In Europe, the “gap year” is common. It is usually taken in between the end of high school and start of university, or sometimes after the end of university before going on for further schooling or starting a career. During this time, people travel and often volunteer or work in foreign countries.
This isn’t so common in the US, but it should be! My version of a gap year was my 6-month semester abroad in Thailand during my junior year of university at Loyola Maryland, and then 10 months there, teaching English after I graduated. Even before Thailand, I had a deep-seated love of travel instilled in me from our family cross-country camping trips and a trip to Italy in high school.
Vacations are awesome. But living abroad is a very different experience. It doesn’t just entertain you, it changes you. In fact, part of my drive to create a self-styled life and my confidence that it can be done is a direct result of what I gained by my experience abroad (including my husband, whom I picked up on an island…)
While I lived in Thailand, I became more self-confident. A country girl, I found my way around a big, crowded city where I couldn’t read most of the signs or speak the language. You get over yourself quickly when you need to find the bus station and the only way you can describe it is to say, in bad Thai, that you’re looking for the “place where the Big cars go away from.” And despite the challenges, I made itineraries, booked flights, bargained for accommodations and became somewhat comfortable with the fact that I didn’t always know what I was eating.
Dealing with language difficulties, eating different food every day and interacting in a foreign culture, you begin to see your home through a different lens. There is so much we take for granted, and you recognize this with a sudden flash of appreciation when you’re sitting in a bathroom stall and there’s no roll of toilet paper because the Thai people carry their own.
By having these experiences at a young age, you discover yourself and your values before you start making major life decisions. At the very least, you can get some of the partying impulses out so that you’ll actually study at university. And some universities even encourage their students to have a gap year before starting their freshman year.
Though my travel wasn’t a gap year proper, I gained confidence, self-awareness and perspective, but most importantly I gained a sense of wonder. When you catch a glimpse of the world, you realize how much more is out there. Knowing this, it would be hard for me to settle on a life that didn’t inspire and delight me. And that’s what the self-styled life is all about.
Have you had something like a gap year (or even an actual one)?