You’ve heard it a million times before: mind the gap! Now, really listen. But, instead of pushing yourself off the platform, hopping quickly over it, and getting into that packed train, peek into the endless depths of that gap and see what treasures a gap year holds for you. Look deep, and you’ll find a chance for personal growth and professional experience that your friends won’t consider twice, simply because they’re accustomed to stepping over it and taking the more traditional college-bound route. But not you, fearless discoverer! Take a breath and make the plunge into a gap year abroad; you will arrive at your destination when the time is right.
Why Do a Gap Year Abroad
You’ve barely finished catching your graduation cap and sweeping up the confetti, and you’re already supposed to go start your first semester of class at college? That doesn’t seem very fair.
While some people might frown upon students spending a gap year abroad, thinking that it’s a lazy year of parties, a gap year has the potential to be one of the most influential and important time periods of your life. Take a break from traditional education and learn from the real world. There’s more to life than memorizing equations and scientific theories. Go volunteer with the Aboriginal tribes you read essays about, go see at which angle the Leaning Tower of Pisa actually tips at, or go become un experto at that language you started learning but haven’t taken seriously yet.
Not only can your gap year provide you with new perspectives, stretch you as a person, give you hands-on experience, and develop your college-applications and resume, but it will also give you a much-needed refresher. Statistics show that students that take a gap year after high school perform better in college. Who knows if that is because of the personal growth or because they had some time to relax and refocus, but they came back rejuvenated and full of energy for the next chapter of their life.
After a year abroad, college will be a piece of cake. While your roomies are still figuring out how to do their own laundry or microwave that Hot Pocket, you’ll be running laps around the gym, sharing your favorite ratatouille recipe, and hosting international movie nights. Your maturity and open-mindedness will not only let you participate in interesting classroom discussions, but will open your heart to new friends, experiences, and opportunities around campus. And maybe even a no-brainer hire in that study abroad office?
There are more cities in the world than there are university listings in your post-high-school-graduation hand guide. SO, where do you even begin? Pick your main location for your gap year abroad based on what you personally like and what kind of project you would like to focus your gap year on. Here are a few of the top locations to spend your gap year abroad:
Southeast Asia. For those that would like to travel much and not spend a lot of money, consider Southeast Asia, where the food is great, the views aren’t too shabby, and you can splurge on daily massages. In addition to soaking up the culture and learning the zen ways of Buddha, there are also numerous ways to get involved with the community through volunteering. In Thailand, conservation and environment protection, refugee help, and education are common project-foci. Or how about the Philippines, where you can dedicate your time to orphanages and the public health sector?
Central America. It’s hard to beat this cost-efficient location, taking into consideration all of the adventures and foreign language learning opportunities you have here. Central America is a big draw for outdoor enthusiasts; the jungle treks in Costa Rica and hikes to hidden Mayan archeological sites in Belize are among the front-runners of fun. While you’re making friends with toucans and sea turtles, you can take advantage of great language schools too. Both Guatemala and Nicaragua have numerous options to improve your Spanish when you’re not canopying or horseback riding.
Europe. There’s a reason most students flock to Europe for their gap year abroad: internship opportunities. Even if you don’t want to follow the crowds to Rome or Paris, there are other ways to get your fill of historical sights and professional development. Why not snag an internship in Ireland, where dozens of start-up and well-established companies are growing? Or in Scotland, where the arts industry is second-to-none? Or maybe in Denmark, where it’s more about modern economies and politics than Viking pasts?
Friendly reminder: the real world isn’t made up of semester- or year-long classes. You’re free to move from one location to the other if you get bored or find something more interesting any time of the year during your gap year abroad.
Gap Year Programs Abroad
While your gap year abroad should include plenty of golden beaches, crazy adventures, rooftop gardens, and medieval castle walks, it should also ultimately be an experience that leaves you with more than ticket stubs and passport stamps. Plus, if you throw in some of the following magical words, Mom and Dad will probably be a lot more enthusiastic about your travel proposition.
Volunteer. No one will dare call your gap year “selfish” if you spent it teaching children English, rebuilding tsunami-hit areas, conserving marine species, or helping out at an understaffed hospital. Make the most of your gap year abroad by donating your time and skills in a field you’re interested in. Not only do volunteer projects link you with local communities, but altruistic involvement abroad will be worth more than any after-school club on that college application.
Intern. If you’re not quite ready to start a life-long career, but you would like to dip your toes into something professional (in a really cool location), why not look for an internship abroad? Bonus points if it pays, but it’s the work experience and connections you’re ultimately after (right?).
Language Study. Whether you want to major in Italian, you want to extend your future business to Uruguay, or you just want to read Voltaire in his native language, consider attending a language school abroad. The broad cultural scope and full-depth language immersion will get you from “beginners” to “advanced” in less than a single semester of college classes. ¡Ay, caramba!
Work. Parental units will have a hard time saying no to your pleas to spend your gap year working abroad. Not only can you tap into new skills, develop the ones you are interested in, and make some money on the side, but nothing (not even shoveling horse manure, trust me on this one) will seem bad when you have a beautiful background to stare at.
While accommodation and language requirements will vary between gap year programs, providers, and locations, most gap year organizations will help with applications, visa paperwork, and provide aid in housing and orientation at the very least. So, get on it!
Benefits & Challenges
It might be tough to break from the wave of expectation and uproot, especially when all of your classmates are frantically putting their college applications together and planning farewell parties all summer. And while it cannot be denied that you will be one year behind on your college track, you will also be lightyears ahead of everyone when you do return. You will make more friends abroad than around campus, you will have matured greatly, and your skill sets will be through the roof.
Finally, think about the flexibility a gap year abroad offers. You can try your hand at various things; if you don’t like it, move on. No need to fill out any “Change of Major” forms or dramatically restart your career. See the world at your pace, and keep in mind that a gap year abroad doesn’t even have to be a year. When you found what you were searching for, come back home, especially if you’d like to refill that wallet with some extra cash before the semester starts.
The growing trend of gap years is a good sign; jump on the bandwagon. Take a productive holiday, become a global citizen, shine brighter than a typical star student, and use your experiences abroad to come back a strong, independent individual ready to tackle anything (even college).