After participating in a three-week entrepreneurship program, Fiona Iyer ’18 knew she wanted to take a year off before coming to Bowdoin. So, supplied with money from babysitting, she packed her bags and embarked on an adventure to South Africa, Argentina, Mauritius, and Italy.

Iyer started off by spending four months at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa studying entrepreneurial leadership. She was also the marketing director and business strategist of a media-house business run out of the academy.

There she encountered Veda, her entrepreneurial leadership teacher, who became a great source of inspiration for her.

“He was just brilliant,” said Iyer. “He had such a sense of clarity in that he knew what he was passionate about, he knew what he wanted, he knew where he was going. Eventually I want to get to that stage.” 

Though she greatly values her time in South Africa, Iyer does not miss the dangers of living there. South Africa has a murder rate of 31.1 per 100,000 people, which is 4.5 times higher than the global average. The academy where she studied was surrounded by barbed wire and electric fences in order to prevent intruders from stepping on campus.

In addition, Iyer found that the legacy of apartheid still resonates in the country.
“We think the inequality between blacks and whites here [in America] is an issue—it’s so exacerbated in South Africa,” she said.

Iyer waitressed at a French café in Johannesburg where she was usually tipped eight or nine times more than the black waitresses.

“I had to stop working there because I didn’t need the money and they did,” said Iyer. “It was just very tense.”

The next leg of Iyer’s journey took her to Buenos Aires, which she says is the part of her gap year she enjoyed most. She initially didn’t have a place to stay and spent her nights sleeping on people’s couches, but ultimately found an apartment and a roommate who became one of her best friends

“I was convinced I was going to stay there,” said Iyer, who was enthralled by the culture, art, and music of the city. She quickly found a job as a graphic designer for the New York-based company Juicy Canvas.

After Argentina, she ended up in Italy. 

Iyer was staying on the Amalfi Coast when she took a transcendent bite of crusty bruschetta with spicy extra virgin olive oil and fresh tomatoes. After asking to watch the chef, Patricia, cooking, Patricia proposed that Iyer work in the kitchen (with no working papers) for food and accommodation. In exchange, Iyer would give her English lessons.

“I learned how to cook. That was the most amazing part. The workday was thirteen hours. It was a lot of time,” said Iyer. “It was almost torturous because the Mediterranean Sea was right outside the window so when I was chopping and slicing and being a little sous-chef, I could just see the sea calling  to me.”

Iyer found a “warm Italian mama” in Patricia, who didn’t speak any English.

“She always wanted a daughter,” said Iyer. “And she was angling to set me up with one of the other chefs who was her son.”

Iyer said her time in these three countries taught her a lot about herself and the world. But her deepest experience took place on the island of Mauritius, a place where she only stayed for a week—attending a friend’s wedding. 

“[Their] family was so big and loud and close,” she said, “That’s when I realized how important family was. And so when I think of my gap year, that was really the most striking moment.”
Iyer had some of the most amazing experiences of her life during her gap year and said she always felt trapped by the thought of having to go back to college. She is having a hard time dealing with the new environment finding that the most difficult part of the transition to Bowdoin is missing the sense of anonymity that she had in the city.

Though it’s tough right now, she is giving Bowdoin a fighting chance. 

“Everything is temporary and we have so much choice. We can really do whatever we want,” said Iyer. “It’s your life, you’re living it for yourself. It’s very liberating. You realize that you are never stuck in a place. You can pack your suitcase and go. And I think the thought that I am liberated is making the transition easier.”