ALAMEDA -- Luna Tilles, 17, who just graduated from Alameda Science and Technology Institute, is taking a gap year to explore her passion for wildlife rescue and rehabilitation.

In the fall, she travels to Lilongwe Wildlife Center in Malawi in southeast Africa, where she will volunteer and take care of orphaned and injured animals.

"I'm hoping my gap year will open me up to new career possibilities and opportunities," said Tilles, whose "dream job" right now would be to work in wildlife rehab or research. "Lilongwe is an awesome wildlife center -- it's the only certified wildlife rehab center in Malawi."

In addition to caring for the animals -- mostly monkeys, lions, birds and reptiles -- Tilles will do community outreach to raise awareness about wildlife preservation.

"There's a lot of illegal poaching and trafficking of wildlife; many animals are illegally owned and used for entertainment or killed for meat," said Tilles, who plans to study zoology at college after her gap year. "The Lilongwe center rescues animals and tries to release them back into the wild if they can."

Malawi won't be Tilles' only port of call during her gap year. Next spring, she will head to Central or South America to continue her conservation work. She has yet to finalize those plans but is leaning toward a marine conservation project in Belize or animal rehabilitation in Costa Rica or Argentina.

"There are so many amazing rescue and enrichment projects -- I just have to narrow it down and decide where to go. Belize has the second largest coral reef in the world. If I go there, I would be certified in scuba diving and trained to identify species of plants, coral and fish for research purposes," said Tilles, an avid swimmer with the Alameda Gators Swim Team.

While Tilles has always been "a big animal person," it was a 2012 visit to the Elephant Nature Park rescue and rehab center in Chiang Mai, Thailand, that opened her eyes to the abuse of wildlife and sparked a passion for animal rescue. Tilles and her father spent a week as volunteers at the park, which cares for elephants, dogs, cats and many other abandoned or abused animals.

"It was crazy hard work and the greatest experience ever," Tilles said. "I knew I wanted to take a gap year and do a lot more volunteering with wildlife."

There's a huge problem with abuse and poaching of elephants in Thailand, Tilles said. She described the animals as "amazing gentle giants.

"Elephants are a big part of the tourist industry and the majority of them are not treated well," Tilles said. "The way they are trained to be ridden is very cruel -- but riding elephants and using them for entertainment is an ancient tradition in Thailand, so it's very hard to teach people that it's wrong."

Some rescued elephants arrive at the nature park addicted to drugs that are used to keep them awake around the clock. By day, they give rides to tourists; at night, they are used to haul in the illegal logging trade.

"There is very limited legislation to protect elephants in Thailand, although Bangkok passed a law banning elephants from the streets," said Tilles, adding that the nature park works tirelessly to raise awareness and lobby for legislation. "Elephants feel and even communicate with each other through their feet -- they're not made for city life."

Tilles, who took college classes throughout high school, graduated a year early with a 4.0 GPA and is working as a lifeguard and swim coach at Harbor Bay Club. She's excited -- and nervous -- about her gap year and the adventures that lie ahead.

"I'm a little nervous about traveling alone, but I'm excited to go to South America and use my Spanish," Tilles said. "I'm definitely stepping out of my comfort zone -- after all, I've been in Alameda my whole life."

She thinks too many high school graduates are expected to go straight to college and then into a career.

"A gap year is a natural thing in Europe," Tilles said. "It's an amazing opportunity for everyone to expand their horizons and figure out what their passions are."