Why I Believe Gap Years Are Important and Necessary

It’s almost been a year since I graduated college. I can’t believe it. This was without a doubt, the fastest, and one of the best, years of my life. I’ll let you in a little secret as to why- it is because I am finally free from the stresses of university. Though perhaps a bit dramatic, I do not miss college at all. Not one single bit. I have no desire to ever return.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I went to college. I had a lot of fun in college. I met all of my best friends in college, and I miss all the people I met. I’m thankful to have had my study abroad experiences, I’m thankful to have joined my sorority, I’m thankful for the jobs and internships I had on campus, and I’m thankful for the professors who inspired me, (I finally embraced being a proud feminist!) I am who I am because of my life experiences, and that includes my 4.5 years in college. But, I am happy to be completely finished with that part of my life.

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As I explained in an earlier post, I didn’t have the best freshman year. Although it got better because I had best friends and I grew to like where I was, over the course of four-and-a-half years, I cannot tell you how many times I wanted to drop out and quit. I’m even more embarrassed to admit the number of times I found myself crying because I was so stressed out about school and grades and student teaching, and I couldn’t see the point of it all– but it seemed that no one understood where I was coming from. Sick with wanderlust after my travels to France and Japan, I remember counting down the days until I would graduate. One of the reasons I took 20-credit semesters is because I wanted to graduate in 4.5 years instead of 5.

Now that I have my Bachelor’s Degree, I am so happy I stuck it out and didn’t quit. My degree is truly my ticket out into the world. During my 4.5 years of college, I was so unbelievably burned out– from school, group organizations, volunteering, sleepless nights, and especially from the American mentality that the only sense and purpose in life is work and school. I came from being insanely busy in high school to being insanely busy in college, because that’s what we are “supposed” to do, right? I was sick and tired of reading textbook after textbook, writing paper after paper, and completing project after project. I was burned out from being surrounded by people who did not see life outside of Wisconsin or past drunken Friday or Saturday nights. I was burned out from people who thought sports were more important than world news and social justice issues, and travel. I sick and tired of being terrified that my future would not turn out how I wanted. Although I wouldn’t change a thing, because then I wouldn’t be here, I feel like I could have had a different mentality regarding my time in college had I initially taken some time off.

I wish the United States encouraged Gap Years. A Gap Year is defined as a sabbatical between high school and college (or now a year between college and the work force) where young people take a year to go abroad to work or volunteer or travel, or a combination of all three. If I could, I would go back and tell my 18-year-old self to take a gap year as an au pair instead of going straight into undergraduate. You know, I once got an offer to be an au pair on a plane on my way to France back in 2007? But, I didn’t take the offer seriously, and neither did my mom.) Because, you’re “supposed” to go to college right after high school. That’s what you’re “supposed” to do, right!? In both the United Kingdom and Australia, gap years are seen as normal, and are even encouraged by families and universities. I cannot tell you how many 18-year-old Australians I have met on the road whilst traveling throughout Europe and Japan. Literally, 18-year-old Australians who decided to work for six months after high school, save up a bunch of money, and then travel around the world by themselves for the entire year. As I said, this is totally common and normal!! Many UK students apply to universities with the intention of deferring their entry for a chance to take a gap year. As a result, many universities see these students as more worthy candidates. Richard Oliver quotes, “Those who take a gap year straight from school arrive at university refreshed, focused, and they succeed. They are far less likely to drop out of their chosen course. They’re more mature, they’re able to contribute to tutorials; they’re more globally aware.”

