“I clicked on a GLA link by chance… I wasn’t really looking for something life-changing, but I really got lucky in that aspect.”
Name: Michelle Zhang
High School: Dover, MA
Education: Dover Sherborn High School
Passions and Interests: Art, travel, and culture
Transformational Experience: Tanzania: Heart and Soul of Africa
Making an Impact: Aims to lessen inequality through gap-year NGO work and artistic endeavors
Michelle, like many teens in the United States, didn’t have an outlook for changing her life that involved traveling thousands of miles and putting herself in a place she’d never been before. It wasn’t until a chance encounter with a link to the GLA website that everything changed.
[GLA] looked really interesting to me. I knew almost immediately that I wanted to go to Africa. The continent is a mystery to most people in America, and I wanted to dispel myths.”
Michelle ended up choosing to attend GLA’s Tanzania: Heart and Soul of Africa program, a 3-week flagship course that included an excursion to Mount Kilimanjaro, an immersive experience with the Maasai people, and a service project at a nearby school. “Going on the trip,” Michelle recalled, “made me see that you can solve these problems in a realistic manner. It made me want to go into nonprofit work.”
As a junior in high school, Michelle is already beginning to think about what her future holds, and how she can best make an impact. One of her plans is to get real-world experience by taking a gap year and working for an NGO in that time between school. Her fascination with international relations and global studies means she’s thinking international for her gap year – no chance of staying too close to home.
Reflecting on her experience in Tanzania with GLA, Michelle saw it as one spark that contributed to her desire to do good by the world and continue with her education at the same time:
It inspired me to be motivated. Sometimes, it’s hard to remember what you’re doing all this school work for… [In Tanzania] I recognized that this isn’t going to completely change the world – volunteering for three weeks – but I knew I’d learn something.”
Michelle is also an artist, and her experiences abroad with GLA in Tanzania convinced her to return to China, as well as inspired an art project:
One of the most significant things I’ve done since GLA is return to China this past summer. I go back to visit my extended family once every two or three years, and going back after GLA made me realize how much more perceptive, open-minded, and passionate about different cultures I had become. I had never before loved Chinese culture because I was ashamed of my un-American heritage, but with my newfound perspective, I discovered how beautiful China was, even with discovering its many flaws as well.”
During her trip to China, Michelle focused her art portfolio on a Chinese American’s rediscovery of the country. Having already been a classroom leader with GLA in Tanzania, she also felt comfortable working at a local school during her trip, enabling her to take an English teaching volunteer job in a Shanghai summer school for kindergarten through fifth graders. With her sister, they would each run a class of 15-20 kids, teaching them English through arts, crafts, and songs.
This experience solidified how her art was a way to express her learning experiences from China and Tanzania in new ways:
One of the paintings that won the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards Gold Key was of Kilimanjaro from the Tanzania trip, and another one was from my China trip.”
Looking back, Michelle notes that, “I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t do art.”
Below are two of the paintings that won Michelle notice:
If Michelle could pass on any inspiration for other students and artists out there, it would be this:
My philosophy in life is to keep your heart and mind open so you can get the most out of every experience you have.”
That’s some advice worth taking!
Program Michelle attended:
GLA Tanzania: Heart and Soul of Africa
Curious about exploring your own GLA adventure? Check these out:
- GLA Tanzania: Heart and Soul of Africa
- GLA Ghana: Children of Africa™
- GLA Ghana: Building Healthy Villages™
- GLA Ghana: Sports Service Adventure