My name is Danielle Williams, I was born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia, PA, and I went on the Aardvark Gap Year Program from 2015-2016. The overwhelming amount of personal growth and meaningful, eye-opening experiences that I had while on the program are extremely difficult to summarize, however there are three prominent aspects of my identity that were significantly strengthened throughout my year on Aardvark: Independence, Curiosity, and Uniqueness.
I quickly realized that I had the power to shape my gap year experience, and that what I did with my free time and how engaged I chose to be during the mandatory programming would determine how much I’d be able to grow, do, and learn. The program leaders not only encouraged us to be independent, but rewarded us with their trust, praise, and more freedom when we demonstrated this trait. I embraced this by spending nearly all of my free time exploring and seeking out new adventures. Some of my favorite memories are from days I spent wandering aimlessly by myself through the streets of Tel Aviv, and from the numerous weekend camping trips that my friends and I took all over Israel. I volunteered in several different places including a hospital for babies with severe mental and physical disorders, a veterinary clinic, and an art studio, and in each place, I was given a huge amount of responsibility. To this day, one of my favorite things about Israeli society is the general sentiment that young people are capable of anything they set their minds to.
Before I began Aardvark, I had very little exposure to or nuanced understanding of Israel, Judaism or Zionism, having been raised in a secular household. My first few months living in Jerusalem were, understandably, a total culture shock, and I was amazed to learn about things such as Orthodox practices, Israeli laws and customs, and Islamic radicalism. The more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew about the world. I suddenly acquired a new and powerful appetite for knowledge and wanted to better understand the world outside of the American bubble I had grown up in, which compelled me to completely abandon my plans of attending college in the US. As a result, I am now entering my third and final year of studies at the IDC Herzliya International School, where I am getting a BA in Government with a dual specialization in Global Affairs and Conflict Resolution and Business Administration.
Where I grew up, there was a pretty straightforward path that most people took in life – you graduate high school, then immediately go on to college, you get a job and then start a family. After only a few months in Israel, I started to realize how cookie-cutter most people I knew were and how rarely people chose to veer off the normal path. I met Israelis in their mid-twenties who had served in the army and traveled all over the world. They weren’t rushing to get a degree or even to move out of their parents’ homes, and instead were focused on learning more about the world and themselves on a deeper level rather than just checking all of the boxes in life. My experiences on Aardvark allowed me to recognize that the one of best things I could be is unique. Instead of trying to fit in, I began trying to stand out in every way possible. I developed a whole new sense of confidence, boldness, and determination that still predominantly characterizes my identity today.