Please tell us who you are, what you do, and how you got there.
I’m Kevin Hermann, I’m 24 and living in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was born near Lagos, Portugal, and then grew up in the Charlottesville area. After high school, I took a gap year, traveling around the world to Oceania, South East Asia, South Asia, and Europe, where I spent my time backpacking, volunteering, and working. I returned to study English Literature at the University of Virginia, after which I ended up traveling for a bit in the Near East and India again, and then moving to Europe, settling in Germany. I kept exploring–bread baking, gardening, factory work, tutoring English, kitchen work–and then returned to my roots in Portugal last summer to work on the farm where I was born. I returned to the States this past fall.
Upon return, I returned to my old high school and gave a presentation encouraging students to embark upon their own journeys. Afterwards, all of these students swarm me afterwards saying, “Oh man, that’s my dream! How can I make that happen!?” I sat there and thought, “Okay, so I’m a gap year consultant now??!?!?”
I made some phone calls, and ended up on the line with Ethan, and we had such an inspiring and heartfelt conversation that before I knew it, I was at the Gap Year Conference in Boston, volunteering for the AGA, and getting a chance to meet all of the lovely folks taking part in this movement!
Since that first talk, I’ve been speaking at other schools to students, to college counselors, to parent teacher organizations, you name it. Right now I’m also writing copy and web content for a travel company and a few other projects, and this summer I’m leading an international trip for teens to get my feet wet in gap year world in order to better understand if this is something that I seriously want to pursue.
Why are you so passionate about the concept of Gap Years?
Above all, I’m gung-ho about the concept because of the profundity of my gap year experiences. I learned so, SO much about myself, about life, about humanity–it transformed me in ways that I’m still figuring out.
I also see the transformations that so many people around me undergo when they take time to explore something that they’re passionate about. People who are engaged in experiential education, or have traveled extensively themselves, or have simply take time to pursue something other than what the status quo feeds them are humble, driven, honest; these people care. They have gigantic hearts. And that’s a quality that I find to be one of the most important signals for us to follow and cultivate as a society.
People who do this develop parts of themselves that aren’t necessarily shiny on a resume, but that will be instrumental to leading a balanced, fulfilled life. A life rich with a sense of purpose, and an understanding of aliveness. And whether we realize it or not, I think that’s what a lot of us are striving or yearning for–that sense of aliveness, of truly living life. A certain vibrancy or intensity. And I think Gap Years are about figuring that out for yourself. There’s not really a handbook or guidebook for that, but that’s precisely what’s so unique about this process: those who do go engage fully in their own humanity in ways that we fail to in many of our social structures. They nourish parts of themselves that we tend to overlook.
I think one of the biggest hurdles we’re running into as our technology ramps up the speed of our communication and number of connections is that we’re failing to really connect with ourselves and others. And I see a lot of my friends in my generation suffering as a result–most are quitting their jobs after two years working, because they aren’t feel fulfilled. I can’t tell you how many of them say this wish they had taken more time to really consider what they wanted. Not only that, but I think we’re hungry for genuine connection; we’re starving for what I like to think of as a bone-to-bone contact with life. And I think the Gap Year is a perfect vehicle for experiencing that because it’s a natural byproduct of getting way outside of your comfort zone.
What did you experience on your Gap Year that changed the course of your life?
Bhaaa, that’s a tough one.
I think what changed me the most was simply being alone and surrounded by so much otherness.
And making mistakes. Getting stuck in negative thought patterns. It was really, really difficult and heavy at times. I think I probably spent more time down in the dumps than on top of mountains, and that was a very real and necessary experience to have. Because most often I couldn’t run away from it because despite the fact that foreign cultures can be incredibly stimulating, they don’t provide the type of escape mechanism and comfort that the home environment and friends and family do. I couldn’t just binge eat and watch my way out of feelings, or couldn’t just go play basketball with some buddies, or get stoned to forget about it all (okay, well, I probably could have, but that really didn’t seem like an option at the time). So I just had to deal with shit. And that was about as real as it got for me then. I suffered a lot, and mostly at my own hands via negative self-talk, so I didn’t really have anything or anyone to blame, and there often wasn’t someone around me that I could complain to, so I had to swallow that a lot of the suffering I was experiencing was at my own hands, which was a profound realization to have at 18.
