Submitted photo##Camilla with her students.
Submitted photo##Camilla with her students.

David and Camilla Sumner: Taking a gap year

Until I learned Nicholas Kristof mention that his child was spending a year studying in China instead of immediately starting college, I had never heard the term “gap year.” Kristof was in town as a speaker for Mac Reads, and I was lucky enough, with many others, to be invited to a pre-speech dinner. The concept stuck with me, and my family started to talk about it around the kitchen table. It stuck with my daughter Camilla too, because as high school graduation approached, she began to talk more and more about gap-year possibilities. Once we realized she was serious, we began to explore opportunities and set some family guidelines.

First, before doing any type of gap year, Camilla needed to apply for and be accepted to college; and if the gap year worked out, she would then defer admission for a year. Second, any gap-year experience had to fit into a larger educational plan. In other words, it had to involve some sort of broad cultural, or other educational, experience. It couldn’t just be postponing college for a year. Third, it had to be self-supporting. In our research, there were many interesting gap-year opportunities, but most had a hefty price tag. We couldn’t afford to dip into the college fund to provide a gap-year experience. College was going to be expensive enough.

Guest Writer

Guest writer David Sumner is a proud dad who teaches American Literature at Linfield College.

We ended up finding an opportunity that met all the criteria: teaching English in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Camilla left the day after Thanksgiving and will return this summer. As a dad, I have seen real struggle and tremendous growth. For her first few weeks in Cambodia, I was afraid we had made a mistake, afraid we had let her get in over her head. But three months in, I now see this as a deeply valuable experience that will prepare her not just for college, but for life. I’ll let her tell you about it.

Here’s Camilla:

When I applied for a teaching job in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I had traveled a bit and been to Phnom Penh before, but when I landed here last November, all alone, it was a much greater challenge than I had anticipated.

Guest Writer

Guest writer Camilla Sumner is a Mac High graduate currently enrolled in her first term at Pacific Lutheran University.

I probably thought it would be easier because in 2013 I was able to spend a month traveling through Southeast Asia with my dad while he taught a study-abroad course. We visited several places, including a school in Thailand where the owner recommended I come back and work post-graduation. This was when I first started to seriously consider the idea of a gap year. Four years later, the job in Thailand fell through, but my dad had a contact at a school in Cambodia. I wasn’t set on a country, just on the idea of a gap year. So I applied and was hired as a kindergarten English teacher.

Over the summer and through the fall, I worked to earn money for the plane ticket. The fact that I was moving to Cambodia all alone didn’t really hit me until the week before I left. Even then, I still didn’t really understand the full extent of what I was getting into. I was warned to prepare myself, told it would be a tough transition, but I thought that teaching would be the difficult part.

The day after Thanksgiving, I got on a plane. Saying goodbye to my family was hard, harder than I expected. I was afraid; I spent most of the long trip across the Pacific regretting my decision and wishing I were back home.

Submitted photo##Taking a ride in a tuk tuk.

Twenty-four hours later, when I landed in Phnom Penh, a former Linfield student who is also teaching here picked me up at the airport. My nerves were calmed a bit, but on day one I was too afraid to step a foot out of the apartment. On day two, I was able to make my way down to the coffee shop under the apartment building. As the days turned into weeks, my confidence grew. With help from people I met along the way, I slowly made progress, but I was still in survival mode. I had never lived completely on my own and the learning curve was steep. For the first time, it was all up to me. I needed to buy food or I’d go hungry; I needed to empty the trash, to sweep the floor. I discovered that dishes and clothes don’t clean themselves. And being alone at Christmas was particularly hard.

After three months, however, my comfort and confidence have grown. I get excited about being independent, about the small things, like buying a new vegetable peeler, buying a used bike, or finally getting a laundry machine. My apartment didn’t have hot water so I had a water heater installed. Taking my first hot shower after six weeks was better than any Christmas present I could ever receive.

I haven’t just learned about the difficulties of living alone. I’ve grown with this new sense of pride for the life I have created here. I am completely self-sustaining. I have good friends, my own apartment, and the freedom and pride that comes with this independence is addicting.

Submitted photo##Camilla with her students during a Christmas celebration in which her class sang “Jingle Bells.”

And I love my job! Being responsible for my own class, choosing the topics, decorating the room how I like, and planning my own lessons have been deeply satisfying. Teaching these funny, wonderful kids is the best job I’ve ever had.

Although I have only been here for three months, I’ve learned so much. The most valuable part of the experience has been the difficult beginning. Without a doubt, this is the hardest thing I have ever done; but it is precisely because it has been so difficult that it has been so rewarding. I will leave for college next fall, but I feel ready. I feel that this experience has prepared me for any challenge.

I have built a life here and am proud of what I have done. I spent the first month in Cambodia counting down the days; now I’m trying to figure out how I can extend my stay just a little longer.


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