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June 6, 2007

A different kind of education

by Maya Calabrese, Online Managing Editor
While her friends spent the past year pulling all-nighters, cramming for finals and writing some 40 page papers, 2006 Blazer Sally Lanar interned in a biology lab in Australia, taught English in China, and had more fun than can be found in any typical college town.

Lanar was on the path to immediate success-- she had completed four years of the Communication Arts Program, interned at Walter Reed and the National Institute of Health (NIH) and been accepted to several colleges. But what she really wanted was a break.

"By the end of high school I was really burned out," she says in a telephone interview. "I said to myself, 'I need to stop this to find out who I am and what I want.'" And she did just that, deciding to defer to the University of Chicago and take a gap year to travel and work around the world.


Work hours

Lanar began her year in mid June of 2006,working for Cellabs, a biotech company near Sydney, Australia. At the beginning of the internship Lanar was kept busy photocopying and sorting through scientific journals.
Blair 2006 graduate Sally Lanar began her year off working in a biotech lab in Australia. <i> Photo courtesy of Lanar</i>
Blair 2006 graduate Sally Lanar began her year off working in a biotech lab in Australia. Photo courtesy of Lanar


Soon enough she was in the lab, working with microscopes, slides and Petri dishes. But the most exciting time came when she was told to leave the lab and collect water samples in "the stinkiest, most disgusting locations you can imagine," as she described in her e-mail update to friends.

After collecting the samples, Lanar brought them back to the lab and put them in incubators overnight. "The next morning when the bacteria and phages in the water samples had grown up in the incubator, the lab stunk to high heaven," she recalls, " it was disgusting." Luckily, her next job was much cleaner.

After three months in Australia, Lanar moved on to China as a part of Projects Abroad, an organization that places volunteers in areas of interest such as teaching, medicine and journalism. She signed on to teach at Zhen Ze Middle School, located about three hours outside of Shanghai. For the first two months Lanar taught classes of about 25 students, ages 16 to 17. For the last two months, Lanar's classes each had 50 students. Lessons focused on themes of shopping, school improvement and traveling, each of which the students joyfully took part in.

Lanar fondly recalls her most memorable lesson-- dancing. For this lesson, Lanar took over the school gym and attempted to teach the Macarena, the Electric Slide, the Waltz step, Cotton-Eye Joe and the YMCA. In an update, Lanar further explained the experience.
Lanar's students at Zhen Ze Middle School learning the YMCA dance. <i>Photo courtesy of Lanar</i>
Lanar's students at Zhen Ze Middle School learning the YMCA dance. Photo courtesy of Lanar


"It was classic," she writes. "The boys insisted on all standing on the opposite side of the room from the girls, and when we told them to make a circle to watch us demonstrate the waltz step, the boys and girls shrunk into opposite huddles at both ends of the gym and it took a good five minutes to convince them that they didn't have to hold hands in the circle, much less dance with each other."

Whether the lesson was dancing or communication skills, the kids were constantly eager to learn. "With each lesson, I grow more impressed not only with the students' knowledge of English but also with their willingness to learn," writes Lanar. "In America and in Europe, you are always told that China is the country of the future. I'm so fortunate that everyday, when I go to class, I get to see that future unfold in front of my very eyes, in the smile of a student."

Lanar completed the last leg of her trip in Lyon, France. There she worked for the French branch of Handicap International, a non-profit organization working in over 50 countries to assist people coping with disabling situations such as war, natural disasters and HIV/AIDS.

Free time
When she was not busy collecting swamp water or teaching, Lanar took time to see the sights, explore her unfamiliar surroundings and live out new experiences that helped her gain confidence.

In Australia, she took surfing lessons, went scuba diving, posed with koalas and roamed with kangaroos. Surfing was one of the more difficult endeavors. "It was like two hours of falling off the board, being pulled underwater, and gulping down more salt water than I cared to," she wrote in an update.
Lanar takes some time to surf in Australia. <i>Photo courtesy of Lanar</i>
Lanar takes some time to surf in Australia. Photo courtesy of Lanar


But Lanar's most memorable moment was hiking the Spit bridge, a trail in Sydney harbor with numerous lookout points for fantastic views of the harbor. While at one of these points, Lanar slipped. "Before I knew it, I was on my bum and sliding straight towards a pile of dirty, muddy water. And I landed directly in it," she recalls. But the fall turned out for the best.

