Gap Experiences + Emotional Intelligence: An Unstoppable Force

Emotional intelligence (EQ), is being able to recognize, control, and express your emotions, and having the skills to handle interpersonal relationships empathetically and judiciously.

EQ is a major buzzword these days across the media and more often, education. You may have heard of “social and emotional learning” or even its cousin, intercultural competence (cue our philosophy).

But it’s not only educators who see the value of EQ, The business world has begun to recognize its significance for successful leadership and teamwork. In fact, leadership and employee development programs at many companies are centered around the idea of improving their employees’ EQ to improve company productivity levels.

Today’s companies are now looking for people’s “soft skills” or emotional intelligence on job interviews as a major component as to whether or not to hire a candidate. According to the World Economic Forum's report, "The Future of Jobs," emotional intelligence will be one of the top 10 job skills by 2020.

Even Oprah extols the virtues of EQ, claiming there may be many people with higher IQs than her in the world, but her ability to feel what others are feeling and have compassion for what others are going through (her EQ) is what has led her to be truly successful in life.

In fact, when it comes to her own success, Oprah attributes high EQ as more important than high IQ.

So why not work on deepening your emotional intelligence even before you start college?

A gap year is a great way to experience the transformative learning that leads to a higher emotional intelligence level and ultimately a more successful life.

Data suggests that having a higher EQ equates not only to higher academic achievement, but also enhances school cultures’ as students with high EQs are more self aware, confident, empathetic and better at connecting with others.

Gap years have been reported to teach students three essential components of emotional intelligence: empathy, self-awareness, and how to build healthy relationships:

  1. Empathy: Students engaging with themselves, the Other, and the world, as they do on a gap year, provides them with the opportunity to see firsthand that all humans experience the same emotions, suffering and joys, helping them to gain compassion for difference and understanding for the Other’s position in the world.

  2. Self awareness: By being abroad and immersing oneself in another culture, students are able to see one’s own cultural makeup and to recognize that they are products of their own cultures. Their encounters in a different culture will force students to have heightened awareness about their own behavior and its impact.

  3. Relationship building: As students interact with people in a foreign country at a deeper level, their well-being depends on forming relationship within difference. This human relationship based learning experience helps them to learn how to connect with and build healthy relationships with people who are different than them.

    Hands down, one of the biggest perks of our jobs as gap year counselors is not the site visits (though we do love those), but we love witnessing our students return from their gap year with greater maturity, a sense of purpose and direction, and increased emotional intelligence.

Presenting at the 2017 Global Education Conference

Did you know...

  • Only 1/3 of US states actually require teachers to complete diversity training
  • Fewer than 5% of teachers in the U.S. are fluent in a second language
  • And only 3% of education majors studied abroad in some capacity in 2016 

While these statistics are pretty dismal, it only takes a few steps for educators to totally change their classroom dynamics and support their own intercultural competence development. 

A few weeks ago, I was honored to present at the 2017 Global Education Conference, a 4-day online event that focused on globally connected teaching and learning.

Some key takeaways:

  1. Understand that YOU, the educator, are the vital link to supporting intercultural learning in your classroom
  2. Be cognizant of your perception of your students and their abilities
  3. When it comes to discipline and behavior, take into account the whole context
  4. Capitalize on your classroom and community's existing diversity
  5. Seek out other voices and bring them to your classroom conversation and engagement

Check out out my session:

Intercultural Competence for Educators: What's In It For Me? 

Cultivating a Global Skill Set

Do college admissions counselors and employers value gap year and education abroad experiences?

A resounding YES. But there’s a caveat.

Students need to be able to clearly articulate what lessons they learned while abroad and how those translate to a global skill set.

gap year skill set.jpeg

The best strategy I offer to my students is to use the CAR approach whether it’s for college or graduate school admission, a competitive scholarship or fellowship, or internship/job.

CAR: Challenge. Action. Resolution.

Consider what comes to mind when you think about the following:

  1. What was the challenge or conflict you faced?
  2. What action did you take?
  3. What was the resolution?

Take some time to journal and reflect upon your time abroad, whether you participated in a summer program or you are attending university full-time abroad. Answering these questions will also help you look back on some of your transformative experiences:

  • What was the most challenging situation you faced during your experience abroad, and how did you deal with it?

  • Give an example of something from your study abroad experience that has changed you and why?

  • Describe a time when you anticipated potential problems abroad and developed preventative measures?

From living with a host family in a South African township to adapting to your professor's cultural expectations of you and your academic work, you probably had to overcome a lot of challenges while abroad.

The point is, you must be able to tell your story and what you gained from it. And that takes practice and preparation!

global skill set gap year

Gap Year Programs and College Credit: Tips for Maximizing Time and Money

This article originally appeared in the Independent Educational Consultants Association August/September 2017 Insights Newsletter.

