IT MAY seem scary to put your “decided career” on hold by taking a gap year, while most of your friends get a head start on planning their future. But taking a gap-year abroad can transform you into a better version of yourself — a version that can otherwise lie dormant. Here are a few ways how:

You’ll be confident in your eventual career choice.

In high school, you may have learned unnecessary algebra, historical events that happened decades ago (in a fashion tailored to suit your country’s version of the story), minimal language skills, and basic computer skills. How’s that going to help you choose a career?

What you likely haven’t learned are your passions, your natural skills, and abilities or how to interact in a global way. Take a year — before deciding on a college degree you might never use — to explore your options. Learn about the world hands-on, by indulging in culture, exploring various terrains, and opening your mind to a unique way of living.

You’ll learn to depend on yourself.

All these years you very likely lived with friends and family at reach. When you needed something (money, advice, even a shoulder to lean on), you easily had the resources at your disposal. At this point, you haven’t yet needed to really depend on only yourself for your survival. A gap year means cutting ties.

In the toughest of circumstances, you will realize how strong you are. Though your year will be full of exciting adventure and wonder, you will come across unexpected events that will test your ability to deal with real life. You might lose your debit card, find yourself without electricity or water, or maybe be betrayed by someone you considered a good travel buddy. Life goes on. How you deal with it is what matters. How do you handle tough situations? Are you flexible, self-sustainable, creative in your approaches to life situations? If you’re not, you’ll learn to be. Because if you can survive a year abroad alone, you’ll be a step ahead on surviving anything.

You’ll get an authentic form of education.

Photo by author

Remember environmental science? Learning about the eco-system and granite rocks? Remember geography? When you learned about the seven continents? Then later, countries? And remember that foreign language class that was of no value because all you remember is “I’m hungry”, “I’m cold”, or “Can I use the bathroom?”. When you take a gap year abroad, you learn all of those subjects in real time and all dimensions.

On a two-and-a-half-day hike through Corcovado in Costa Rica, you learn about the various species that live in the environment, why it’s habitable for them, and how they play a role in the eco-system. You actually see those countries you learned the location of. You learn about the culture’s food, music, and language through immersion, so you not only read about it, you live it.

You’re getting the opportunity to travel out of your safety zone.

Many people don’t get the opportunity to travel extensively, or to ever live abroad. Whether someone helped finance your year, or you worked your ass off for it, you can be grateful that you have the opportunity to do so. Explore a different way of living. If you choose not to, you’re turning down the gift of lifelong learning about the world — and yourself.

You’ll learn about people.

Photo: Rudy Giron

Travelers and locals come in all forms. You’ll meet people with different personalities, from different parts of the world, with different styles, different food, and different languages, but you learn you’re all in this together — the curious, the open, the fearless, the friendly, the flowy, the artsy, the determined, even the scared and reluctant — and you get to know them quickly. This stranger from two minutes ago becomes an amazing friend you will visit abroad many times.

All of a sudden you meet someone that destroys all prejudices you had of their people. They tell you about where they’re from, their practices, about their religion, about their family. You see through their eyes, even if only for a moment, and then the world opens up to you. You give them the same gift. Share your global understanding, compassion, and love with the world.

You’ll come back minus a lot of your fear.

Photo by author

Packing up and leaving behind everything you know and love — your home, family, and friends — is a courageous move. And kudos to you for going for it. Making that commitment is enough to make you more fearless. Who knows what can happen abroad until it happens.

You’ll probably come across a strange animal or two you’d naturally run away from, but don’t because it’s normal abroad. Or you might let yourself fall in love knowing it isn’t going to last. You could lose your way, not knowing the language, or you might get caught in a tide and dragged out 50 feet from shore… If you live to tell it, you’ll definitely come back more fearless.

You’ll be more open-minded and aware.

Learning about new cultures will provide a different perspective of the world: How they dress, what they eat, their everyday routines. They’re courageous, strong-willed, hard-working, judgmental, foolish, innovative; so different, yet all so similar to you. You’ll realize so many possibilities and your mind will open to them all.

You’ll be more adaptable.

When you travel, bad things will happen. Just as when you don’t travel, bad things will happen. The downside to bad things happening while you travel is that you’ll already be dealing with so much. Traveling is NOT easy. When you’re constantly on the move, losing something important, like money or your passport, is a huge deal. But, bad things happen.

When you’re overseas and something unfortunate happens, you can’t stop life and cry about it. You have to figure out what you’re going to do, and you have a limited time to do that. So not only will you come back more adaptable, but you’ll come back a better problem solver, critical thinker, and decision maker.

You’ll experience an overwhelming feeling of gratitude.

You’ll spend time in countries with people whose monthly salaries may be less than your plane ticket. With that salary, they feed a family of 5, and they love the only land they will ever know and love. Realizing this will bring you an overwhelming sense of gratitude )) for being able to learn firsthand about their country and their culture, and being able to share your own. In turn, you’ll contribute to fostering a world of cultural exchange, understanding, and compassion.

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