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Sunsets and Service: Stories From my Gap Year Serving Abroad

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at SPU chapter.

Putting my statistics homework aside, I looked out my dorm window to see a gentle pink sunset glazing over my school’s football field followed by the miles and miles of cornfields of central Indiana. It was the second semester of my freshman year of college and I was at a point in my life where I felt like I wasn’t living up to my full potential and knew that I needed to make a change in my life. Six months later, I looked outside the window on my 17-hour flight headed to Brisbane, Australia to see the sun turning the sky a burning red and orange over a plain of clouds. I spent the next six months traveling across eastern Australia and Japan and as I reflect on this time, I am reminded of the remarkable sunsets I witnessed as well as the opportunities I had to connect with and serve others across the world. Here’s a few instances of those sunsets and service. 

My team, as a part of the missions organization I had joined, packed up our bags and headed on a road trip to a town two hours north of where we were based. For a week, we had been camping in tents scattered across a local farmer’s vast backyard. Every morning, we would wake up at 6 a.m. to start working in the farmer’s fresh fields, placing mulch and sowing flower seeds, banana trees, and a collection of other plants. We would aim to be done by noon before the Australian summer sun scorched us. Admittedly, I didn’t particularly enjoy working in the fields in the early morning and the hot weather. At the end of the week, a church we had connected with was hosting a sausage sizzle (hot dog cookout) at a local park and had invited our team to join. With a rainstorm a few miles away, the sky was patterned with darkened clouds engulfed by a rich purple that the sun gleamed as it set. We got to enjoy a true Aussie dinner fit with sausages using a piece of buttered bread as a bun, topped with ketchup and fried onions. Within the next few hours, we got to chat with the locals, lose about 50 arm wrestling matches, and learn more about the life and history of the people of the town. When people would ask why we were there, we would tell them about our work at the farm and they would respond with gratitude. I realized that while I would never see the fruit of our labor, the people of this small town would get to reap the benefits of our work for years to come. The farmer we were volunteering for intended to give out the produce that we had planted once it blossomed. While we would never see the full impact of our work, we reveled in the thought of how cool it was that we had the opportunity to partner with this farmer to help this community in the future. 

A few months later, a smaller team of myself and six others landed in the global and impressive city of Tokyo, Japan. The first few weeks of our time in Japan were spent hosted by a small art school in a humble, familial, town called Ome which lies on the furthest west outskirts of Japan. Having never met these people and seldomly communicating online before arriving, they greeted us with abundant and generous hospitality. The night we arrived, one of our hosts, accompanied by four elderly local gentlemen, took our team out for dinner. Not only did I have the best fried chicken I’ll ever have in my entire life, but I also had the joy of meeting these kind gentlemen and hearing their stories. We spent the next few weeks serving at the school by teaching classes, hosting a Valentine’s day party, playing worship at an affiliate church, and more. We served in tangible ways for the local community. On our last day in Ome, with the permission of the local grocery store, we set up a portable soup kitchen to serve the community. With our minimal Japanese, the local’s minimal English, and the help of a translator, we got to meet people from all kinds of backgrounds and ages. It was hours of good soup and even better conversations. Once the evening started approaching and the food had run out, we packed up our things and headed back to the school. After cleaning up, we had a bit of free time and I took that as my opportunity to finally use the ripstik that one of our hosts had lent me. I hadn’t used a ripstik since I was a kid and was elated to get to use it around the backstreets of this Japanese town. By that point, the sky was littered with fluffy clouds painted on a golden yellow backdrop as the sunset. As I cruised down alleys and streets with the sun setting in front of me, my heart brimmed with gratitude. What an incredible blessing to have met so many people in this small outskirt of Tokyo and to have had the opportunity to help foster community and relationships with these people. Even if it was as simple as teaching a dance class or serving a cup of soup, we got to be a part of this community in a truly unique way that would leave an impact on us indefinitely. 

The final weeks of my six-month journey landed me back in Australia with my team. Summer had come to a close and fall was upon us which meant school was back in session. This time, we were in a rural country town on the East Coast in a school whose programs are catered for kids who don’t always fit into the mainstream school system. This includes neurodivergent kids, kids with behavioral issues or learning disabilities, and more. My team and I got to spend a week at this school working one-on-one with kids. I say working, but really it was more like we got to hang out and be their friend for a week, and we had a blast. I became fast friends with a girl in her 11th year who was eager to graduate and start a new life. We went to all of her classes including agriculture, shop, woodwork, mechanics, and so many other unique classes with attentive and gentle teachers. The staff at this school sought to cultivate and encourage the potential in every one of their students. I expressed to my new friend how cool I thought she was for getting to go to this school and also for her taste in fashion. She replied saying she thought I was cool for being from the same state as her favorite artist, rapper “NF”. Four days later, Friday had arrived which meant it was our time to say goodbye. We played a final game of volleyball with the Physical Education class and then said our goodbyes to the students and staff. That evening, my team sat outside basking in the pale glow of the pink sky as the sun descended behind a fruitful orange tree. We talked about how blessed we felt to have gotten to know the kids and the staff. While we may not have done anything extravagant, we got to call out the potential in these kids’ lives and encourage them. We didn’t change their lives by any means, that wasn’t our goal, we just got to be their friend for a week. And that left all of us changed. 

My time abroad is full of more sunsets and service experiences. I feel so blessed to have seen the painted skies around the world and to have met hundreds of beautiful people from all backgrounds and cultures. During my trip, as I gained new experiences, I gained new perspectives. I grew in my ability to connect with people and to serve selflessly. I could go on for ages about the sights I saw and the cool things I did. But ultimately, I am changed because of the people I met in these places. Because of them, I seek to love others well and deeply.

Jane is a transfer sophomore at Seattle Pacific University studying Cross-Cultural Psychology. Her home is west Michigan but also spent a part of her childhood growing up in Hong Kong. Additionally, she is coming off a gap year living in eastern Australia and Tokyo, Japan doing missions and volunteer work. It is Jane's first year being a member of Her Campus and is excited to pursue her interest in writing through being able to write about things that she is passionate about. Aside from academics and writing, Jane enjoys watching movies (usually "10 Things I Hate About You"), listening to Taylor Swift, and scrapbooking with any and every scrap or memorabilia she has.