By now independent educational consultants (IECs) are well aware of the common reasons students take a gap year before starting college: recovering from academic burnout, desiring self-discovery, and cultivating a specific skill set, to name a few. Even though there are literally thousands of gap year programs that foster personal and professional development, the complicated process of choosing a program centers on aligning the program with the student’s post-gap year academic plans. Below are some tips to help college admission consultants navigate the issue of students earning college credit prior to officially starting their degree program.

gap year college credit

Tip #1: Understand institutional policies on deferring admission

A student considering a gap year should complete the college application process alongside their non-gap year peers. As more institutions recognize the benefits of the gap year, some admissions officers are encouraging gap year participants to defer admission. Still, there are a fair amount of institutions that require students to reapply for admission (University of California and California State University systems). Depending on the school, re-applying can mean anything from submitting a brief form to completing the entire application process again in order to be considered for grants, merit scholarships, and other types of financial aid.

It is best to communicate directly with the assigned admissions officer to inquire as to how gap year participants should officially notify their chosen college of their plans. Some schools even have a designated admissions officer who works specifically with the gap year population. Students should find out early in the process which admissions officers handle gap year students (if any) and what the specific deferral policies are for gap year students.

Tip #2 Determine if earning credit is necessary

Gap year participation by U.S. students has skyrocketed in the last decade. Increasingly, organized programs are offering college credit for participants. Since financing a gap year remains one of the biggest obstacles for interested students, federal financial aid in the form of loans has recently become available for a limited number of programs.  This is made possible if the program has secured a school of record, an accredited institution that awards course credit to participants on independent educational programs.

The opportunity to earn college credit on a gap year program is complicated. While this is a game-changer for students who are eligible for financial aid, earning credit from a different school can sometimes mean students may be required to reapply as a transfer applicant. Additionally, courses taken for credit may not be accepted if there is no articulation agreement in place between the two institutions. Additionally, those students who choose a gap year program because of the possibility of earning college credit should be cautioned to manage their expectations. Despite the gap year phenomenon gaining momentum, it is unlikely gap year participants would end up graduating early or successfully waiving general education courses due to the credit they earn on a pre-college gap year program.

Tip 3: Encourage learning for the sake of learning

From a motivation perspective, students should not base their gap year decisions solely on the possibility of earning college credit. Sarah Dib, International Studies Director of CIEE Global Navigator High School Abroad, encourages students to “treat the gap year as an opportunity to explore the world and learn about themselves.” If a program does offer college credit (and the selected college accepts it), this is a value added component of the program, but it shouldn’t necessarily be the principal reason for choosing it.

Similar to the college application process, students should consider their personal, educational, and professional goals when considering a gap year program. Through powerful experiential learning, gap year students can break out of their comfort zone while exploring the intersection of their academic and personal interests.

Final Thoughts

IECs are quickly taking on expanded advising roles requiring deep knowledge of gap year programs including international volunteering, work exchange and internships, organized adventure travel, skill-building courses, and language studies abroad. Dedicated gap year counselors are a growing specialty among IECs, and as the number of students needing a break from the rigors of traditional academia increases, we must strike a delicate balance between navigating the bureaucracy of higher education and truly understanding the student’s needs and interests.

Expectations: The Ultimate Killer of Travel Dreams

I'm fresh off a three week road trip where I journeyed across the country from Los Angeles to Chicago. Unlike other trips where I read books, watched documentaries, pored over blog posts, and talked to fellow travelers about my destination, my goal for this trip was simply to minimize my expectations. While I did a fair amount of research on local hikes, campgrounds, bear safety (yikes!), etc., I wanted to experience the trip without pre-conceived notions of what others had to say about it. 

Journeying across highways and country roads allowed me to simply observe my surroundings, watching and listening without assigning meaning or making assumptions. This is undoubtedly one of the most difficult feats when it comes to traveling across cultures and regions even within your own country.

When advising my gap year and remote work clients, I  encourage them to start their travels with no expectations. This encourages curiosity and a sense of openness.  When travelers minimize expectations, we become more willing to push out of our comfort zones. We more easily adapt to our new environment, and most importantly, we can more easily stay focused on the present. Silvia Plath knew this approach well...

"If you expect nothing from somebody, you'll never be disappointed." - Silvia plath

In embarking on a trip or cultural experience with an open mind and a sense of curiosity, we can more accurately identify what assumptions we're making about whom. We can more easily see that our perspective is just that--our own small perceptions of the world.

the road trip stats:

  • 11 states

  • 2582 miles

  • four national parks (Zion, Yellowstone, mt rushmore, badlands)

  • six state parks/national forests (Custer sp was my fave)

  • one rodeo outing (CODY, WY)

  • 10 campgrounds/cabins/hotel/guest bedrooms

  • 350 bison watched from afar

  • zero bears seen (fine by me!)


