I graduated from high school in 2011 and took the following year off before starting university. Taking an intentional gap year was by far the best, most life-changing decision I have ever made and it has continued to benefit me to this day. Gap years have traditionally been more common in places such as Europe and Australia, for example approximately 50 percent of students take a year off before starting college in countries such as Norway, Denmark, and Turkey (1). However recently, gap years have been growing in popularity in the U.S. too (2). Now that I have finished my second year in university, I am realizing more and more how beneficial a gap year was to myself, and how many more students would have, and still can, benefit from taking a year off.
I don’t want to assume taking a gap year is right for everyone, but I do think more students should keep it open as an option and realize the many benefits it has to offer. So, here's why taking a gap year was the best decision I've ever made:
It developed me as a person and broadened my worldview and perspectives through traveling and meeting new people
My gap year commenced with a trip to Burundi, Africa with World Vision’s 30 Hour Famine. To this day I consider it my most life-changing experience for how it opened my eyes to the beauty of a completely different culture, as well as the reality of poverty and suffering. It was there I also felt God calling me to dedicate my life to serving those in need, whatever that may look like.
After Burundi, for the fall of my gap year, I moved to Seattle, WA to intern with World Vision. I fell in love with Seattle and the Pacific North West, and was able to see a new and beautiful side of the U.S. I previously hadn't been exposed to. Living in a new city and interning at a young age also benefited me in terms of the diverse people I met and how they mentored and shaped my life and provided me with direction for my future. (Also, living with a couple girls in their mid-twenties gave me a very realistic view of life after college, and the reality of dealing with things such as student loans and debt).
Following Seattle, I spent January-June with the Christian volunteer and missions organization Youth With a Mission (YWAM) in Australia, with six weeks of that time spent in Cambodia. While there, I found that there is invaluable experience that comes from living in a country not your own and with people that are different from you. It brings humility and awareness as it forces you to rethink everything you always assumed to be “The Truth” and the “right way to do things.” It makes you appreciate different ways of viewing the world and doing life. Not to mention, nothing will challenge you and build your character more than living in community and sharing a tiny, dorm-sized room with 8 girls and two showers with 50! ;)
Another benefit of travel I have noticed, with myself and others, is the way it helps in discovering previously latent passions and interests. Getting out into the world, even if it is just your own backyard, and getting involved, getting dirty, volunteering, trying new things, meeting new people, having conversations, making connections… you never know where it will take you or what you will discover about yourself in the process. For example, while in Cambodia I went to several businesses – cafes, restaurants, salons – that were social enterprises providing vocational training to women coming out of the sex industry, or homeless youth and land-mine victims. It was there I realized I wanted to pair international development (the major I had decided on) with business to equip those in need and address poverty and exploitation.
Lastly, traveling provides a level of independence and confidence that transfers over into every area of life. It also fosters a greater appreciation for other cultures and an awareness of the diversity and richness of the world. Because of this, I now find it is easier to relate to people from different backgrounds, countries, and cultures. The relationships I have formed, as a result, have brought my life significant meaning and joy.
I met some of my closest friends that I now consider family
The people I met during my gap year continue to be some of my closest, dearest friends. From the incredible mentors I had who challenged me, spoke truth into my life, and became my role models; to the sisters I made who continue to walk through life with me today; and even just the beautiful individuals I had the privilege of getting to know for an afternoon... the relationships I gained during my year off have challenged me, encouraged me, and blessed me more than words can express.
It helped me gain practical experience and gave me a competitive advantage
I can never stress enough how important it is to do random jobs, get internships, volunteer…whatever it is, just get out there! Although we can get an idea of what we like and dislike from the classroom, it is the practical engagement and real world experience that will truly show you where your skills and passions lie, and simply what you enjoy doing and what you don’t. Additionally, internships and volunteering often help clarify what you want to study in school. For instance, at World Vision I discovered that I really enjoy writing, communications, and marketing, things I am continuing to pursue now. Lastly, taking a gap year, and especially interning, has helped me make connections and create a professional network.
Taking a gap year also put me ahead of my peers when it came to work and cross-cultural experience. Entering university with two internships under my belt (I did another with HOPE International the summer after I got back from YWAM) made it easier for me to get future internships as well as a part-time job at school.
In addition to having some work experience, cultural intelligence and awareness and cross-cultural competence is of growing importance for universities and employers. Having international and volunteer experiences in cross-cultural settings aided me in finding leadership opportunities at university, future internships, and even scholarships.
When I did enter university, I did so strategically, with focus and a purpose
Not every high school senior knows exactly what they want to do with the rest of their life, and that’s okay! Yet many, despite this, still run off to a $30,000/year university, because it is what everyone else is doing, only to switch majors multiple times, transfer twice, and take an extra year to complete their degree. In my two years at university so far, I have met several students who struggle with finding motivation, direction, and figuring out what to major in, and their grades and finances (because they often take an extra semester or year in school) suffer as a result.
Now, that makes no sense to me, because let’s face it; college is hard, and (especially in the U.S.) quite expensive... so we really shouldn't enroll unless we know why we are attending college in the first place. I really believe this common predicament could be avoided if students took some time off from school to pause and explore their interests, passions, and skills, and get a better idea of what they want to pursue in university and ultimately do with their life.
I found it very beneficial to take a year to do this and then to decide on a major and a university that has a great program within that field. Because I did this, once I got to university I was much more motivated and focused because I knew why I was studying what I was studying and what I wanted to do with my degree upon graduation.
Some universities now will even offer scholarships so students can take a gap year, scholarships for participating in programs like the one I did, YWAM, or simply for proven involvement in and commitment to volunteer work (3). For example, I was awarded a diversity scholarship for the variety of things I did during my gap year and particularly because I participated in YWAM.
Looking back, I now see the way that my gap year changed my heart, my life, and the lens through which I view the world and the people around me; I see how it helped me discover my passions and my purpose in life; I see how it jump-started my career path and benefited my academic life; I see how it gave me some of my dearest friends, and I want this for other young adults too. Although taking a year off may not be for everyone, and gap years can vary greatly from one individual to the next, I hope more students consider taking a year off before starting university. I realize many students face the pressure of parents or competitive high schools to attend university right away, but taking time off may be the wisest thing you do in this stage of your life... I know it was for me :)
Notes and further reading: