Photo: Denis Kuvaev/Shutterstock

The (Not so) Hidden Benefits of a Gap Year

by Molly Harris Aug 31, 2017

When I crossed the stage at my kindergarten graduation, Mrs. Aiken, my teacher, asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. As a product of my Paul McCartney-infused upbringing, I answered, “to be a hippie.”

As I grew older, my interests broadened from music to marine biology to editing and much more. The trouble wasn’t that I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but that I didn’t know how touch on all of the subjects I enjoyed. More importantly, I couldn’t really identify what I didn’t want in my life without various work experiences to show me what wasn’t a good fit.

Choosing a life trajectory takes time—a commodity we lack between high school and college in the United States. According to new research from Topdeck Travel, 19 percent of US adults never even consider taking that personal time even though 22 percent believe in the benefits of a year off between high school and college or college and work (known as a gap year in the UK).

What’s more, 55 percent of American millennials would consider leaving the United States altogether to become an expatriate according to a TransferWise national survey. Some “better quality of life” and better “work-life balance” were among top reasons to leave.

Five years ago, almost to the day, I entered university as a physics major on the path to becoming a pharmacist. After the drudgery of second year exams and a clear-eyed look at an abysmal future in pharmacy, I decided to drop all of my classes – to the surprise of not just my family, but myself.

The YouGov study commissioned by Topdeck Travel polled a representative group of 4,515 adults including millennials aged 18-34, and the results were to be expected. While gap years are influenced by a social component comprised of family and friends, issues like time management—or the lack thereof, cost, and career indecisiveness or interruption played a big role in these findings.

Joe Ponte, general manager at Topdeck Travel, stated, “American millennials are giving gap years a one-sided look and ignoring the solutions, like group travel.”

Group travel is an easy solution, but the end goal should not be to remove all uncertainty or unfamiliar settings. The beauty of travel is that it removes us from our natural setting, forces us into a somewhat vulnerable state, and enables us to become problem-solvers. That unsettled nervousness we encounter while traveling signals that we are still growing and learning.

Though I only took a semester-long reprieve, it was during those months that I not only found what I was passionate about, but stumbled into opportunities that significantly altered my future. I made the decision to study public relations and international affairs while working in journalism. My dedication to work and the experiences I gained proved that I could encounter all of my interests through journalism.

Another commonly found apprehension about gap travel is loneliness. More than one quarter of women have safety fears compared to 15 percent of men. While I believe loneliness is one of the greatest gifts when traveling—just imagine following your own whims and wishes without consulting anyone else, it’s an understandable fear. Solo travel teaches us to be comfortable alone as well as affords us the opportunity to meet other people if we want. (There’s nothing like a good grimace to drive panhandlers away and an earbud-free presence to invite conversation.) Our own vulnerability drives us to learn about ourselves as well as to build confidence, resilience, and resourcefulness when travel inevitably throws an obstacle in our path.

If those qualities alone are not attractive enough to employers, travel teaches cultural awareness and diversifies personal experiences. As much some Americans would like to believe the United States is diverse, it’s nothing compared to living within the European Union where more than 22 languages are spoken. Though YouGov found 86 percent of millennials believe that employers do not value travel, the reality (in a recent report) is that 82 percent of employers find adults with travel experience to be more employable.

Over the past 3 years, my travels, instincts, and time away from classes taught me more about myself than anything I experienced before. Had I taken a gap year, I might have realized earlier where I should have been all along. One thought I’m sure of: when I cross the stage in May 2018 to receive my college degrees, I will not regret a single delay in the six-year process. Life is not on an arrival-departure schedule, and I will always be contemplating which direction to follow next.

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