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Amy Dingler in front of the Campus Y at UNC
Photo by Dan Sears

Amy Dingler came to Carolina from another Fayetteville, the one in Georgia.  But instead of heading due north, as one would expect, Amy’s route to Chapel Hill took her in a different direction—through India, Hungary and Madagascar, with a detour through Europe.

As one of UNC’s first Global Gap Year Fellows, Amy deferred her admission to the University to take a gap year—generally a year between high school and college—to pursue international volunteer service and cultural exploration.

Amy and another volunteer on a research dive collecting survey information in the Bay of Ranobe, Madagascar Photo contributed

Amy and another volunteer on a research dive collecting survey information in the Bay of Ranobe, Madagascar
Photo contributed
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“I hadn’t considered the idea [of a gap year] before the Global Gap Year Fellowship opportunity was presented to me, and it really made me want to come to UNC even more because it demonstrated to me that the University wanted to invest in me,” Amy said.  “Having the freedom to create my own experience and delve into issues and areas that I was especially interested in made the work that we put into it more significant and rewarding.  It was the best decision of my life so far.”

“As challenging as my volunteer work could be at times, I knew there were people who looked for me each morning…and I felt a little more loved every day just by being there.”

Created with a $1.5 million commitment to the University from an anonymous donor, the Global Gap Year Fellows Program was designed and is administered by the Campus Y, a department in the Division of Student Affairs that has served as Carolina’s incubator for social justice since 1860.

Darjeeling in the mountains of north India

Darjeeling in the mountains of north India
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Richard Harrill, Campus Y director, said the fellowships are not specifically need-driven but intended to make gap-year opportunities available to a broader range of students. “We aim to support students who perhaps hadn’t thought of a gap year, or who, if they had, wouldn’t have had the resources to take one,” he said.  “This [inaugural] group of applicants was very diverse and included students who are often underrepresented in traditional study abroad programs.”

Intended to reinforce the University’s burgeoning global education and entrepreneurial climate, the Global Gap Year Fellowships usually span nine months and provide a $7,500 stipend for travel, living expenses, program and other associated fees.

Along with Amy, who is also a Carolina Covenant Scholar, four other scholars were selected for the 2011-2012 academic year.  Their travels took them to China, India, New Zealand, Spain, Italy, Hungary, France, Australia, Peru and the Galapagos.

Amy set some specific goals for her gap year experience:

  • Volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata, India;
  • Grow spiritually;
  • Use her time of service, reflection, travel and work to decide what she wanted to study at UNC;
  • Expand her mindset to accept and love the world as it is: in its brokenness and wholeness; and
  • Refocus her academic life.

Amy volunteered at the Kalighat hospice with the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata, India

Amy volunteered at the Kalighat hospice with the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata, India.
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And she met them by volunteering with Missionaries of Charity and Dadawas Initiative in India, working with Caritas Menthas in Italy and the Foundation for Democratic Youth in Hungary, as well as with Reef Doctor in Madagascar. She also found time to explore the life and culture of Venice, learn to scuba dive and study Hindi.

As an Asian studies and business double major, Amy said her Carolina education was proving truly life-changing, and she had yet to set foot on campus.  At the tender age of 20, Amy is technically a first-year student, but she is quick to tell you that she did a lot of growing up over the last year.

She said nothing could have prepared her for the impact her time in Kolkata, India, had on her, not only because of the emotions it stirred but the personal strength and fulfillment she gained from helping others so desperately in need.

“There is so much poverty there, but I saw just how important the littlest things were, from a smile to a bedside chat to holding someone’s hand…just that human contact,” she said.  “As challenging as my volunteer work could be at times, I knew there were people who looked for me each morning…and I felt a little more loved every day just by being there.

About the Bonner Leaders Program

The Bonner Leaders Program at UNC is part of a nationwide network of more than 80 colleges and universities that provide service-based scholarships and leverage federal community service work-study funds to support intensive undergraduate community service and social justice activities throughout students’ college careers. Each year, a diverse group of incoming first-year students are chosen through a competitive application process emphasizing service and leadership.

“I can tell you that a gap year is not for everyone because it requires independence, self-reliance, confidence, problem-solving, critical thinking and self-motivation—but then, those are skills we all need no matter what we do,” Amy said. “An experience like this certainly helped me grow in so many ways personally that had little to do with academics.”

Amy taught English in a school in Dadawas village

Amy taught English in a school in Dadawas village.
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Amy also said that for her, the gap year was a huge pressure release from the competitiveness of just trying to get into a chosen college and a welcome respite from academic burnout that comes along with that. “So many times I felt like I was learning for the wrong reasons…just to get into a good school and take that next logical step on the path to the future,” she said. “On my gap year, I was able to learn for learning’s sake, and just enjoy it.”

Now that she’s back, Amy has brought her experiences to bear on her college life and is sharing it with her peers.  She is part of the Bonner Leaders Program at the Campus Y and works with SCALE, the Student Coalition for Action in Literacy Education.  She tutors local elementary school children with SCALE and also does some social media projects grant writing as well.

Amy talking to high school students in Budapest, Hungary, about how to get involved in their community

Amy talks to high school students in Budapest, Hungary, about how to get involved in their community.
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She and her fellow Gap Year Fellows are also looking for ways to encourage students to explore these opportunities and encourage other universities to follow suit. “It’s so important for us to set the tone for this program, serve as ambassadors and give back,” Amy said. “Our goal is to take UNC’s model and package it for other universities. To have other schools adopt the idea, adapt it to fit their particular construct and apply the principles to make it happen would be the ultimate accomplishment.”

Hopefully by the time Amy and her fellow Fellows graduate in 2016, a number of similar programs will be making a difference in other students’ lives around the country.

For Amy, the biggest difference she sees in herself—confidence.

By Hope Baptiste ’87