About a century ago, Maya Pratt's (C ‘23) great-grandmother carried her own sister on her back as she escaped Russia in the midst of the 1917 Revolution, ultimately immigrating to the United States.
100 years later, Maya reflects upon her great-grandmother’s journey as she treks through the desert, leaving water for immigrants along frequented migrant routes. “When I’m in the desert, the path becomes the river that she was crossing. I try to put myself in the headspace that she must’ve been in when the path was below her feet instead of mine. I often think about how she was in the same position as these people—she was seeking a better life,” Maya recounts.
Reflecting upon her decision to take the Fall 2020 semester off, the intended sociology major describes how her inspiration was drawn from the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “I read a lot of Kierkegaard, which I think influenced my newfound independence. His whole platform is on this existential subjective philosophy, and I think I was kind of riding the Kierkegaard wave when I signed for the gap semester.” Maya believes that philosophy bolstered her time alone and her growth during this semester.
The San Diego native spent her time away from Penn hiking and volunteering with the organization Border Angels, working at a sushi restaurant, and writing spoken word poetry. Maya explains that living in San Diego has influenced both her nature-loving tendencies and her interest in immigration.
She has been working with the humanitarian aid group Border Angels since before her gap semester, and was excited to become more involved with the organizational aspects of the group. Maya is a part of their water drop program, for which she ventures into the desert to drop water along frequented migrant routes every Saturday. She reflects upon her ability to contribute more heavily to the organization due to her part-time job at a sushi restaurant.
“Because I was making a bit of side money, I was able to use some of it to buy thrifted sweaters, scarves, and jackets [for the migrants] because in the winter the temperatures in the desert drop very low,” Maya explains.
Prior to the pandemic, the water drop program was open to the public. However, they’ve had to limit their numbers in order to ensure COVID-19 safety. Only experienced water droppers like Maya are allowed to go out. She speaks to the volumes that she has learned from others in the program—including formerly undocumented immigrants, DACA recipients, and an immigration attorney.
A few months ago, as the presidential election became increasingly tumultuous, Maya also began to write spoken word poetry. The intention of her first piece was to serve as impetus to vote, and to help Americans recognize the ineptitudes that she sees in the current administration. She filmed the piece at the border, prompting Border Angels to ask her to participate in a virtual concert called Rock the Border, Stop the Wall, which received thousands of views on YouTube.
Aside from her volunteering with Border Angels, the other significant aspect of Maya’s gap semester was hiking for leisure and exploring the outdoors. She attributes her love of nature to her high school teacher Mr. Harrington, who taught a course called "Hiking, Nature, and Solitude." Maya reflects that during the class, she learned a lot about the importance of introspection, thoughtfulness, and being immersed in nature. She also learned about the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which she got to explore herself this semester.
Maya visited both Zion and Yosemite, but she observed an interesting and disheartening pattern during both trips.
“I noted that a social disaster happened during each trip. When I was in Zion, it was the eruption of Black Lives Matter and Justice for George Floyd. On my Yosemite trip, we narrowly avoided the creek fire, when all of the California wildfires were taking over the brush. I wanted to disengage from the outside world, but when everything broke out I was conflicted, and kept thinking that it was my civic duty to be an engaged citizen. It was so interesting to me, balancing the desire to disconnect but also the ever-present 2020 undercurrent that you can never truly escape,” Maya recounts.
Reflecting upon her time in nature, Maya describes the inspiration that she draws from the movie Into the Wild. Maya explains that the movie portrays the fine line between solitude and isolation. Though Maya does have a desire for some level of solitude while in nature, she feels it is important to ensure that you are not completely isolated to the point where you’re in danger.
Maya also reflects upon the importance of sharing experiences with others: “Happiness is only real when shared. My cup is really full after taking time off, and I’m so grateful to be able to come back to Penn from my gap semester and share my happiness and development with others. I think it’ll be really amazing to be able to take what I learned during my gap semester back to school.”