Why I Took A Gap Year (And You Should Too)

Gap years. The words themselves conjure a slight feeling of taboo. Does taking one make you brave, or just lazy? They come in various shapes and sizes: between high school and college, city college and university, or simply a year off during the usual four-year stint.

I was in the second category, battling restlessness with six months between transferring. I grabbed a friend, looked at a map, booked a ticket, and never looked back. Six months turned into a year, and I vagabonded everywhere from Bangkok to Budapest, and a lot of places in between. I got lost. I got sick. I fell in love. I slept in airports and cried at train stations. It taught me what I missed, and what I could do without. Overall, it left me with this conclusion: everyone should try it.

The perspectives gained from traveling at a young age make you want to reach into the future and hug yourself for knowing that you haven’t missed out on such wondrous experiences. I began my trip in Southeast Asia, and that introduction into the subtle nuances of the eastern world forever changed me. When I arrived in Europe, the sophistication of the cultures gently taught me things I’d never realized I needed to learn. I was living in lands steeped in tradition, each one offering its own form of wisdom.

We could learn a thing or two...Unexpected teachers in Sumbawa.
We could learn a thing or two…Unexpected teachers in Sumbawa.

I am still a believer that you can often learn more on the back of a motorbike than in a classroom. I also quickly discovered that America is one of the few countries in the world where young adults are in such a hurry to complete university. It’s encouraged, even expected for many international youths to take a year or two off to wander, play, and return more focused and motivated than ever.

That refreshed mindset is another invaluable advantage gained by gap years. When I left for mine, I was a rock-loving geology major. I still adore volcanoes and glacial fields, but I realized halfway down the Mekong on a slow boat that I’d way rather write about the people and cultures I was encountering—not the rocks lining the banks. When my journey came to its end, I returned to California mentally recharged and prepared to take on all the gapyear4academics necessary. I worked harder than ever before, got straight A’s, and transferred to one of my top choice schools. My gap year saved me a year of floundering amid wasted loans and missed opportunities.

Amid all the excitement and romance of world traveling, one must be realistic with the responsibilities that come with the territory. Where there are highs, there are bound to be some lows. As I write this article, I am about to embark on my return to my undergraduate career. I went on campus today to grab a textbook and a bus sticker, and was immediately bombarded by a sea of Greek billboards, intramural sports signups, and an overzealous crew team recruiter nearly knocking out my teeth with a paddle. I began to panic. Packs of brightly dressed, peppy students literally skipped by me, and I overheard snatches of lively conversations. I suddenly felt so…old.

For the record, I’m 22; I know I’m not “old.” For some reason, though, I was hit with this overwhelming blast of sadness and regret–did I miss out on something special? Those young, formative years of quintessential college. You know, joining clubs, living with your girlfriends, and camping out in the library. What about the drunken escapades and the petty heartbreak? I’d had a taste of it for a year while attending city college, but it just wasn’t the same as devoting yourself socially to four years at a specific university.

On the job in Portugal.
On the job in Portugal.

Finally, I had to just give myself a mental slap in the face (since the crew guy missed). I didn’t circle the world twice living out of a backpack to lust after outfits plucked mechanically off H&M racks and wonder whether I should have straightened my hair that day. I didn’t take careening night buses of death across Vietnam and Cambodia to feel insecure taking the bus across town to school. Don’t get me wrong, I love H&M. It was just that, the more I thought about where I’d been and what I’d done, the better I felt about the decision. Hell, if I hadn’t learned how to speak another language and juggle a waitressing job in a foreign country, I never would have met one of my good friends, to whom my sister got married to last weekend! So don’t doubt the decisions you’ve made. The experiences themselves are the reward.

An equally important lesson I learned about gap years is to be realistic about your return. Your friends that you hung out with night and day before you took off? Well, they have lives too, and don’t be surprised if you feel out of their loop upon return. Don’t expect them to want to hear all about your trip, all the time. So you spent a week in a castle in Santorini? Cool, they spent a weekend at their aunt’s house in Palm Springs. If you constantly talk about your travels, you will come off as a bit self-obsessed and egocentric. Of course, share your stories, but when you’re asked, and in moderation. Can’t hold in all the enthusiasm? Awesome– start a blog, get a journal. We’ve all been there.

On the same note, things will not be the same as when you left. I know, duh, right? Well, you’d be surprised. You grow and change so much yourself; it’s easy to mentally refer to wherever you left as some constant, unchanging environment. Maybe it’s some sort of coping technique, a way to comfort yourself when you’re far away and missing stability. Or drinking water. Or toilets. Either way, do be prepared for a dose of reality, in whichever form it takes. This sounds rough, but it doesn’t have to be. Misguided expectations make for hard transitions, and being able to flow with what life brings next will make your days a lot easier.

GAPYEAR3

Enough with the tough love. Taking a gap year will provide you with a sense of freedom like none you’ve ever experienced. To be able to miss your ferry back to the mainland, and spend a few more days on an island with a group of people you’ll never see again. To go to Portugal for a weekend and stay for five months (oops). To go live in Indonesia with that cute German guy you just met…wait, that was definitely a no. From every older person I’ve ever spoken to about my gap year, I’ve been greeted with some play on the same wistful response, “I wish I’d done that when I was young.” We are young. We can still do this. This is one of the only acceptable times in our lives to drop what we’re doing, be a little bit irresponsible, and take off on the other side of the world. So take it and run with it. Fall in 24-hour love. Take the night train. Stumble through a language and miss your flight. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

 

Here are some more photos from my gap year, in no particular order.

