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Take Time Off

A Gap Year Abroad Gives You the Kind of Education You Won’t Forget After the Test

Waling a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, Spain

Waling a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, Spain.

Education comes in many forms, in or out of the classroom. As students we all know what the classroom holds for us: a structure, a curriculum, assignments to test our knowledge, and a teacher to guide us in our studies. All of these have great value in our educational careers, but there is another aspect of the learning experience that often goes overlooked. There is a world outside the classroom door with a vast array of opportunities for the kind of education that will penetrate deeper than books and tests. Don’t underestimate the power of education through direct experience in a gap year abroad.

There is value in taking some time to figure things out. With the high cost of education these days, not everyone can afford to make costly mistakes by jumping right in and possibly floundering in the deep end. Not everyone can afford a formal higher education at all and there are many other opportunities to discover in the world. We are young, and with this youth we carry the curiosity and energy to explore.

Part of the journey toward becoming an aware and responsible adult is cultivating a multicultural perspective through the direct experience of travel. We develop a multicultural perspective when we venture beyond what is familiar and when we have the tenacity to seek, explore, and reach beyond our preconceived notions. To survive in our changing global environment, we must build bridges between people and nations. To achieve a multicultural perspective at the deepest level we must couple intellectual knowledge with direct experience.

This is not to devalue the importance of a college education; rather, because a college education is so valuable, it is best to continue when you are ready and prepared to utilize it to the fullest. A gap year will allow you time to rest, reflect, and experience learning on a new level. Then the return to a structured learning environment may be better appreciated, and even refreshing. It is never too late to take a step back and re-focus on what is important to you. College will always be there when you are ready for it, and after a break for travel it will probably take on a completely new light.

I can attest from my own experience to the value of taking some time to explore. It was not until my physical health demanded rest after two years of college that I embarked upon a journey that will always be a part of me. After two years to travel, work, and pursue some of my own interests, I am enthusiastic about learning and eager to go back to school. With the maturity and broadened perspective gained through life experience, I developed a clearer purpose for my education. I intend to relish the college experience, attain my goals, and enjoy the process. Had I not taken this time off, I might be years down the road, tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and no closer to my deepest ambitions.

Some Possibilities for an Education Abroad

Learning a new language is always a good way to expand the mind, forcing it to work in new ways and connect with new people in a different culture. There are intensive language schools in many countries which you can search online (see sidebar below). You are at a huge advantage as a native English speaker and can take this advantage to almost any country and offer a language exchange to people there. As a trade for English conversation you get to learn a new language and culture through immersion. I found a man to exchange language conversation with in a library in Spain and a friend of mine found an exchange on the beach.

 World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is a cheap and educational way to travel. Learn about sustainable living, agriculture, construction, and teamwork. It is also a great way to steep yourself in the culture and language and connect with the environment of your host country. Every farm is different, so make contact with the farm beforehand and select one you feel good about. I found one that offered Spanish language lessons in Spain and I had a fabulous experience. Volunteering in exchange for room and board makes this affordable for everyone.

 Walking a pilgrimage is the educational experience of a lifetime. I walked El Camino de Santiago in Spain and learned all about the country and its people. Sharing the experience with fellow travelers from all over the world expanded my global awareness. El Camino brought me face to face with myself and some of life’s most important lessons. Other pilgrimages include the pilgrimage to Rome, to Jerusalem, and a pilgrimage through Cuba, India, and many more.

Making Plans

Think about where you want to go, what you want to do and why; then do your homework. Structure and purpose are tools to help you reap deep rewards, so go with a purpose that excites you.

 Allow for spontaneity: Now you have your structure but remember it is not the law. Remain open to life’s experiences. Be open to changing direction if an opportunity presents itself. Remember, there are no accidents when traveling.

 Learn from other travelers: Part of your education is through the direct contact you have with people of other cultures. Ask about their cultures and compare the differences. Remember too that travelers will have insider information on unique opportunities you can’t find anywhere else, so inquire and take notes.

 Travel light: Allow room to acquire new things along the way both physically and mentally. The less weight on your shoulders, the greater your ability to take more in. Pack light and be ready and open to receive.

 Study before you go: Read up on the places you are going—the customs, the politics, the history, the warnings, the places to see, etc. This will make for an easier transition and a greater connection to the people, while helping to ensure you make the most of your experience while you are there. It will deepen your retention of knowledge when you have a meaningful connection with what you have studied.

Possible Concerns

 If I take time off, I won’t go back to school. Maybe, maybe not. If you do not return, maybe that is for the best. Maybe school was not the right fit and you’ll find something that fits you better. If you do not go back right away, school is always there. Chances are that if you really have an ambition to go to school, taking time off will only make your interest stronger and more focused.

 I just want to get college over with. College is a privilege to be appreciated. A little distance from the institution can change your attitude toward it. If it is only about the degree, then a degree will be the same a year later. Also, there is a great opportunity to utilize the student status to open doors abroad. Finally you are young, what’s the rush?

 I am a female, it is not safe to travel alone. I am a female who traveled alone for months. Don’t let that fear cast doubt upon your dreams. If you are feeling insecure, pick a country with a safe reputation and take some self-defense and street-wise classes. With some easy common-sense precautions, you will be fine. Travel by day, wear a money belt, be aware but not paranoid, keep your valuables out of sight as much as possible, dress modestly, stay in relatively crowded areas, and maintain the attitude that you are strong and safe.

 I can’t afford it. It is much more affordable than formal education because you don’t have to pay anyone to make a curriculum for you. There are many affordable ways for young people to travel. Get an International Student Identity Card (ISIC) and get discounts. Find work exchange opportunities such as WWOOF. For lodging, consider couchsurfing at www.couchsurfing.org for the cheapest and most authentic experience. El Camino de Santiago is very cheap, with lodging ranging from free to E5 a night and you can always bring a tent and camp out. Find work abroad like teaching English. There are ways. Don’t be limited by money.

For More Info

While many of the best suggestions come from word of mouth, here are some hard resources to get you started:

 International Student Identification Card (ISIC); International Student Exchange Card both provide for student discounts worldwide..

 Language Schools: www.middlebury.edu/academics/ls and for articles, programs, and resources see the Transitions Abroad's Language Study Abroad page on this site.

 Language Exchange: www.conversationexchange.com, www.sharedtalk.com, www.intercambio-es.com, www.abanico-es.com. Check the classifieds at your destination.

 Volunteering: World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF): www.wwoof.org and for articles, programs, and resources see the Transitions Abroad's Volunteer Abroad page on this site.

 Pilgrimages: www.caminosantiago.com, www.pilgrimage-india.com.