Written by: Julian-Spencer Lee Kraynik
Have you ever imagined yourself teaching English to a classroom of Chilean children? What about helping a conservation group save elephants and jungles in Thailand? Have you ever wanted to intern with a French marketing firm? Or maybe you just want to backpack from one side of the world to another? If any of these sounds appealing to you, good! That’s the beauty of taking a gap year, there’s a nearly infinite amount of possibilities for you to explore!
So, what exactly is a “gap year”? Well, it doesn’t have to be a full 365-day period, but it can be longer than a year if you wish it. A gap year traditionally means the 9 months that comprise the school year, or any length of time spent away from school in between high school and the start of higher education. President Obama’s daughter, Malia Obama, pursued a Gap Year after graduating high school and before she started university at Harvard. Other people choose to take a gap year after graduating from university and before starting a new career. A gap year is less about the actual length of time spent traveling, and more about what you will learn during your time abroad.
Benefit 1: See the World
The world is an enormous place despite however small modern inventions like sea and air travel have made it. Every culture on the planet evolved – not quite in isolation – but did so in a unique way from their neighbors. Laotian festivals differ in significant ways from Vietnamese ones, despite having had close contact for most of their respective histories. There are thousands of new rituals and traditions to witness and interact with, and with each one you explore you’ll gain important insight into the workings of an unfamiliar culture.
Along with new rituals, you’ll encounter new people as well, each one unique in their understanding of the world. On your gap year you’ll meet these new people and form life-long friendships. These people will know other people, maybe even outside their country, setting you up to have contacts all over the globe. It never hurts to be well connected, after all, “it’s not what you know, but who you know.”
Aside from the benefit to yourself, a gap year also benefits the environment and the local population. In comparison to the way that mass tourism promotes the pollution of our environment and the exploitation of the native peoples, a gap year is far more environmentally and socially responsible. I took a trip to Cancun, Mexico once, and without three days I wanted to go home. There was nothing to be gained from drinking over-priced cocktails in a dirty jacuzzi, no personal growth to be had in being driven around the resort by the under-paid staff.
Benefit 2: Personal Growth
If mass tourism and tourist travel are the most surface-level way you can experience a new culture, then a gap year is akin to diving right in! Truly integrating into a new place is about more than just staying for Carnival in Brazil and then leaving for home. True integration is about the day after Carnival, and the day after that, and so on and so on. The essence of a gap year is about coming to truly understand where you are, why the people do the things they do, why the buildings are the way they are, and coming to appreciate both the differences and similarities between your host country and your home.
Once you start to understand a new culture, you will begin an inevitable shift in perspective. You’ll notice a change in yourself; you might find that suddenly you don’t mind the burn of spicy food after a few months in India, or maybe you’ll ignite a passion for environmental conservation after seeing landfills in Ghana. Once you’ve spent some time on your own it’s likely that little inconveniences that once riled you up have no power over you anymore. One cannot predict the adjustments you’ll undergo once you decide on a gap year, but the overwhelming testimony of thousands of people who have indicates that they will be positive.
Whatever happens during your time abroad, the most important change will be a shift in maturity. Some of us never really grow up; I’m sure you’ve seen that person who looks like they should have moved past a certain behavior berating someone in public for not making coffee like they wanted it. I can’t say they would be nicer if they’d taken a gap year, but they would almost certainly be more mature. But what causes this shift in maturity during a gap year? Simply put, personal responsibility. On vacation you aren’t responsible for yourself, and in school or at home you can usually fudge tasks by cutting corners or relying on your parents. There’s nothing wrong with relying on our parents for advice or emotional support, but never fully claiming responsibility for yourself leads to a stagnation of personality. At the worst, one becomes infantilized, unable to grow mentally, and as such, yells at the barista in Starbucks for using whole milk and not skim. You don’t want to be that person.
Benefit 3: Professional Development
No matter what you do during your gap year, if you have a host family, or intern with a company, or backpack everywhere, you will end up with valuable experience that can be translated into your career-life. Think about how much people stress in the workplace, wouldn’t you like to exhibit a calm demeanor under duress? You’d stick out quite a bit if you were the only one in the office to stay calm under pressure. When might you learn to keep your cool in this way? During a gap year, that’s when.
In addition to mature and appropriate emotion regulation, you’ll also have plenty of time to consider where you want to go in your professional journey. If you’re like me, you probably went into college with only a vague notion of what you wanted to do with your life. Taking a gap year allows for deep contemplation of important questions like, “Who am I, and what do I want?” Data trends indicate that people who take a gap year before starting higher education switch majors far less than those who do not.
There’s no “right way” to take a gap year. Working at a bookstore in England, or for a multi-national conglomerate in Russia are both equally valid ways of spending your time. No matter what jobs you do or where you work, having international experience is invaluable to American businesses hoping to do business overseas. Who knows? You might find out you really love working for a company or person. Having connections might bring you back to the country you took the gap year in, or maybe they’ll have contacts in the USA for you to interview with.
Taking a gap year allows you to gain some real-life experience that you can’t learn in the classroom. Numerous organizations offer programs to volunteer, intern or learn a new language in another country. In addition, you’ll get the chance to serve your host community and help improve their quality of living. If you’ve ever dreamed of adventure, now is the time to act. Explore your future today!