The Catalyze podcast: Gap year dispatch with Emile Charles ’24 (and ft. Taylor Shinal ’25, Mark Finamore ’25, Asher Wexler ’25, and Noah Gottlieb ’25)
For this special segment of Catalyze, Emile Charles ’24 shares the most impactful aspects of his international gap year, pandemic disruptions included. The scholar interned at a children’s hospital in Cape Town, South Africa; visited his father’s Caribbean home in St. George’s, Grenada; worked on a global public health collaboration between the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Malawi Ministry of Health; and organized Black Lives Matter protests in Chapel Hill.
Gap year scholars Taylor Shinal ’25, Mark Finamore ’25, Asher Wexler ’25, and Noah Gottlieb ’25 also sent in audio diaries from their current corners of the world. You’ll be taken to a Tanzanian safari, a Slovenian market, an ancient Egyptian tomb, a Scottish seacoast, and a ski slope in Utah.
The music for this episode was produced and contributed by Nicholas Byrne ’19 of Arts + Crafts and singer-songwriter and guitarist Audrey Walsh, a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill and a DJ at student-run WXYC 89.3 FM.
Based in Athens, Georgia, Nicholas is a producer, guitarist, and singer. The alumnus earned his bachelor’s degree from the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media with a minor in music. In addition to his music, Nicholas works on freelance video assignments and digital advertising and social media campaigns.
This episode also featured intro music by Scott Hallyburton '22, guitarist of the band South of the Soul.
How to listen
Catalyze is hosted and produced by Sarah O’Carroll for the Morehead-Cain Foundation, home of the first merit scholarship program in the United States and located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can let us know what you thought of the episode by finding us on Twitter or Instagram at @moreheadcain or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Taylor Shinal ’25)
Hey, guys, it's Taylor Shinal, Class of 2025. I'm reporting in from Serengeti, Tanzania, here with a few other scholars and some people that I've met along the gap year.
We are currently in a parked safari car waiting for about a 1,000 wildebeests to cross the road ahead of us. The Great [Wildebeest] Migration is going on right now, so that's been really incredible to witness. And we've also seen tons of other incredible forms of wildlife, like giraffes, hippos. We've come essentially face-to-face with multiple lions today, which was pretty insane. And tomorrow, we move on to the Ngorongoro Crater to continue exploring, so super excited for that.
Welcome to Catalyze. I'm your host, Sarah O'Carroll.
This week, we have a special segment featuring the gap year. We'll first hear from Emile Charles from the Class of 2024, who shares what it was like to be on a gap year disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. He first told this story in Pecha Kucha-style during our Virtual Final Selection Weekend to an audience of Morehead-Cain finalists.
We also asked our current gap year scholars to give us some quick takes of what life looks like for them right now as they're scattered throughout the world. Just as you heard at the beginning from Taylor, you'll hear from a couple others at the end of the episode, accompanied with music by Nicholas Byrne from the Class of 2019, who is also our next guest on Catalyze.
OK, here's Emile.
When I first got to Cape Town, I had no idea where to fit in. I had a hospital intern job, but often got out early and had entire afternoons off.
I left home looking for change, and now, during the city’s vibrant spring, I felt filled with new life. I was realizing that a year abroad meant more than just time away from home; it was space to think about who I was and who I wanted to grow into.
I learned that, at first, growth is small. While not all that great, cashew-chicken stir fry was the first meal I felt good about. From there, my cooking skills grew easily, but at other times, this growth felt hard. I was navigating language, cultural, and racial barriers, forcing my way across some and not being sure how to get through others.
At the hospital, I wasn’t given much of an orientation, plopped in with students years ahead of me. I was often assumed to be of Colored descent or to translate from Zulu or Xhosa I did not know. I got real-life experiences as the liaison between doctors, children, and families and began to build my foundation skills in public health.
My learning consisted of a lot of medicine, mainly bones, joints, and chronic pains, but what wasn’t all. I learned how to enjoy my personal time, too, getting the best sleep of my life, catching up with new and old friends, and falling endlessly into great books.
I celebrated South Africa’s Rugby World Cup win, something that hadn’t happened in over 20 years. On the day of, I borrowed a friend’s protea shirt and wore the country’s national flower proudly.
Continuing to meet people, I made sure to take down names and numbers. This helped: I caught invites to weekends away and even family vacations. The most beautiful of these was to the West Coast National Park, finding myself in a kayak on a white sand beach with flamingos I didn’t know existed in this part of the world.
My time in South Africa also offered me space for cultural and historical learning. I spent time in Johannesburg, visiting the Constitutional Court and Apartheid Museum. There was a reckoning that had seemed to occur; the evidence was everywhere. Things weren’t perfect, but I still came to a better understanding where I was and what this incredible place had to show the world.
Coming home for just a month, I squeezed in a trip to my father’s Caribbean home. I connected with deep roots that had been sleeping for too long, but these seemed to wake right up with roadside corn and daily breakfast plantains. I felt stronger in my identities but was still spun around by the diversity of the globe.