Global Learning Nerds Unite!


It's been a busy June! Earlier this month, me and 10,000 other passionate international educators from 100+ countries joined together at the NAFSA 2017 Annual Conference in Downtown Los Angeles (my backyard!).

We talked shop: trends, innovative practices, how to deal with global conflicts, and where the future of meaningful travel is going.

This was my seventh conference and as usual, it fed my [nerdy] global soul!

Meetings over Turkish coffee, networking events across DTLA, thought-provoking professional development sessions, and inspiring training seminars… Add 45+ languages being spoken and you have a global mix of individuals working together to bring the world to young and old.

The best part? I attended workshops by Janet Bennett, Ph.D. and Darla Deardorff, Ph.D., two of the leading researchers in intercultural competence research. Personally, I think they are the biggest reason why meaningful travel is more popular than it’s ever been before.

They have legitimized HOW and WHY breaking out of your comfort zone is so essential to survive in our globalized world.

Intercultural what?

Intercultural competence is a pretty simple concept actually.

It’s about being curious, self-aware, and empathetic towards others. That’s it.

Sure, it seems fluffy on the outside but us travelers know that experiencing a different culture has a huge impact on our identities. Something that has often been indescribable until Drs. Bennett and Deardorff (and a few others!) established its presence and importance.

“We are not truly educated until we have stepped outside our respective countries.” - Isabel Wilkerson

(NAFSA 2017 Plenary Speaker, Pulitzer prize winning journalist, and best-selling author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration)

"You Live and Learn!"

Lately, the education world has been abuzz with schools, universities, and organizations who are literally tearing down the classroom walls. Students/employees/all humans are using actual experiences--whether it's observing primates, cooking a Moroccan meal from start to finish, or wandering the palace of Versailles--in order to invoke meaningful learning experiences.

This is not a "trendy" 21st century approach to education researchers. John Dewey, education theorist, is considered the grandfather of experiential learning. Decades ago, Dewey said something along the lines of, "We can't just read about the world!"

He claimed there is an organic and intrinsic connection between education and personal experience.

In other words, "you live and learn!"

If Dewey were alive today though, he would wag his finger and tell us experience cannot always stand alone as an educational experience. Nope--everything depends on the QUALITY of the experience, as some experiences may be detrimental to learning. Educators, program designers, and gap year coaches (oh, hey!) play a crucial role in guiding the experience.

Educators, program designers, and learning coaches (oh, hey!) play a crucial role in guiding the experience.

Another "celeb" in the education theory world, Kolb, expanded on Dewey's beliefs. Kolb says that meaningful learning happens as a result of action (observing primates) and reflection (What did you notice about the primates? How did they make you feel when you were watching them from afar?).

Learning occurs only when carefully selected experiences are supported by reflection (thinking/journaling/discussing it), analyzing it (what could it mean?), and synthesizing (this is what it meant!).

There is a lot more to understand about learning--the physiology of it, the motivation behind it, its relationship with memory, and more. Academic researchers haven't even reached the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding how the brain navigates learning processes. 


  • Association for Experiential Education (2015). What is Experiential Education? Retrieved from 
  • Dewey, J. (1998). Experience and education: The 60th Anniversary Edition. West Lafayette: Kappa Delta Pi. 
  • Kolb, A. Y. and Kolb, D. A. (2008). Experiential Learning Theory: A dynamic, holistic approach to management learning, education and development. In Armstrong, S. J. & Funkami, C. (Eds.) Handbook of Management Learning Education and Development. London: Sage Publications. 

The Perfect Book For Your Next Long-Haul Flight

It's the time of year where things are finally slowing down. Whether you want to get a head start on prepping for your summer travels or you really just want some down time to cozy up with a cup of hot chocolate, here's the Intercultural Adventures book club pick:

The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business


This book is for every person who has ever left their native land for an experience outside the norm. While it's slanted towards jet-setting international business folks, there is so much great info all packed into a few hundred pages. Author Erin Meyer is a U.S. born cross-cultural communication specialist and university professor who lives in Paris with her family. She offers unapologetic stories from her own experiences on the frontlines of cultural exchange as well as sound advice that we can all use--even when exchanging on our own home turf. 

"When interacting with someone from another culture, try to watch more, listen more, and speak less. Listen before you speak and learn before you act."

Meyer gets into location specific details, which are especially helpful for gappers. She touches on major intercultural communication concepts, like direct vs. indirect communication. Are you spending time in China, Japan, India, or Indonesia? Then you'll have to read between the lines for what ISN'T said. The same goes for many African cultures (Kenya and Zimbabwe) and to a lesser degree some Latin American and Latin European cultures. 

The crux of the book outlines a "culture map" that shows how cultures differ from each other and what you, as the "cultural guest" can do to thrive during your next international sojourn.