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The Gap Year

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As a kid all you hear adults say is to follow your dreams. Mentors repeatedly tell blossoming teenagers how unique they each are, to encourage their ideas about the future. Once we reach the meek age of 18 a pesky little voice encourages us to rush and figure out the next step to becoming successful. What the voice doesn’t do is encourage students to do something off the beaten path and to use this free time before the real world begins to go on an adventure.

After four years at a university, young twenty-somethings all around the nation scramble to plan out their next moves. Pressure builds as graduating students are constantly questioned as to what they will do next with their lives. Where am I going to work? Where am I going to live? Who am I going to live with? How am I going to pay for my car? These questions are constantly scrolling through the heads of college students everywhere.

Once out of school, a former student’s success is measured by salary and job placement. The guy who scores the big executive job with a six-digit salary will be considered by most of his peers as more successful than their buddy who is taking a victory lap back in school. But, what if our idea of success is wrong? What if instead of searching for executive jobs like four leaf clovers, we didn’t look specifically for anything at all, we just searched. After all, why is it that we are hurried to grow up so quickly?

Many young European students take what is called a “gap year” after they finish their education. During this year, young adults travel with friends all over the world. Whether going on a biking adventure through an entire continent or doing manual labor to make money while climbing in Nepal, these young people are making the most out of the youth that they have left.

I remember eating at a Mexican restaurant in Houston during my senior year of high school with my four best friends when a group of six New Zealand students approached us. After a little bit of conversation and giggling at their accents we got onto the subject of why they were in America. These six 23-year-olds were backpacking around America on their gap year and had landed in Texas on a whim. I was immediately hooked to this idea of complete adventure and freedom.

This is not slacking off and sitting around on the couch for a year. This is an idea that allows young people to release the energy that they have built up inside them and experience something interesting and completely new, most while completely supporting themselves. A definite way to broaden horizons is to be curious, brave, and explore places that are entirely fresh and different.

Of course as college students, most of us have no money. Also, parents tend to cut the cord after graduation, which leaves many students penniless. Fortunately there are ways to still take a year off and pay for the adventure while experiencing it. Finding odd jobs along the way is always an option. There are great guidebooks targeted to young people seeking adventures that instruct you along the way. Delaying the Real World by Coleen Kinder is a popular guidebook that not only suggests places to go and things to do, but also how to pay your way through the journey.

The Peace Corps is a volunteer government organization that sends people all over the world to help develop impoverished communities. The Peace Corps also aids in paying off lingering student loans and offers a transitional stipend at the end of the two-year tour, during which volunteers live as locals do. You can’t get much further off of the beaten path than joining the Peace Corps. Many employers also see participating in missions like the Corps as a positive resume item, making it that much easier to find a salaried job when ready.

Teaching English in foreign countries is another option for working abroad. Most American universities have a general education requirement of at least three semesters of a foreign language. Even with this small fluency in a language like Spanish, you can go teach young Hispanic children to speak English with different programs around the world.

Many students who think ahead and know that they are interested in taking time off to travel after graduation start saving up early. Working odd jobs like bartending or student teaching around campus can add up to a fat travel fund. Spending smart while traveling also helps. Most backpackers exchange tips to help other travelers out on their journeys.

Meeting people in new and foreign places changes lives. Meeting one person or finding out one new passion can completely change a person’s path in life. In fact, that is the whole point of a gap year: taking time to not have any specific focus in life, and experience everything. Learn about everything. Go wherever you want to go at a moment’s notice, and take some risks in life.

Too many young college graduates confine themselves to a life of fluorescent lights and stale coffee simply because they do not realize that there are other options. The idea of taking a year off from day-to-day life seems unreachable, when in reality if you focus on the journey day by day the adventure is quite accessible.

A person’s twenties are one of the only times in life when it is easy to start over. Twenty-somethings are young enough to fall down and be able to recover and pick themselves up again. At the young age of 22 or 23 a simple trip-up or mistake is expected and may actually build character rather than break it down. Take risks; the cubicle will always be there.

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About Sarah C Thomas

  • Molly Sterns

    Completely agree with your argument for meandering off the beaten track and out into the world–par­ticularly before getting caught up in a career, a family, a mortgage, or whatever else.

    It’s a great thing to do after college or in between jobs, but imagine this: a corps of high school graduates who, before even setting foot on a college campus, spend a year serving as apprentice­s in the developing world, who return fluent in another language and focused on the issues they want to pursue going forward, who have life experience that stretches well beyond the confines of a classroom while they’re still just teenagers. Kind of like Peace Corps — but four years earlier.

    This is what we’re doing at the organizati­on I work for, Global Citizen Year. We’ve just sent our second class of Fellows into the field and are actively recruiting for our third, to live and work in Senegal, Ecuador, or Brazil. I’ll be sure to refer them to this blog for a chance to hear it from the perspectiv­e of someone older and wiser – it certainly made me want to travel again!

    Thanks for writing. If you’d like any more informatio­n or know a high schooler who’d be interested­, you can contact me at globalcitizenyear.org

    Happy trails,