relax before dinner. After dinner is usually time to work on curriculum, or sometimes an evening workshop.

During group travel almost every day was different, but each day started with morning movement, meditation, and journaling time. We would then do our activities for the day, which could be volunteering, sight seeing, trekking, or taking classes. Depending on our activities of the day, we would have some meals together, but sometimes we had meals on our own. We almost always had dinner together and it was a good time to check in with the group.

My internship was a little different. Again, I started every day with a movement, meditation, and journaling practice. At 7 a.m. we would convene with the other volunteers at the farm, and then do an hour of work, which could be bucket watering tree saplings, feeding chickens, or helping prepare breakfast. At 8 a.m. we would then break for an hour to eat breakfast. At 9 a.m. we would return to split up the tasks for the day. This varied a lot, but my favorite tasks were planting seeds in the nursery, preparing beds, collecting horse poop for the compost, harvesting clay for building, digging swales, chopping banana trees for the compost, harvesting pigeon peas or fruit, or helping out in the kitchen. At noon the day's work was done and we would have lunch together. Afternoons were for personal projects, volunteering in the community, cooking dinner or relaxing.

Girl on a train in India
I spent my 19th birthday on a train from Delhi to Varanasi, India!

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

During free time in India we enjoyed visiting the markets, looking at all the colorful textiles, and trying different street food. We went on lots of walks and played tons of games with my group and with children we met. When I had the chance I liked to sit in a cafe and have a chai while reading a good book. In Nicaragua I would bike to the beach, swing in a hammock, hula hoop, or walk into town to chat with local people or buy some yummy pan de coco (coconut bread). On Saturdays everyone had dinner in town and we would sometimes go dancing afterwards at a local hostel.

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

Accommodation varied. On campus we stayed in cozy bunks, similar to summer camp. During group travel we stayed in guest houses or homestays. It was usually very simple but always comfortable. During my internship I slept first in a private tent, then in a wall-less cabana in a bunk with a mosquito net, and during my last week I stayed in a nice house with my own room and bathroom, which was a treat after living outdoors for three months.

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

Before doing LEAPYEAR people should know that this is not a year off. LEAPYEAR is a year on, for sure. What I mean by that, is that LEAPYEAR asks a lot from you, and if you give it your all it gives soooooo much in return.

In addition to being a full year of undergraduate study, LEAPYEAR is a time to dive deep into who you really are, what you really love, and what you have to offer the world.

LEAPYEAR is truly holistic in that we explore what it means to be a whole human being, and how to nourish mental, physical, spiritual and emotional well being. Be prepared to be challenged, and be prepared for the most rewarding year of college on Earth!

International volunteers in India
The whole LEAPYEAR crew

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

My LEAPYEAR has impacted my life in so many ways. For one, it inspired me to keep traveling. After my gap year I spent yet another year off, traveling around the U.S., Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico. I really gained the confidence and independence to follow my bliss and to explore my interests, whether that includes college some day or not. The skills that I learned in authentic communication, generous listening, and living in community are now part of my everyday life, and thanks to LEAPYEAR I can carry those things with me wherever I go.

Would you recommend LEAPYEAR to others? Why?

I would DEFINITELY recommend LEAPYEAR to any young adult who is interested in traveling to learn about different cultures and gaining a more global perspective, learning more about themselves, their emotions and unique gifts, and wants to make lifelong friends in a supportive, conscious community.