When I first told people I would be taking a gap year, I got more blank faces than when I tell a bad joke. Many did not know how to react. It was not until I told them I was going to spend part of it working on a watermelon farm in Australia that they knew they could laugh. Some seemed genuinely envious. Others seemed genuinely sorry.
As I afforded many hours to myself in the eight months I was traveling, I was able to ponder why I received such a wide range of reactions to my taking a gap year. I came to the conclusion that a gap year itself is still uncommon in the United States, especially since I was traveling alone and not on a program. During my eight months abroad, I volunteered and lived with a host family in the Peruvian jungle, worked on a watermelon farm in Australia and stayed in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand. Not too many people were expecting that response when they asked me what I was planning to do. The very thought of a gap year is unknown, perhaps even feared.
The first time my dad brought up the subject of a gap year, I was a bit repelled. It was something totally unfamiliar. However, as my senior year progressed, my dad gradually convinced me that the benefits of a year’s break from school could outweigh the drawbacks. A year to do almost anything in any part of the world seems like any burnt-out, sheltered, high school kid’s fantasy. It’s possibly the closest to freedom a teenager can get.
The reason I decided to take a gap year, however, was not because of all the glorious traveling, but because I wanted to have a year to learn about myself. Reading accounts of people who took gap years abroad and engaged in some semblance of volunteer work, employment or cultural immersion convinced me that those experiences correlated with a greater appreciation for life, greater maturity, greater self-confidence, a clearer vision of future goals and a fuller understanding of oneself. If I could grow that much by doing almost anything I wanted, almost anywhere in the world I wanted, I had no reason not to—except fear. After all, I had always had a travel bug and an eagerness to escape the grasp of my suburban Connecticut life. I thought I had gotten over the fear. Then the day finally came.
8:00 a.m. Sept. 7, 2011. John F. Kennedy International Airport, Queens, NY. There I stood, watching my parents walk away, leaving me with only a 70-liter backpack and a few other amenities to last me the next eight months. There I stood, in the classic “what the hell am I doing?” moment, watching my legs inch me through the exceedingly long security line. I was to be traveling on my own, without even the safety net of a program. I was leaving everything I knew. I felt the greatest fear I had ever known in my life.
In all those eight months, that first day was one of the most memorable, because I got over that fear. No day at college could have given me that. I experienced more in those eight months than in any other eight months of my life, but overcoming the first day’s fear is one of my proudest achievements. After trekking to Machu Picchu, meeting family I never knew I had in places from Sydney to Singapore to London and puking in a Buddhist temple in Thailand after eating street-market food, I can say gap years are honestly advertised: I am more self-confident and more independent, and I know myself a whole lot better.
Now through with my first month at college, I feel a general sense of calm. Maybe it comes from the Zen of Thai Buddhism, or the relaxed nature of the Australians or even the serenity of the Peruvian rain forest. I am not saying that gap years are a one-time opportunity to grow as a person, but simply that my gap year was the way in which I did. Experiences that are off the beaten track, in any shape or form, can be truly valuable—so don’t let fear hinder you.