It was 2015, Gabriel Marcelo Santos-Elizondo had just graduated high school in Monterrey, Mexico. His friends were all excited to move away and enter college, but it was not as simple for him. 

Santos-Elizondo was accepted into Cal Poly as a biomedical engineering student, but he said he was indecisive. Instead, the 17-year-old decided to embark on a year-long journey where he lived with a pack of wolves in a cold, desolate home, learned a new language in Japan and traveled through Peru. 

Student gap years

In Europe, gap years have always been popular and largely accepted. In the United States however, the concept of taking time off of school to do a little self-discovery and travel is newer. According to the Gap Year Association, numbers of students taking gap years are increasing world-wide and it has a positive impact on academic performance.

At Cal Poly, the procedures for students to request time off varies. The university does not allow accepted freshmen to take year-long deferrals, so if a student entering Cal Poly from high school wants to take a gap year, they are required to reapply for the following term. 

According to the Office of the Registrar, for anything longer than two quarters, a student is required to complete a leave of absence form which must be for medical, educational or military reasons. 

Cal Poly students have different reasons for taking time off. This is Santos-Elizondo’s story.

A year off

When Santos-Elizondo, now a biological sciences senior, made the decision to take a year off of school, he said he had three goals: service, learning a new language and traveling somewhere he had never been before. 

The first destination for Santos-Elizondo was working at a wolf sanctuary in Maine during the winter.

The center where Santos-Elizondo volunteered was completely desolate. It was only him and two others, living in run-down, rat-infested houses, separate and isolated from one another. With so much silence and alone time, Santos-Elizondo was able to think and reflect more than he said he ever could have imagined. 

“It was basically myself and the animals. It was a lot of reflecting and thinking about life,” Santos-Elizondo said.

The first couple of weeks, Santos-Elizondo said he would sit outside of the wolf cages while they stood in the distance, avoiding being near the mystery he was to them. Over time, he said he would observe their behavior and notice their responses to his actions. Eventually, by the end of his two months there, Santos-Elizondo was sitting in the cages right next to the wolves. He didn’t fear them and they no longer seemed to fear him. 

“The first week was really the time where I was like, ‘What am I doing here? What did I get myself into?’” Santos-Elizondo said. 

It was the idea of doing something impactful for animals that would spend the rest of their lives in captivity that changed his perspective. By the end, Santos-Elizondo said he did not want to leave.  

The first destination for Santos-Elizondo on his gap year a wolf sanctuary in Maine, where he worked during the winter. Gabriel Marcelo Santos-Elizondo | Courtesy

Santos-Elizondo said he left the sanctuary in Maine with a better understanding of the wolves and the way they communicated with one another and with humankind. He eventually moved on to volunteer with hybrid wolves in Paso Robles. 

“At first we thought all his experiences were crazy because they were just so out there,” Santos-Elizondo’s  older sister, Melissa, said laughing. “When he said ‘Wolves,’ we all went ‘What?’”

When he was away, Santos-Elizondo sent his family letters and photographs. 

“We all saw how amazing the work he was doing was and not only was it helping the animals but it was helping him — he was so happy and fulfilled from the experience,” she said. 

Studying in Japan

Next off Santos-Elizondo’s list was to learn a new language. He wanted to do something out of the ordinary, away from his comfort zone, so he moved to Japan for three months and attended a language academy, KCP International Japanese Language school.

There, he learned not only to speak, write and understand the Japanese language, but the differences between Japanese and American cultures. In the United States there are 26 different letters; in Japan there are close to double that, plus thousands of characters. 

“The way we view things and shape ideas [in America] is based on words and words we use to describe what is around us,” Santos-Elizondo said. “And thinking that some people [in Japan] describe what is around them in images is really interesting and how that shapes culture.”

Santos-Elizondo said while the wolf sanctuary taught him about non-verbal communication, Japan taught him how spoken language can be interpreted differently.

Peru with family

The last destination was Santos-Elizondo’s family trip to Peru. It was a way of bringing the whole family together to reconnect with nature.

“Before [our children] could learn to walk, they learned to climb mountains and explore; they were taught to love and respect nature,” his mother  Camila wrote in an email to Mustang News.

The family took the trek up to Machu Picchu, a five day backpacking trip through the mountains. 

After several months of solo travel and discovering his own strengths and weaknesses, Santos-Elizondo said it was nice to just be with family, experiencing a new place and seeing things he had not seen before.

That trip marked the end of Santos-Elizondo’s journey and completed the last of his three goals. 

By the end of the gap year, Santos-Elizondo said he was ready to learn again in a classroom setting, surrounded by his peers.

“It [got] to the point where I wanted to be doing something productive,” Santos-Elizondo said.

It can be really difficult, Santos-Elizondo said, to go from a year of not doing any math or English subjects then to have to re-enter at a college level. 

Santos-Elizondo said his travels and new discoveries helped him to fulfill what his sister Melissa called his “renewed sense of curiosity.” 

“It is still really nice to have that space of time that allows you to think about life in a different way than school after school after school and not having to pause and think, ‘What is it that I really want to do? What is it that I really value?” Santos-Elizondo said.

It took a while for Santos-Elizondo to re-adjust to the academic lifestyle. In his first few months at Cal Poly he switched his major from general engineer to biological sciences, where he said he discovered the wildlife and biodiversity concentration.

Since his gap year, his mother wrote that her son continues to grow. 

“He’s a gentle adventurous soul,” she wrote. “He has always been generous and now even goes out of his way to help any living creature.”

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