I DIDN’T TAKE A GAP YEAR, and I don’t think I should have. If I went back to my 18-year old self today, I still wouldn’t suggest taking a year-long jaunt around the world just a few weeks after my high school prom. At that time, I wasn’t surrounded by people who understood the benefits of international travel. My teenage self could barely name all the countries in Europe, let alone Asia or Africa.
I hate the term gap year because it’s too black and white. It doesn’t leave any room for flexibility. What I did do, and what changed my life in a remarkable way, was study abroad. I took the safe option by choosing to study in an English-speaking country, applied for my first passport, and boarded my first international flight. By then I was 20, but I still had a lot of firsts to experience. Was that somehow less of a life experience than taking a gap year?
In post-war Britain, in the 1960s, elders looked to future generations to promote world peace and to avoid further conflict. They believed that if young people had the opportunity to experience different cultures and different ways of life, this would in turn advance the efforts of world peace. Generation X, more commonly known as the baby boomers, were one of the first generations to openly question the lifestyle of their parents. They sought after new challenges, new experiences, and opportunities to meet new people. From an outside perspective, it seems that both generations were heading in the same direction, even if their original motivations were slightly different. It was in this generation that the phenomenon of the gap year began. Only one generation later, the gap year had already become a rite of passage.
When, and how, did this idea of seeking new challenges and opportunities to meet new people shift? When did this become such a controversial topic? I’m not a lover of the term ‘gap year’ because it comes with a multitude of assumptions. For example: that the experience must be a year long, that it can only occur within the transition from high school to college, that it must require a large sum of money. Within these assumptions there comes the idea that if you don’t fit into any of the above circumstances — one year with no commitments, 18 years old and wealthy — then this option of seeking out new challenges and opening yourself to new experiences is therefore out of the question for you.
When I arrived in New Zealand, where I took my study abroad trip, I kind of expected it to be just like home in the United States. Instead, I landed in a group of friends who were all European, and each one of them spoke a handful of different languages — after all, one of the benefits of growing up a part of the EU was the freedom to travel throughout the countries that surrounded them. My friends often forgot about me though and reverted back to their native languages in conversation. After a short while, I became angry and it wasn’t just because I felt excluded. I was angry with myself because I was the ignorant one of the group. I could only speak English. In frustration, I went to the bookstore and bought some books in order to learn French. Only half my group of friends were French, but I thought that if I could at least understand something basic, numbers, days of the week, fruits and vegetables, it would be better than nothing.
In the following weeks, I uncovered a natural talent and passion for foreign languages that I never knew existed.
Let’s for a moment take away the label “gap year” and break it down to the foundation, the original intention of the term from its resurrection in the ’60s. Promote world peace, avoid further conflict. Experience different cultures and different ways of life. Seek new challenges. Meet new people. I would personally like to add another idea to the mix, one that I believe is the greatest benefit of traveling. Step out of your comfort zone. Whichever interpretation you relate to most, it is within these ideas that the greatest personal growth originates.
When we break down the term gap year and look more closely at what it’s truly meant to embody, we realize very quickly that these ideas can be accomplished at any age, with any amount of available time, be it one week or one year, and with any budget.
My semester abroad in New Zealand, which happened almost ten years ago, lit a fire in me that is still burning. One year after returning home, I traveled to South Africa for one month to visit my college roommate who was volunteering in Durban. After graduating, I bought a one-way ticket to France to live with a family, study French and eventually work full-time as an English teacher. That quickly took me to China where English teachers were in high demand and where I could study yet another foreign language. A total of six years in China led me to work in a 5-star hotel in Shanghai and most recently, move back to the United States to start my own business designing personalized itineraries for clients traveling around the world.
In visiting almost 20 countries, I’ve traveled solo, I’ve stayed in boutique hotels with my family, and I’ve also spent less than $5USD a night to sleep in questionable hostels with one eye open. When traveling, I sometimes prefer to be lazy on a beach, to zone out and unplug. Other times I head straight to the top of mountains and volcanoes. I worked my ass off for one year following my semester abroad to pay back those extra costs. I again worked like a mad woman in China, tutoring English students each night of the week for two years, saving money to travel extensively through Asia. Taking time to do anything will require a bit of money, but maybe not as much as you think. I believe that the simple act of working your ass off for something that you want will provide more life experience than just taking a gap year because that’s what everyone else is doing.
I would hesitate to blindly encourage a gap year, or any sort of long-term travel unless the traveler has specifically identified a purpose for their journey. Give yourself a little freedom mixed in with some structure. Volunteer with AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps. Study yoga and meditation for two weeks in an ashram, then explore the country for three weeks more. Live with a local family while studying a new language, then travel on your own before heading home. Volunteer to dig water wells for three weeks, and then travel for one more. Immerse yourself first, surround yourself with locals which will enable you as a traveler to peer into their way of life. This will offer a new perspective once you begin traveling around their country. I dislike the term gap year because all of the above options can take place at any point in your life, not simply during the transition between high school and college.
Maya Angelou soundly expressed what might happen if we travel, during a gap year or otherwise, when she said “perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”