image from Aphamok Travel Group

How a Gap Year Can Unlock a Student’s Potential

The adolescent years are turbulent for almost everyone. Every day feels like a routine in which we have to wake up at six in the morning, stress ourselves out during eight hours of classes, force ourselves to stay awake through after school activities, and slave away at homework until midnight. We do all this only to wake up the next morning and repeat it all over again. It’s no wonder that after twelve strenuous years of school, some students are now opting to take one or two years off before they continue on to college. Many choose this route in order to gain more clarity on what they want to do in the future, or just to experience the world at a time when they are not tied down with career, family, and financial obligations. The days between high school and college can be filled with volunteering in third world countries, language immersion programs, or internships. This idea of a gap year is considered the norm in some countries such as England and Australia, although it is only gaining more exposure lately in the United States. This may be because students feel the pressure to immediately attend college and are fearful of lagging behind in the competitive society we all live in today. Although taking time off before pursuing higher education is not ideal for all situations, it can allow students to gain a new range of perspectives which can lead to more success in their future.

Gap years have numerous benefits, most important being students gaining a new perspective on the world around them. Throughout my life I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to experience different places from a school for impoverished children in Tanzania to a remote mountain village in China. Through such experiences, I have had a type of education that is impossible to receive in conventional schooling. I now have a new appreciation for all cultures and tolerance for all races, as I have been able to interact with many different groups of people. Those who take time off to travel the world and immerse themselves in a new environment after high school are likely to have similar transformations. Also, through the maturity they gain they will be less likely to be caught up in the pointless drama and partying that is often glorified in college. This is because “if you’ve traveled the wider world in all its complexity and glory, you’ll understand there are bigger issues for humanity.” Not only will they have a new perspective on the world, but they will also see themselves differently. Another thing I have been fortunate enough to have is a strong sense of self, and I attribute this all to the experiences I have had in my life. Through travel I have learned what I am passionate about, and it is important for people to know this before they make important decisions that could impact their future. As a high school junior I hear a lot of my peers telling me they are unsure of what they want to do in college and throughout the rest of their life. Furthermore, in college many students switch their majors several times because they don’t know what they are truly passionate about. Maturity and a strong sense of self is instrumental when making decisions such as a major or career, and unfortunately many kids my age are not self-aware enough to make these decisions. With the opportunity of a gap year “students come away more mature and take their studies more seriously, and they are more assured of what they want to do major wise.” Students should make life changing decisions because it is best for them, not because they are pressured to by their school or parents. Only then will they be both successful and happy in their life.

A common stress for students considering a gap year is the possible costs that could amount after traveling for the year. Many wonder why they should spend money on travel that they could potentially use to fund the expenses college brings. While these are valid concerns, there are many options for those who are on a tight budget as well. For example, lately colleges are realizing the potential importance of a gap year and even “some schools including Tufts University, Florida State University and the University of North Carolina have begun to offer some forms of financial aid to give cash-strapped students exposure to a broader range of experiences before college as well.” In addition, there are numerous paths to take during a gap year that are more cost effective. For example, students may choose to take an internship or job. This is an especially popular option because “getting a job will help defray the costs of your college education, while giving you valuable work experience.” There are also other options such as cheap travel, which may include backpacking and staying in hostels. In my opinion this is the best way to travel because it is impossible to truly experience the life of the foreign land you are visiting by staying in 5-star hotels. Another way to broaden your mind is to volunteer in organizations such as the Peace Corps during your gap year. A common myth is that gap years are only for rich kids with a fat check from their parents, although in reality there are dozens of both cheap and enriching experiences open for all walks of life.

There are many critics of gap years who believe taking time off will only lead to a lazy and unproductive future. They believe “a danger of taking a gap year is that students might not want to return to college. Delaying college can also delay the start of a career.” This is understandable, as it is every parent’s dream to watch their children grow up to be successful and financially independent. And it is true that gap years are not for everyone, especially those who are just looking for a reason to sit in front of their television for the year. One should only take time off to travel or volunteer if they are serious about bettering themselves and are excited at the idea of continuing their education at the college level. That being said, many students who have returned to college after taking a gap year have had monumental success. For example, “universities are reporting an increase in GPA, greater engagement in campus life, increased likelihood that students will graduate within four years, and of course greater clarity with career ambitions” for students that do take a gap year. This is a direct result of the newfound maturity and self-awareness gained through their experiences in their time off from school. Also, after taking a year off many students naturally feel more refreshed and recharged. Therefore, they are much more prepared to take on the demanding tasks that college and future careers entail.

In this competitive day and age pursuing higher education has become the norm, and many students jump right into it just because they are told it is the correct path to follow. As a result of this, they don’t fully appreciate or make the most of their college experience. As a society we idolize success as making the most amount of money, and often students base their majors and educational decisions on this idea, rather than what makes them feel fulfilled and happy. The reality is life is extremely short and in the limited amount of time we have on this earth we have to discover what truly makes us happy and follow that no matter what. Thus, taking time off from the pressures of school and society could be instrumental in discovering what is meaningful in one’s life, allowing for true success in the future.