Gap years. The words themselves conjure a slight feeling of taboo. Does taking one make you brave, or just lazy? They come in various shapes and sizes: between high school and college, city college and university, or simply a year off during the usual four-year stint.
I was in the second category, battling restlessness with six months between transferring. I grabbed a friend, looked at a map, booked a ticket, and never looked back. Six months turned into a year, and I vagabonded everywhere from Bangkok to Budapest, and a lot of places in between. I got lost. I got sick. I fell in love. I slept in airports and cried at train stations. It taught me what I missed, and what I could do without. Overall, it left me with this conclusion: everyone should try it.
The perspectives gained from traveling at a young age make you want to reach into the future and hug yourself for knowing that you haven’t missed out on such wondrous experiences. I began my trip in Southeast Asia, and that introduction into the subtle nuances of the eastern world forever changed me. When I arrived in Europe, the sophistication of the cultures gently taught me things I’d never realized I needed to learn. I was living in lands steeped in tradition, each one offering its own form of wisdom.
I am still a believer that you can often learn more on the back of a motorbike than in a classroom. I also quickly discovered that America is one of the few countries in the world where young adults are in such a hurry to complete university. It’s encouraged, even expected for many international youths to take a year or two off to wander, play, and return more focused and motivated than ever.
That refreshed mindset is another invaluable advantage gained by gap years. When I left for mine, I was a rock-loving geology major. I still adore volcanoes and glacial fields, but I realized halfway down the Mekong on a slow boat that I’d way rather write about the people and cultures I was encountering—not the rocks lining the banks. When my journey came to its end, I returned to California mentally recharged and prepared to take on all the academics necessary. I worked harder than ever before, got straight A’s, and transferred to one of my top choice schools. My gap year saved me a year of floundering amid wasted loans and missed opportunities.
Amid all the excitement and romance of world traveling, one must be realistic with the responsibilities that come with the territory. Where there are highs, there are bound to be some lows. As I write this article, I am about to embark on my return to my undergraduate career. I went on campus today to grab a textbook and a bus sticker, and was immediately bombarded by a sea of Greek billboards, intramural sports signups, and an overzealous crew team recruiter nearly knocking out my teeth with a paddle. I began to panic. Packs of brightly dressed, peppy students literally skipped by me, and I overheard snatches of lively conversations. I suddenly felt so…old.
For the record, I’m 22; I know I’m not “old.” For some reason, though, I was hit with this overwhelming blast of sadness and regret–did I miss out on something special? Those young, formative years of quintessential college. You know, joining clubs, living with your girlfriends, and camping out in the library. What about the drunken escapades and the petty heartbreak? I’d had a taste of it for a year while attending city college, but it just wasn’t the same as devoting yourself socially to four years at a specific university.
Finally, I had to just give myself a mental slap in the face (since the crew guy missed). I didn’t circle the world twice living out of a backpack to lust after outfits plucked mechanically off H&M racks and wonder whether I should have straightened my hair that day. I didn’t take careening night buses of death across Vietnam and Cambodia to feel insecure taking the bus across town to school. Don’t get me wrong, I love H&M. It was just that, the more I thought about where I’d been and what I’d done, the better I felt about the decision. Hell, if I hadn’t learned how to speak another language and juggle a waitressing job in a foreign country, I never would have met one of my good friends, to whom my sister got married to last weekend! So don’t doubt the decisions you’ve made. The experiences themselves are the reward.
An equally important lesson I learned about gap years is to be realistic about your return. Your friends that you hung out with night and day before you took off? Well, they have lives too, and don’t be surprised if you feel out of their loop upon return. Don’t expect them to want to hear all about your trip, all the time. So you spent a week in a castle in Santorini? Cool, they spent a weekend at their aunt’s house in Palm Springs. If you constantly talk about your travels, you will come off as a bit self-obsessed and egocentric. Of course, share your stories, but when you’re asked, and in moderation. Can’t hold in all the enthusiasm? Awesome– start a blog, get a journal. We’ve all been there.
On the same note, things will not be the same as when you left. I know, duh, right? Well, you’d be surprised. You grow and change so much yourself; it’s easy to mentally refer to wherever you left as some constant, unchanging environment. Maybe it’s some sort of coping technique, a way to comfort yourself when you’re far away and missing stability. Or drinking water. Or toilets. Either way, do be prepared for a dose of reality, in whichever form it takes. This sounds rough, but it doesn’t have to be. Misguided expectations make for hard transitions, and being able to flow with what life brings next will make your days a lot easier.
Enough with the tough love. Taking a gap year will provide you with a sense of freedom like none you’ve ever experienced. To be able to miss your ferry back to the mainland, and spend a few more days on an island with a group of people you’ll never see again. To go to Portugal for a weekend and stay for five months (oops). To go live in Indonesia with that cute German guy you just met…wait, that was definitely a no. From every older person I’ve ever spoken to about my gap year, I’ve been greeted with some play on the same wistful response, “I wish I’d done that when I was young.” We are young. We can still do this. This is one of the only acceptable times in our lives to drop what we’re doing, be a little bit irresponsible, and take off on the other side of the world. So take it and run with it. Fall in 24-hour love. Take the night train. Stumble through a language and miss your flight. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
Here are some more photos from my gap year, in no particular order.