The 10 people who changed my life – Hillary

People Who Changed My Life Through Travel - our entire gap year group in Quito Old Town

When I was 17 I decided, somewhat at the last minute, to take a gap year before heading to university. As part of my extreme gratefulness series, where I am writing to people who changed my life, I needed to write to a person who I haven’t seen since I finished my placement over 20 years ago.

I had really mixed feelings about writing this letter.

Looking back, I have reservations over the company that sent me there which is why I’m not mentioning them or crediting them in this piece). With the benefit of both hindsight and much greater awareness over responsible volunteering, I’m not sure I would tell my younger self to structure her gap year in this way.

And yet it did completely change my life. So how could I tell her to do anything differently?

People Who Changed My Life Through Travel - Hillary - view of Quito sprawling below El Panecillo
This city has stayed in my heart for more than 20 years

Sliding doors

Do you ever get that sliding doors moment where you look at your life and wonder how different it would have been if you’d never done something?

The reality is that my placement in Ecuador completely changed the trajectory of my life. Like completely changed it. Here are just some of the things that changed as a result of it:

  • I left having had some (what I thought were) catastrophic A-Level results. I came back fluent in Spanish, with a passion for all things Latin American and more confidence than you could shake a stick at.
  • After living there I immediately changed my degree course.
  • If it wasn’t for the company I went with I would never have known about, let alone applied for, the graduate job that I ended up getting. I stayed there for 10 years including 2 international moves.
  • I made lifelong friends in that job. Friends who have visited us here, who we’ve been on holiday with. People who helped me love skiing. The sort of friends who move heaven and earth to make sure they can see us when we are home. Lifelong friends.
  • Here’s the really crazy thing… If it hadn’t been for that job I would never have met Mr Wanderlust. Never mind that I wouldn’t have had half the adventures he and I have shared together… If I hadn’t met him, I would never have had the Things!
People Who Changed My Life Through Travel - Hillary - my gap year teaching partner and I outside one of the schools we taught in
So young and so green!


Of course not. Not for a second. I truly truly hope that, despite my backward looking reservations about the company and about the placements, we were able to change the lives of at least some of the children we went to help.

People Who Changed My Life Through Travel - Claire and I with one of our classes
I think they changed our lives more than we changed theirs

Some of my subsequent letters will show you just how much that single year changed my life. How deep the changes in me went and how truly truly grateful I am for the opportunities I had there and for the people I met. I am very happy that this age of communication and transparency means we should structure any volunteering placements more responsibly. But I can’t every say I would change something about the year that had such a profound impact on my life.

Hillary was our placement co-ordinator. I didn’t want to go to Ecuador. I wanted to go to Malaysia but that was a much more popular opportunity choice. Not to mention that I was doing A-Level Spanish – it was a no brainer that they’d want me to go to Ecuador.

Hillary was the person that interviewed me and the one that decided if I would stay or go. So it’s fair to say… She changed my life.

People Who Changed My Life Through Travel - Hillary - our entire gap year group next to a statue in Quito Old Town
Fresh faced and eager to change the world

Dear Hillary

Dear Hillary

You probably don’t remember me. You must have interviewed countless 17 year olds in your time at that gap year placement company. All of us wanting to head to Ecuador in search of adventure, life experiences and hoping to change the world. I’m sure you eyed us with a degree of skepticism. The energy and audacity of me in my youth marvels me now. Oh to have the blind confidence and pure optimism that I had back then!

We didn’t all exactly see eye to eye on everything. I seem to remember we were quite a feisty group. I wonder if we were a bit dismissive of you. You were, after all, a volunteer for a company that flew you in and out of South America for a week, twice a year, to check up on us. You stayed in a nice hotel and met with us once during that week. It seemed like a pretty good gig from the outside looking in. We had no idea what you did for the rest of the time. As an adult, I’m sure there was far more to it than our simplistic but critical 18 year old minds could see. 

I don’t really care about any of that now.

Because you gave us all an opportunity that I’m pretty sure none of us will ever forget. We may not have changed the world (obviously we didn’t) but the world certainly changed us. Whenever anyone asks me about my gap year, I don’t hesitate to tell them that it changed my life. I came home a completely different person to the one I left as. Inadvertently you sent me to a place that would give me a passion for Spanish, Latin music and ceviche for the rest of my life.

With a passion for such an incredible country, it’s hardly surprising that I changed my degree. The sliding doors effect means I found a job thanks to my gap year connections and that eventually led to meeting my future husband and having my future children. 

I think it’s safe to say you changed my life and I will never, ever forget that.

Emma Wanderlust

Want to see the other posts in my extreme gratefulness series? Find them here!

The 10 people who changed my life – mum

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Emma Morrell
Emma Morrell

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