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What Your Need to Know About a Gap Year Abroad

A Student Perspective

Taking a gap year off abroad a student with a backpack abroad.

When the pomp and circumstance of college graduation is marred by a global economic crisis or the 2020 pandemic has significantly receded in its effects after hemming in your horizons and ambitions to travel, it's time to be creative. In my case, the conventional transition from classroom to cubicle becomes archaic simply because there are no jobs to be had; even worse, those who already had a job were being laid off. Such was the case for many in my graduating class at Columbia College. After the pandemic, many students have been craving adventures abroad—whether to travel, study, work short-term, live, or get away from the day-to-day rigors of life at home.

While a general mix of disillusionment in my time, anxiety, and stress indeed hung in the air, some of my classmates were optimistic. Thinking outside the box became the new mantra, and for quite a number of us, including myself, this meant taking a gap year and going abroad.

Slightly different questions for those graduating high school are also common, with even the best students sometimes not feeling "ready" to go to college and feeling a desire to explore the world. Fortunately, this is becoming generally accepted and often a wise course of action before you or your parents make the substantial financial investment in a college education.

Just What is a Gap Year?

As the name suggests, a gap year involves a break in the traditional course of one's life. "Traditional" because life is a series of social constructs and expectations; for us college students, these include completing various internships and participating in extracurricular activities—all to land one step further up the career ladder and be "successful," perhaps working very long hours at a job site or remotely.

This article is not the place to discuss the crippling pressures college or even high school students experience; it merely seeks to present the gap year as an opportunity for self-discovery, which is often repressed in the early career advancement stages (and even later in life, but that is a separate subject in many ways).

As a concept, the gap year originated in the 1960s in Britain but nowadays has become more and more widespread on a global scale (here is a complete history of the Gap Year). Particularly in the United States, guidance counselors oftten encourage high school and college students to take time off, whether for an entire year or less.

Why Take a Gap Year?

Some possible reasons to take a gap year have already been alluded to; that is, in the current economic situation, some college graduates were even "forced" to take time off because graduation was not coupled with the usual number of job offers. However, taking a gap year should not be seen as merely a negative consequence of the economic crisis. On the contrary, a gap year can be an eye-opening experience, allowing students to live in a foreign culture and develop their independence and countless other skills. For those graduating from high school, the gap year may be a great time to explore the world, be better motivated for college studies, and go into a new academic world with a more precise idea about the subjects you may wish to study.

Regardless, what is essential is to establish a list of goals before taking some time off. Ask yourself what you want to achieve. Do you want to learn another language? Volunteer? Teach English? Travel the world at the same time? Whatever your goal(s), you must do something during your time off. Too many students underestimate the importance of goals. Merely "hanging around" for a year does not make for a very enriching experience.

Keep in mind that what you decide to do does not have to be related to your future. A gap year is the time to explore your options. It is an especially great time for those students who are undecided about their future careers.

My own gap year included a variety of projects, from teaching English in Spain, taking tango classes in Buenos Aires, and attending a sustainable development seminar in Morocco to working as a freelance journalist and photographer in both Argentina and Chile. Every one of the above proved to be an inspiring and educational experience. Whether riding a camel in Marrakesh or hiking from refugio to refugio in Patagonia, my horizons broadened as I improved my language skills, gained independence, and interacted with people whose ways of life were entirely foreign from my experience. Clearly, it was challenging; my previous ideals were confronted with unfamiliar values. I had to fight my way through cultural clashes—just the fact of being a young, blonde girl in South America brings about its own challenges. However, by approaching each situation with an open mind and a positive attitude, I ultimately became a more and more well-rounded and confident person, grounded in my values and aspirations.

When to Take a Gap Year

Clearly, a gap year can be taken at any point in one's life. For students, it can be debated whether to take one after high school or after college. Personally, I felt ready to go directly from high school to college; I knew what and where I wanted to study—Comparative Literature at Columbia—and was eager to go right away. It was only after college that I yearned to take time off to explore the world and my place in it.

However, I am aware that this is only the case for some. Several friends of mine needed more time to be ready to go directly from high school to college, and a gap year at that point proved invaluable to them. Moreover, I met several students at college who wished that they had taken time off before enrolling. Others even took time off during college (inquire with your university counselor about this; in some cases, a simple period of study abroad may do the trick).

Breaking it Down

Taking time off may sound like an extended holiday. However, a successful gap year involves quite some planning. Before going abroad, tap into resources such as counselors, teachers, and friends. Recommendations and connections can be invaluable. Again, the importance of establishing goals must be recognized. Lastly, be realistic about your budget; while working abroad can certainly be part of a gap year, you may need to save some money initially. Taking several "gap months" instead of a whole year may also be an option.

The process continues during the actual gap year. While some preliminary planning is essential, don't try to chart out every single day in advance. Spontaneity is paramount for learning and for just plain fun. The experiences you have abroad, and especially the people you meet, will open up new perspectives and opportunities.

As for what happens after your gap year, that is, of course, entirely up to you. While some students decide to go back to school (whether that be undergraduate, graduate, or any other kind of educational training), others take on a full-time job. At first, it may seem difficult to integrate back into a "normal" work routine, and explaining what one has done during a gap year may seem difficult. There are ways, however, to enumerate a gap year on a resume. And then there is also the option of working abroad, especially using the connections established during the gap year.

One final bit of advice before, during, and after a gap year is to be open-minded. Do your research and planning, but at the same time, let things happen naturally. A gap year can be one of the most liberating experiences, so make the most of it!

For More Information

General Gap Year Resources

See Transitions Abroad's page on gap year programs abroad.

CIEE — Gap Year Abroad
In addition to serving as an informational resource, the CIEE organization offers many actual programs you can participate in during your gap year.

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