Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass students explore new cultures as part of alternative freshman year

Seth Engelbourg/Collegian
Seth Engelbourg/Collegian


Editor’s note: This is the first story of a two-part series about UMass students taking a gap year instead of going directly into college after high school.

Many students in their freshman year make the traditional transition from four years of high school to a four-year university or college of their choice. Some students, like Ben Zifkin, a freshman from Chicago choose an alternative path.

Zifkin explored southeast Asia and India instead of graduating high school and plunging into another four years of school. He traveled these countries from Sept. 2010 until June 2011 for the experience of his life.

For the first month, he hiked the Himalayas and stayed in India with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLA). After climbing the mountain and exploring India with NOLA, he stayed in Kathmandu, Nepal with a family friend and from there, flew to Malaysia where he met both tourists and natives and indulged in expensive alcoholic drinks and world-renowned food.

While on Penang Island in Malaysia, he ate Indian dishes including different curries and flatbreads, Chinese dishes of noodle-soups and roast duck and Malaysian shish kabobs.

Zifkin said Penang “opened the world to food” for him.

Zifkin not only ate almost 17 meals a day in Malaysia, but also partied with the natives of Thailand. He spent four months in Thailand where he celebrated the New Year’s full moon party in Koh Phangan as well as the Tai New Year’s in Songkran. As part of the Tai New Year’s celebration, he said it is an ancient ritual for elders to splash the youth with water in a symbol of purity. He remembered massive amounts of people and even an elephant roaming the crowd, with people spraying water guns bringing in a “clean new year.”

Zifkin noticed the natives seemed to be letting go of “face” during this celebration and let loose. Zifkin said culturally, people in Thailand cherish reputation above all else and maintain “face,” meaning they do not show anger or frustration in arguments.

For income, Zifkin did some modeling during his four-month stint in Thailand, for mostly commercial projects. He said it was not unusual for western tourists to be a commodity for modeling in Thailand.

Next, Zifkin ventured to Birma, a country between India and Thailand, which he called the “kindest people on Earth.” He trekked through Birma with little money, no traveling partners and a new bike. He stayed in hostels and with people he met along the way, and said meeting people was not difficult.

Zifkin stopped in Cambodia taking a solo dirt-biking trip in the mountains where he suffered an accident forcing him to ride two and a half days with a pulled hamstring and dislocated hip to the nearest city. Along the way, he stopped in various villages and small cities with benevolent strangers. Because of this accident, he now sports a large scar burned into his leg by the exhaust from the dirt-bike.

Also in Cambodia, Zifkin worked in an orphanage where he worked with the native kids, some of whose parents were so poor they had to sell them. He said one 4-year-old girl was born with a heroin addiction because of her mother’s addiction and some children were missing limbs because of the prevalence of mines in Cambodia exploding unexpectedly.

Zifkin described the Cambodians as hopeful despite the country’s tough endurances referencing the Khmer Rouge genocide and mass poverty.

In his last stop, Zifkin went to Vietnam where he recalled the abundance of war poetry and art. He described the Vietnamese as resilient people with a fast-growing economy. He predicted Vietnam will be as developed as Japan in the next 50 years due to the country’s large and industrious population.

When reflecting back on his choice to travel throughout India and Asia, Zifkin said his first choice was to explore the Ivory Coast of Africa, but wasn’t allowed to go by his parents so he “picked the next most dangerous thing” he could think of.

The reason Zifkin took this gap year is because he didn’t want to go to school right away. “I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he recalled. He said he gained self-improvement, learning his strengths and weaknesses and developed a passion for food, music and culture.

“It woke a thirst for knowledge,” he said, and created a catalyst for him to pursue education and learn more about the world.

“I think it’s something everyone should do,” he said. He said if he hadn’t done the alternative year, he may not have succeeded in school.

More American students are considering taking a gap year in their college career. According to an article by Time published in 2010, Founder of, Tom Griffiths, said in 2005 that around one percent of the website’s traffic was contributed by people in the United States, and now that percentage has jumped up to 10 percent.

Also in the article, Projects Abroad, a UK based program that develops volunteering around the world, saw an increase in four times the amount of Americans since 2005.

Nancy Pierce can be reached at [email protected].

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