This semester Carolina junior Tushar Varma has skipped his typical walks through the quad and nights studying at Davis Library and instead is hiking 41 North Carolina State Parks and researching cancer support resources.
Varma, who is majoring in advertising and public relations at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media with a minor in anthropology, is one of two Global Gap Year Bridge Year fellows. Sponsored by the Campus Y, the fellowship is awarded to students between their sophomore and junior year to engage in public service anywhere in the world.
While the fellowship is a yearlong service opportunity, Varma also views his bridge year as an opportunity to find out who he is beyond being a Carolina student.
“I felt like I couldn’t describe myself outside of the boundaries of being a student, and I used to be so much more than that,” he said. “I was passionate in art, I used to paint a lot, I did martial arts for a while, and when I got to college, it all slipped away. You just become wrapped up in your studies, so I wanted to take a year to explore my other interests.”
The fellowship is a self-designed program, allowing students to create an experience to best suit their interests. Varma initially planned to go to Morocco during the fall semester and then Greece during the spring semester, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he has been volunteering in Chapel Hill and Carrboro this fall.
As a student in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, Varma’s interest in marketing led him to intern with Nourish International, which helps student leaders develop their social enterprises and become better leaders. He also assists in research in the Hussman School with Allison Lazard, whose research focuses on health communication.
“We’re working on ways to improve peer-to-peer cancer support resources for young adults with cancer,” he said. “It’s been a really great experience so far.”
Although he can’t travel abroad for his first bridge year semester, he is making the most of his time in North Carolina. He dyed his hair blonde, got back into painting and plans to hike all 41 North Carolina State Parks.
“My favorite memory so far is when I got to meet up with four of the other gappers and we road tripped to Trashcan Falls, which is outside of Boone, and we hiked for a while and jumped off the cliffs into the waterfall,” Varma said. “It was a day where we appreciated nature, and it was really calming, so that’s probably my favorite moment so far. But I am looking forward to skydiving soon with my friend back home.”
Varma is most looking forward to traveling to Greece, if possible, for the second half of his bridge year, where he plans to work on an archeological excavation, assist a sea turtle conservation team and provide after-school support for children in migrant communities.
“I want to work with kids in migrant communities and offer after-school support like teaching English or teaching arts because there is a severe lack of access to that at the moment in migrant communities,” he said.
While the bridge year has already been full of transformative experiences, he is looking forward to coming back on campus full time. He was recently admitted into the Hussman School and will resume his studies in Carroll Hall next fall.
“I’m really excited to have this refresher and get back into my major and have this newfound excitement in what I do,” he said. “That’s probably what I’m looking forward to the most. I’m going to be learning a lot this year — I already have just through research and working with Nourish since they’re all related to my major — so coming back with a lot of experience will probably be really helpful for my classes.”
Varma doesn’t know if he could have had such an exciting year without the Global Gap Year Bridge Year Fellowship, but the experience has shown how he can find time to pursue his hobbies during his studies.
“I’m starting to realize that when I go back to school next year, I need to find time for myself,” he said. “This is important. That’s probably the reason why I was burning out. I wasn’t taking time to de-stress and do things that I find interesting.”
While Varma is on an adventure of a lifetime, it wasn’t an easy choice for him to take a year off. But he doesn’t regret the decision.
“I kept thinking I’ll be a year behind my friends, but what does a year behind even mean?” he said. “You have to find your own pace. I would encourage more people to seek out these other opportunities because you can only learn so much in the classroom.
“It’s not a year off. It’s still a year on. I’m still learning things, it’s just different, and that’s OK. More people should take gap years.”