So that castle in Santorini? Yeah...it was real.
So that castle in Santorini? Yeah…it was real.
Came over a hill to this view. Secret beaches in Indonesia.
Yes, those are water buffalo. Secret beaches in Indonesia.
Capirinhas para todos!! On the job in Portugal
Capirinhas para todos!! On the job in Portugal.
Surfing in Sumbawa
Surfing in Sumbawa.
Finding inspiration in the parks of Lisbon.
Finding inspiration in the parks of Lisbon.
The walk to work in Portugal.
The walk to work in Portugal.
Ta Prohm, one of the thousands of temples in Cambodia's Angkor Wat.
Ta Prohm, one of the thousands of temples in Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.
Roadside Cambodia
Roadside  glimpses in Cambodia.
Looking up at the Acropolis, in Athens
Looking up at the Acropolis, in Athens
Oh, Prague. I miss you.
Oh, Prague. I miss you.
Spanish bus station sillies.
You can get anywhere with an umbrella and a bottle of whiskey. A good sidekick doesn’t hurt either.

This story was brought to you by         studentuniverse (2)

Colleen Conroy

Contributor, UC Santa Barbara Major: Global Studies Her heart belongs to: The sea You can find her: In an airport. Wearing linen. On a surfboard. Drinking beer. Missing her bus/train. (In no particular order)

7 Comments
  1. Hi Colleen
    What an inspirational story, I think you may have writing talents too.
    Good luck in whatever career you choose, I am sure you will be successful.
    Your family must be so proud of you and your attitude.

    Regards
    Anita Kelly

  2. Nicely done, Colleen! Enjoyed reading your article and seeing the lovely photos. What a year of self-education…and a most excellent adventure. Carry on, young wise one.

  3. Colleen, you left me wanting more. I could feel the emotions of which you wrote. You have found and given yourself the best gift of deciding YOUR life and the path you will follow.

    May life continue to be the adventure your have begun.

  4. If you don’t mind me asking, how did you manage to pay for so much travel? Was it mainly from the job in portugal? I would love to do something like this after college but I’m not sure how it would be possible because of how expensive college is.

    1. Hi Rachel,

      I worked my butt off for the years preceding the trip. Basically any money I had saved since I had begun working when I was 16 was the financial base I built off of. Also, when I was in school, I was very fortunate to have financial aid, as well as some assistance from my parents, enabling me to save some of the money I was working hard for. Also, I was at a community college then, which is MUCH cheaper. I’m at a university now and scrambling….although I still make an effort to work at least 2-3 shifts a week to squirrel away money for future travels. It depends on priorities. For me, travel is like food and water, I make it a part of my necessities as much as possible, because it’s just part of my life now.

      However, I did run out, even traveling as cheaply as I was. My job in Portugal enabled me to extend the trip a few more months, but that ran out too eventually. Europe is expensive, but if you don’t get fat and go broke, you’re not doing it right.

      Cheers!

  5. Colleen,

    I’m 16 and my friends and I have been thirsty for a gap year but we live in a town where it’s not acceptable to take a gap year and frankly I am scared to do it. We “planned” (and by planned I mean we have a running Google Doc for our dreams) for a year abroad together after college. But as much as we promise to stay as close as we are right now, in five years after four at different schools possibly miles away from each other, who knows if it will happen. I am a junior in high school and I have absolutely no inkling of what I want to do in the future; except travel. From your post you seem happy with the placement of your gap year, would you recommend a year abroad after high school?

    1. Hi Alex!

      First of all, it is OKAY to be scared. A little fear is good, it keeps you level-headed amid all of your excitement. Also, you’re only 16, which is great, because you have so much time ahead of you to travel! So don’t worry about having butterflies, that is completely natural.

      You are wise to wonder if waiting for 5 years (i.e. until after college) to take a gap year with your friends is “too long.” I use quotations, because there is never really a right or wrong time to travel, but I see where you are coming from. Not to sound depressing, but realistically, people do tend to grow apart a lot in college–not saying you guys won’t be friends anymore, but college is such a whirlwind of self-discovery and rapid growth, the fact is that you and your friends will probably have changed a bit after the next 5 years.

      If you are unsure of what you want to do (which you should be! when I was 16 I think I wanted to be a coffee farmer in Hawaii or something ridiculous), I highly recommend a gap year after high school. I encourage you to fight the taboo of your town. Be sure to evaluate your fear and ask yourself, “Am I scared to do this because of what my town/parents/my friends will think of me, or am I scared because setting out abroad can be really scary but also really rewarding?” Either answer is FINE, but don’t let the fear of disapproval or “not doing the Right Thing” scare you off!

      Here’s a little secret: when you go against a taboo, and succeed, may I go as far to say thrive–now that is the best reward in the world. And all of those people who warned you otherwise, are often the people most inspired by what you’ve done. You’ll be surprised what your actions can spark in others.

      So, I recommend that if you want to travel, pack up girl! Do you know where you’d like to go? If you have any questions at all, feel free to email me at [email protected] 🙂

      Best,
      Colleen

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