Most Americans argue that most eighteen-year-olds are not mature for something like this. But, what if we made it a normal part of our culture? What if we stopped coddling our teens so much and actually encouraged them to do something big before heading to college!? Perhaps allowing students the freedoms of travel and exploration abroad would help decrease some of the “rebellious” acts such as binge drinking and drugs often seen among college freshmen. Secondly, the most common major during undergraduate is “undecided,” and that is because, obviously, most 18-year olds do not have many life skills or experiences! Perhaps if we encouraged more students to take a gap year, they would be able to narrow down their interests and start learning more about themselves. Perhaps then, the average time for a Bachelor’s Degree would jump back down to four years instead of the current ridiculous five-year norm. I myself, for example, chose a major because my academic advisors said it was “practical.” However, after spending time abroad I realized what I wanted for myself, and was much happier studying something that made me happy (even if I did receive demeaning comments from advisors and professors about my newly chosen major!)

I guess you could consider this year to be my gap year. Instead of after high school, took a year after college (and eight months of working) to go live abroad and teach, develop my French skills, and travel. However, many (American) people don’t see this decision I made as a positive one. (You have a teaching job in the United States! How could you just throw away your career before it even begins! Why would you leave when there are so many jobs available!?” Were comments I received.) Some people clearly think I’m jeopardizing my career and my success. But, what is success? From a career standpoint, it is certainly no longer a corporate ladder, where you join one company and work your way up. According to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, “As of 2010, the average American has eleven jobs from the ages of 18-46 alone,” (Sandberg, 2013). Patti Sellers quotes, “Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder,” (Sandberg, 2013). I also don’t believe success is still defined as the 1950′s American Dream, with two married adults, two point five kids, a dog, nice cars, a white picket fence, and two weeks of vacation per year. Unfortunately, many Americans still equate consumerism with success. But that’s not how it should be anymore! Success should now be defined individually, for each individual person! For me, being abroad in France, I am acquiring so many new skills that will advance me in the workplace! (ie: international collaboration, problem solving, fluency in written and spoken French.) For me, success, on my own terms, is traveling and living abroad, mastering a second language, making friends from all around the world, and having cultural experiences that last a lifetime! And, even though I am draining my savings account and have nothing (not even a car!) to my name, as well as an extremely short dating history, I still view myself as a VERY SUCCESSFUL 23-year old, because I have accomplished the things I have wanted to accomplish. Even better, at a time when the economy is at an all-time low, social security failing, it is foreseen that I’ll be working until my mid-seventies, why WOULDN’T I want to take some time to travel and see the world?

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As I explained, many universities in other westernized countries encourage Gap Years! In the states, where Common Core is becoming the norm and Global Citizenship is seen as a key twenty-first century skill, shouldn’t we be encouraging all young people (or people at any age, really!?) to travel and see the world!? Aren’t DOING and EXPERIENCING the best ways to become a global citizen? But in the United States, we as a society are very culturally ignorant! When education funds get cut and tests scores are seen as more important than breathing, history and humanity courses are the first things to go! Moreover, only 39% of the population has a passport! The media also portrays the world as a big scary place, especially for women. We are shown big scary pictures of the world, and told that there is no place safer than the United States (that’s absolute crap!) Furthermore, parents coddle their children more than ever today. Americans are also only given two weeks of vacation a year, while most people only take one week! Many fear that using up vacation time equates being lazy and uncommitted to our jobs!

As a society, we need to make small changes in our everyday lives to make travel and globalization a bigger priority, especially as the world is now more connected than ever before. My advice to ANY person considering taking a gap year is to just do it. Seriously, don’t think twice about it. Just go. Even if you’re young and poor. Even if you’re in the peak of your career. Even if you’re retired. Even if you have kids. There are SO many resources out there for endless opportunities. Just figure out what would be the best path for you.

Because of my gap year, I believe I am more focused and globally aware. I am much more independent and self-sufficient. I am not as afraid to ask questions or stand up for myself. I’m much more mature that many people my age. I feel I have a better grasp about my privileges in this world and how I can use them to help lift up others and debunk the various inequalities engrained in our culture. I am a better person inside and out because of my travels. I have learned to be calmer, I have learned to relax, I have learned to not try to control every aspect of my life. People who travel are better for this world and the current times in which we find ourselves. Best start young when we still have the ability to mold young minds and shape different viewpoints.

Bisous,

Dana

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