After 13 years of rigorous academics in a very competitive school system, I felt burnout and lacked the motivation to continue on with my studies. I performed well in the classes I enjoyed, but not so well in others that bored me. Learning in the classroom was no longer something I enjoyed, it was something I loathed. After I got out of school and back from my sports practices, I liked to hang out with my friends. I never did my homework. I just didn’t see the point. When would I ever use geometry or physics in the “real world”? I used to be the first person to tell you that grades didn’t matter, and make up some excuse as to why that was the case. Unfortunately, college admissions officers didn’t love my way of thinking, and my top choice college closed its doors on me. I ended up getting an early-action acceptance offer from Fairfield University, but I just wasn’t that excited about going to college. I knew it was time to go to Plan B.
The Miracle Cure: A Gap Year?
My mom suggested I consider a gap year during my sophomore year of high school, but I didn’t give it any thought at the time. But by late senior year I was at a point where I no longer desired to learn and I felt much more excited to gain real-world knowledge through experiential learning. And with the cost of college rising every year, my parents wanted to make sure their investment in my education would be sound. I decided on my own to take a gap year. (No one should be forced to take a gap year, it has to come from within. If my parents had forced me to take a gap year, I would have experienced intense FOMO—fear of missing out—and would have longed to be with my friends experiencing college life.)
Originally, I had planned on spending a semester in the South Pacific. However, that changed once I discovered a “once in a lifetime trip” to Cuba which opened up shortly after President Obama visited the country in 2015. Due to the large expense of the trip, my parents and I formulated a carrot-and-stick approach. I would work in the fall and winter and this money would help pay for a trip abroad in the spring. That divided my gap year up into three distinct semesters, or as I like to say “chunks.”
Chunk One: Real World Experiences
In September 2016 I worked as a “jack-of-all-trades” at a resort in southern Maine. I had many different jobs, from serving food on the cabana to working the register at a store in the facility. Working in the hospitality industry taught me valuable life lessons, and I could write many blog posts on everything I learned just from that field. During my time in Maine I was fortunate to be able to live near the hotel in a house that has been in my family for many years. However, it was anything but easy. It was the first time I had truly lived alone, and I had adult responsibilities for the first time. My parents had bestowed a tremendous amount of responsibility on me, and I had to prove to them I could succeed. I got up every day and biked the mile or so to work, rain or shine in order to fulfill my end of the deal. If I was lazy and decided to not cook dinner, I would have no food to eat. If I missed work because I was tired from staying up too late, I would get fired. I was put in a situation where failure was not possible.
This was the first valuable lesson I learned early on during the year: You’re on your own as an adult, and if you don’t do it no one else will. It was almost like getting a shock treatment in independence. Slowly, I developed a daily routine and started thriving at both home and my job at the resort. This brings me to another way I grew during the gap year: I developed a solid work ethic. Even though I have had summer jobs since I was 14, this was the first time where I was working towards a goal other than spending money. I had a goal of making money to travel abroad and I pursued it with both passion and determination. In the future when life gets tough, I can always look back and reminisce on my experiences in Maine that taught me the importance of a work ethic and enabled me to mature and develop my independence.
Chunk Two: Helping Others to Help Myself
My second chunk was in my hometown of Belmont, Massachusetts, where I worked at an upscale Italian restaurant and volunteered at a food pantry in Boston. The grit, determination, and work ethic I developed at the resort carried back to my new job where I was regularly working 40 hours a week. At the restaurant, I became friends with a group of three brothers my age who were immigrants from Colombia. When our conversations would drift from work to life, I came to realize that college was most likely out of their reach. I thought about how much I had resented schooling and realized that I never fully appreciated my access to high quality education.
Besides working at the restaurant, I also volunteered once a week at a food pantry. In order to get there, I had to navigate Boston’s public transportation. It didn’t take me too long to get the “T” down to a science. It was all very new and exciting, and it felt like a big adventure. Working at the food pantry also made me appreciate the blessings in my life. I was helping prepare food for people who were too sick to cook for themselves, and it felt good knowing I was doing some good. My experiences of working full-time and volunteering developed into the third way I grew as an individual: I realized that things that I had once taken for granted were privileges. One of the biggest shifts in my thinking was realizing in United States college education was a privilege, not a right afforded to all. Ninety-six percent of my high school class attended a four-year university. I had no idea that this number was not the norm in most parts of the country. This realization contributed to my increased desire to perform to the best of my abilities by not throwing away my blessings. The gap year taught me to be aware of my privileges, and showed me that even though this world is far from perfect there are certainly ways to make a positive impact on the lives of others.
