Her friends send her texts complaining about their 9 a.m. classes. At 9 a.m., alumna Anna Dierks ‘17 is surrounded by 53 four-year-old students, teaching them how to read an English word such as “cat” on the board and then scribble a picture of a cat in their notebooks. On Friday nights, her Snapchat stories may blow up with party pictures from Mass Street. Anna is usually posting pictures of her students or the raw beauty surrounding her in Kigali, Rwanda.
But in these moments of scrolling through social media in an entire different country, Anna is able to realize how far her independence has grown. Unlike the typical semi-structured routine of a college kid, Anna is never comfortable in her environment right now— she is forced to constantly explore and discover her own ways of building her life wherever she goes.
Anna had her first year of college all planned out. She knew she would be attending KU in the fall, she had her housing assignment in the GSP residence hall, and she had her schedule tailored to her business major. But she had always craved a new experience that was out of state, and this goal of her’s was not in her current plans for the next year.
Realizing that she wasn’t genuinely excited for college, Anna decided to take a gap year. Through taking this gap year, she has been taught to be independent in the sense that she’s now confident in her ability to be alone and be happy. Anna’s first semester has been spent volunteering in Spain through the International Volunteer Headquarters (IVHQ), and volunteering in Rwanda where she has been residing with her cousin who lives there. For the next semester, Dierks will be travelling to Costa Rica, Peru and Ecuador where she will assist in more volunteer projects through the IVHQ.
“One of my biggest fears was to move so far away from home and be alone and so unhappy and regret not being in a more comfortable place,” Anna said. “But [this gap year] has shown me that I can move away and thrive.”
For six weeks in Madrid, Anna was teaching English to orphans. According to Anna, the kids would be burnt out after school, so she would mainly spend time playing with them and integrating English words into conversations, or would do activities such as flash cards. On the weekends, though, Anna was free to go on her own mini excursions, and she learned to love the independence of being able to choose wherever she wanted to go for however long she wanted.
“I took a weekend trip to Valencia once because I wanted to prove to myself that I could travel somewhere on my own, which is kind of ironic because I went to Madrid by myself,” Anna said.
According to Anna’s mom Jennifer Dierks, Anna’s always been independent, but being immersed in foreign countries where she doesn’t speak the language or know many specific details about the area has provided her with a different challenge.
“There have been times [for Anna] when it’s really hard, but I think she has found a lot of inner strength in realizing ‘I have to take care of myself’ and ‘I have to figure this out,’” Jennifer said. “I think these things have made her stronger, and very self-reliant. She now knows she can take big things on and make it happen.”
Currently Anna is living in Kigali with her cousin, where she was working as a teacher’s assistant for three weeks teaching English and other subjects to younger students. Her students’ summer break began on Nov. 17 though, so she is now tutoring seniors throughout Africa for the ACT with a program called “Bridge to Rwanda.”
“After working with little kids [in Kigali], I’ve been able to see how age is not a defining factor, which is inspiring,” Anna said. “I feel like in America, it’s seen as impossible to do such big things at young ages, but here we see people doing the things at young ages, and proving that that’s not entirely true. I’ve learned more about what’s possible, and what’s possible for myself.”