Count on growth and change.
If you’re considering taking a gap year, you probably expect to see some changes in yourself on the other side–I certainly expected as much when I embarked on my gap year journey. A well-rounded gap year should result in growth and development in a number of areas. You might discover a new passion or hobby, or maybe a newfound sense of confidence. A gap year can also be the break you need to start college refreshed and newly motivated. Whether you learn hard skills that apply directly to a field that interests you or soft skills that are less easily defined, your year abroad will undoubtedly prepare you for your future career.
Aside from these more predictable examples, I found that my own gap year brought about some surprising changes. Although I knew I would not return from my gap year exactly the same as I left, I could not have anticipated the specific ways in which I would develop through my experience.
These are just a few of the ways I grew from my gap year.
Independence: After living under my parents' roof for the first seventeen years of my life, I was a fish out of water and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
My gap year catapulted me into autonomy as I found myself navigating the countries of East Africa, booking everything from bus tickets to hostels, and later volunteering and living on my own for four months in rural Costa Rica. There was nobody to turn to when unexpected things came up, so I just figured things out on my own; for example, travelers who visit Costa Rica with a tourist visa are required to leave the country every three months for at least seventy-two hours.
I broke a personal record as I took seven different buses–including an old yellow school bus and an uncovered wagon–to cross the border to Nicaragua with my two friends.
Perspective: I also came away from my gap with a sense of perspective that I did not foresee. I spent three months traveling all over Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda, but I still feel like I barely scratched the surface of the culturally and historically rich African continent; not only did the year open my eyes to the sheer amount of opportunity and possibility that exists outside of my home country, but it also made me aware of my position of privilege within the greater context of our world.
I arrived home confident in my ability to be both a respectful traveler and a competent citizen of the world.
Post-Gap Plans: My experiences abroad also rerouted my plans for college. I got into one of my top choice universities as a senior in high school and decided to defer my acceptance for a year, but just a few months into my gap year, I realized the school I had chosen did not match up with my newly identified values as a young adult and global citizen.
From an Internet café in Rwanda, I reapplied to a completely new set of universities and ultimately landed at a school where the culture was more in line with what I was looking for.
Self-discovery: On a less serious note, I also learned that I am something of an adrenaline junkie. Whether I was white water rafting on the Nile River or ziplining over the cloud forest in Costa Rica, I got more than my fair share of adventure from my gap experience!
When I deferred my college acceptance after high school, I was excited for an adventure, to gain some new skills, and to take a breather before diving back in academically–I certainly checked those off of my list, but I also came away from my gap year having matured and developed in so many unexpected ways. There are some life experiences that are unique to the gap year, and there are some experiences that are unique to your gap year, however you may choose to design it.
I have carried my gap year experiences and lessons with me into subsequent chapters of my life, and I will forever be grateful to have learned them.
Helen, seasoned traveler and EF Gap Year alum, offers her advice on how to live in the moment while traveling abroad—advice that she practiced personally…