The few weeks in Grenada were amazing. It was warm, calm, and felt like a home that missed me, too. I took trips to some of my Dad’s childhood sites, his mother’s grave, and the fruit farm he’d managed for as long as I can remember. I learned how to be back with family and now live with my new life experiences. I planned to leave in a few weeks for Malawi and wasn’t quite sure how to prepare.
Back across the Atlantic and, at times, with junior Morehead-Cain Scholar Sita Tayal, I started yet another new routine. I was working at UNC Project Malawi, a global health collaboration between UNC-Chapel Hill and the Malawi Ministry of Health.
I lived with people from not only Malawi, but around the world, too, from Kenya, the Netherlands, India, and Italy. Again, I could see global public health systems in the works and got to engage with them fully.
Unfortunately, my time was cut short, and I was forced to leave Malawi early with unresolved feelings and friendships. Though, despite my early departure, the most important part of a gap year still happened – a crazy hair decision. During the last night before my flight, I spontaneously got dreadlocks and when my Dad picked me up, he barely recognized me.
I felt it was more than just my hair that had changed.
At home, I tried to stay plugged in as things shut down, but instead, I was forced to brood inside with depressing news as a constant background. The public health nightmare didn’t seem real, and I knew that all my spaces of months past had drastically changed. I was stuck at home as the pandemic continued to rage and the country’s tensions further boiled.
On May 25, I remember hearing George Floyd’s name for the first time. In the days after, I attended protests in Raleigh and Durham. It didn’t seem like Chapel Hill was rallying so I decided to. And on June 3, I helped fill the streets with people and their voices.
The organizing work came about organically, but I soon realized that if I was the one creating the flyers and demanding change, I had to follow through with the harder work, too.
My activism continued, filling the rest of my summer and introducing me to even new ideas and parts of myself. As I settled on my UNC-Chapel Hill fall plans, I realized there was a world in which I hadn’t done all the things I did over the last year. I never expected myself to be in a South African hospital, on an international health team, or at the front of a march, but my year off had given me time for all of it.
Now, looking back on my gap year and forward to the rest of my time in college, I still feel amazed. I recognize that there is immense potential and opportunity, and when fully supported by the Morehead-Cain Foundation, this only becomes more profound.
But, before I can even speak on the actual four years in the Program, it was during my time before my passion and skills were truly developed.
After my first week in Cape Town, I wrote the following for a Morehead-Cain reflection: “This past week is certainly the start of a journey and I am continuously learning things throughout. All of these lessons are shaping my experiences and the more I learn, the more I am able to find and be at home.”
I chose to take a gap year to learn and think about myself deeply, to take a break from the whirlwind of school and pressures of traditional education. I urge you all, too, to think about how and why you should grow. How can you develop into the person you want to be? What do you need to push you?
If you’re anything like me, an international gap year might just be the answer.
Thank you for listening to Catalyze. I'm Sarah O'Carroll, and that was Emile Charles from the Class of 24. To finish out the episode, here are a few more messages from our current gap year scholars.
(Mark Finamore ’25)
As I walk up and down the aisles of Ljubljana’s Sunday market, I trace the same footsteps my grandmother paved over 80 years ago as a little girl. As I glance around, I see fresh Slovenian sausage being stuffed behind one stand by the local butcher, a sight contrasted by the succulent aromas of apple and cherry strudel being sold by a neighboring merchant.
The buzz of negotiating customers is cut by a loud DING, DONG, which rings through the city. Squinting into the distance, I see the clock tower, then, the cathedral just across the river, where my grandmother grew up attending mass, and just besides that is her preschool where she went for kindergarten.
“Wow,” I think to myself, “What a beautiful life she lived just before the war.”
(Taylor Shinal ’25)
I'm reporting in here from the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, so we're about 60 meters underground at the moment in the Tomb of Khafre. We had to climb a few tunnels to get down here. The air is quite thin, and it is way hotter than it is outside. That's been really cool, though, to be inside of a structure that was built nearly 4500 years ago.
Also, standing outside of the pyramids, it's hard to explain how absolutely gigantic these structures are. They're about 500-feet tall and every single block that they're made of is almost as tall as I am. So, pretty remarkable. Definitely understanding why this is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
(Asher Wexler ’25)
This is Asher. I'm at Lossiemouth Beach right now in Scotland. The North Sea is nuking – we've got seven footers, the biggest I've ever seen it. Water temperature is around 40 degrees, so I've got my wet suit on.
“Hi, Gus! Hey, how are you, man?” That was Gus, he is a paddle boarder that I met a couple weeks ago.
After the surf this morning, I'm going to head back home, and around 10 a.m., I'll be driving to a farm to interview a client about the noise pollution problems he's having.
(Noah Gottlieb ’25)
This is Noah Gottlieb ’25, and I'm currently standing at the top of Park City's highest ski slope. This being my first time skiing out West, I'm mentally preparing myself for a successful descent. Fingers crossed.
All right. Well, I'm going to gaze out at these breathtaking, snowcapped mountains spread before me one last time, take one more frosty breath in through my nose, and push myself over the ridge.