Lanar landed at the feet of the Macquerie University Bushwalking club. They helped Lanar up and invited her to join them on the rest of their hike. Lanar quickly made friends with two foreign exchange students from Sweden and France. "For the rest of the walk, I have to admit that I did not pay much attention to the scenery since I was talking with them," she wrote.
Lanar and friends hike down a 7 kilometer (almost 4.5 mile) mountain in Australia. <i>Photo courtesy of Lanar</i>
Lanar and friends hike down a 7 kilometer (almost 4.5 mile) mountain in Australia. Photo courtesy of Lanar


Australia was not the only place where Lanar met new people. As a teacher in China Lanar met many new kids and adults, calling for some great memories. Her most fond was Christmas.

When Christmas came around Lanar had been in China for three months and wanted to do something special for her students, who knew about the American holiday but had never experienced it. She decided to host a party in her flat and invited several of her students. The day of the party Lanar went to pick up her students, only to find them in a line outside her office, bright eyed and bearing gifts.

She brought the students back to her flat where they exchanged gifts, sang jingles and ate bowl of candy. "It was a cultural exchange that I will never forget," she says. A reporter from the local paper even came to take pictures and interview her for an article.

Though she will never forget these experiences, Zhen Ze was not nearly as interesting as Sydney or Lyon. "In China I couldn't do anything like go to the movies or the theater," she says. But the pace quickly changed when Lanar arrived in France.

In Lyon Lanar used a weekly newsletter called Le Petit Bulletin to locate local cultural activities and plan her weekends. "Lyon is pretty small and easy to travel around so it's easy to find something to do," she says.

Lanar had the most fun spending time with her international friends, who were also anxious to do all that they could. "I spent time with other travelers because it's hard to get in with locals because you feel like an outsider," she says. "Locals are also less willing to do stuff because they are used to the area and it is not as remarkable to them."

Reflection

While her trip has been full of hard work and new cultural experiences, Lanar has also experienced a deeper change. Like many high school students, Lanar had low self-esteem. But in deciding to take a year to be independent, meet new people and discover herself, she was able to change that. In every new place she went, thing she did and person she met, Lanar's sense of self rose. "I felt new and interesting and like I was worth knowing," she says.
Sally Lanar, pictured exploring an ice cave on a glacier, expressed a boost of confidence in her year abroad. <i>Photo courtesy of Lanar</i>
Sally Lanar, pictured exploring an ice cave on a glacier, expressed a boost of confidence in her year abroad. Photo courtesy of Lanar


With the confidence she gained during her trip around the world, Lanar feels ready for anything. "Being able to love yourself and know you are worthwhile is essential," she says.

But she also notes that taking a year off is not necessarily everyone's answer for finding themselves. "You have to be a fairly responsible and organized person. You also have to be fairly brave." Bravery was the key for Lanar. "At the beginning in Australia, the hardest part was realizing I'm so far away from anyone who knows who I am and what I want to do," she says.

Lanar is spending the remainder of her gap year in Lyon. She is returning to the United States in August, just in time to start her freshman year at the University of Chicago.



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  • Ellie on June 6, 2007 at 2:37 PM
    :) I'm so happy for you Sally!!!
  • Chips buddy on June 6, 2007 at 3:14 PM
    Sounds like a lot more fun than college, but also probably more expensive (but worth it.) Congratulations on breaking the mold and making the most out of your life.
  • z on June 6, 2007 at 9:02 PM
    good for her. it's very refreshing to know there are still people who know how to think for themselves and do not simply bend to sterotypical society.
  • heh on June 9, 2007 at 10:59 AM
    You know, it really says something about our school (and our society as a whole) that taking a gap year between high school and college is considered radical.

    Which is not to put down the incredibly awesome and cool things that Sally's doing.
  • Bobby Lanar on June 12, 2007 at 8:31 PM
    Well, just here to say that Sally never made it to August and came home during the month of May. There was a problem with her visa in France that forced her to come back is the basic story. She's had a great year I think and I really recommend it from a brother's perspective. She was a straight A student before she left and I must say extremely uptight due to all the CAP pressures. Now that she's back, she is a completely different person and much easier to relate to socially.
    As for the cost, University of Chicago next year is going to cost our family a LOT more than her taking a gap year. Roughly 20k-30k more.
    A gap year really opened her eyes into the world and its many cultures. It's one thing studying them in school, it's another going out and exploring them yourselves.
    As for now...she's just sitting back and relaxing.
    Bobby out
  • alumnae3 (View Email) on July 5, 2007 at 11:40 PM
    This is so cool.
    @heh: Only in the US is it stressed 2 go st8 from hs to college to masters/phd etc.
    In Europe so many do gap years. Diana's son Harry did a gap yr!
  • alumane3 on July 5, 2007 at 11:41 PM
    SC: Pls could you pass my info (lilkunta at excite) on to Sally. I'd like to know what program she went to to go to China, Aussie, France. The details and such. I already got my passport! Thx.
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