Chunk Three: Expanding My Knowledge Abroad
The final chunk of my year was the most exciting part, and what attracts many young people to take gap years: international travel. I would be spending a semester with a group of 12 people in Cuba. Besides doing service work and exploring the country, I was also going to be taking classes and receiving 12 college credits. The scale of what I was doing didn’t even sink in until I was already on the plane to Miami. There would be no turning back now, I was in this for the long haul! Before I traveled to this “forbidden island”, a friend who had recently studied abroad in Ireland shared a fantastic piece of advice with me. She suggested that I go abroad without any expectations, not good, and especially not bad. I carried this advice with me on my trip, and I still use it to this day when approaching new adventures in my life.
The Cuban people I met that spring were incredibly warm and friendly, even though they were living in poverty. I envied the close bonds all Cubans seemed to share and the general zest for life so many of them had. This became the fourth unexpected way I grew during my gap year: In my life, the goal was going to be happiness, not monetary “success”. The Cubans who apparently had “nothing” in terms of material goods, obviously had something much more important. What I discovered they possessed was happiness. I would rather be happy than have material goods. The gap year allowed me to explore my passions to discover what I really enjoyed doing. After spending three months in Cuba, feeling at times that I had traveled back in time, I came to realize that the world was so much more complex and diverse than I ever could have imagined.
Flash forward to my freshman year at Fairfield University, and my G.P.A is light years ahead of where it was in high school. After my gap year, I was determined not to let my grades slip like they had in high school. I realized that the consequences of me slacking off would affect my job prospects in the “real world”. Besides the tremendous effect it has had on my academic performance, the gap year has made me a marketable hire in the business world. It has helped set me apart, and businesses are interested to hear what I spent my year doing while my peers were busy studying for exams and writing papers. Another great benefit of the gap year was a general sense of global awareness. It was really interesting to hear how people viewed the United States from the outside and learning the ins and outs of a different culture. When trying to explain the gap year to people, I like to say for me, it was a year without societal expectations. I was not in college, nor had I completely entered the workforce. The year was a blank canvas, and I was able to fill it with whatever activities or passions that I desired. Reflect for a moment: When was a time you had the freedom to completely control your life? Ask anyone who took a gap year and they will probably tell you that this was the over-arching theme during their year of growth.
My advice to anyone considering a gap year
In explaining the growth someone undergoes during a gap year experience, I like to use a simple metaphor. When an athlete is trying to build muscle or “bulk-up”, they have to lift heavy weights. If they choose to take the easy way out and lift lighter weights, they will not get the same results. The same basic theory applies for gap years. Someone who leaves their comfort zone is going to grow many times more than someone who chooses to stay where it doesn’t “hurt”. The gap year that involves taking risks and getting out of a comfort zone is going to be much more rewarding in the long term. The fifth way I grew during my gap year came by realizing that until I could be comfortable being uncomfortable,I would never truly be happy. Life is full of experiences that downright suck, and being able to have perspective has helped me. Boston traffic isn’t fun, but neither was having no access to water for 6 km of a 12 km hike through the jungle! I am also a firm believer that the journey is much more memorable than just focusing on the end result. I remember my whole gap year as an unbelievable time of personal growth and understanding. I don’t just look back to my travels in Cuba and say “yeah, that was the defining moment of this year”. I value all the parts involved, because I would not have arrived in Cuba so prepared had it not been for the prior months. The gap year that masks a vacation will certainly allow someone to remain comfortable and lead a very pleasurable and potentially glamorous year. However, the learning and growth that takes place when someone is uncomfortable creates a much deeper, and more meaningful experience. I was pushed way out of my comfort zone, and I came out a global citizen who had “real world” experiences I will carry with me for the rest of my adult life. The good news is: anyone can experience similar growth and knowledge. The one question to ask yourself? “Do I have the courage to swim against the current?”
Grant Stievater is a former gap year participant from Belmont, Massachusetts. He is currently a student at Fairfield University, where he studies Business and Journalism.