That and the fact that I began to question everything. Constantly. I couldn’t turn it off–I questioned what I was doing, who I was, what life was about, what my impact was, why other people act the way they do. And it was incredibly unnerving to live in such a perpetual state of uncertainty, but eventually that skepticism turned into a kind of long-term state of meditation, because I was constantly having to let go of my preferences, my habits, my judgments. I got to a really raw place as a result. Real pure, just from all that letting go. And that’s a state we rarely achieve in our modern lifestyles because we’re so attached to all of our possessions and our friendships and we’re constantly consuming something–probably media–that perpetuates our sense of identity and the narratives we’ve been constructing subconsciously our whole lives about who we are. Now, just pull the rug out from under all that, and that’s the state I’m talking about. That first trip just broke me down, and in the best way possible.
How that affected the course of my life is hard to say, because I can’t clearly pull apart who I was before I took that trip, and who I became as a result of it because I really first became conscious as a result of my gap year. That was the first time where I put down my steady preoccupation with sports this or grades that or party this weekend or whatever and began taking an honest internal inventory. Okay, well as honest as an 18 year old male can be with himself these days haha. No, but seriously, immersing myself in otherness–something as simple as not understanding the language surrounding me–naturally ushered me inward. It was the first time when I truly confronted myself, and had the opportunity to not only consider my identity, but also that I could craft it. There was this really palpable sense of oh, okay, I can really be whoever I want right now. And so many different situations gave me that opportunity to redefine how I wanted to be, which was revolutionary at the time because I had spent my whole life reacting to things, rather than responding, which requires a different level of agency. Now, I can’t say that I was always successful in this, but I think the process in and of itself was most important.
And so I was having “A-HA!” moments left and right. Asking so many questions created space for new connections to be made, so there was this constant process of waking up to new concepts, to sides of myself that I didn’t know were there and that surprised me in wonderful ways–I found out I was a writer and photographer, because that’s what I naturally did every day, for example. And I also experienced the sides of myself that I wasn’t so keen on accepting, but I also began to understand that if I wanted to grow and learn and progress as an individual, it was vital that I begin to accept those parts of myself. I’m only realizing a lot of these things in the aftermath of those experiences, and those processes are still very much so underway. If anything, it’s only snowballed since then.
Basically, I began to wake up, to grow up, to evolve a bit. It was radical. I can’t even conceive what my life would look like right now had I not made the decision to leave. I really can’t.
So that experience of being alone and coming into contact with people from all over the world punched out the walls of what I thought was possible and gave much wider horizons to my imagination–it expanded my sense of myself, the world, life, love, everything. I experienced a richness in life that I really savored, and have always sought out since then, whether that be in conversations, in the beauty that I’m surrounded with every day; it gave names and faces to things that I hadn’t directly come into contact with, yet somehow knew intuitively. It gave me a new language and way of being in the world. It was–more than anything, I think–a really profound, spiritual experience. And depending on your belief system and what you’re about, I think that’s the most valuable and important experience any human being can have on this earth. To have a taste of that at 18 forever changed the trajectory of what I believe, how I see the world, and what I want to do here, and in ways that I’m still figuring out, and that I believe I’ll be slowly figuring out for the rest of my life.
As you travel around talking to young people about taking a Gap Year what are you hearing?
Fear. Both logistical, and emotional. People don’t know what it is, how to go about doing it, etc., and they’re also terrified of the unknown, of something outside the status quo. That goes for both parents and students, although both cases are a bit different. Add the providers, and it’s an incredibly complex triad of needs, desires, and fears.
I think as an organization, the AGA can play a huge role in empowering people, and really usher in a new paradigm for how we educate our young adults. Empowering those who have the resources to take the leap, and those who don’t to create the opportunity for themselves by tapping into the wealth of resources at hand. To clap people on the back, and show them that if they work for something and put some sweat equity into their own lives and their own passions, that they’ll not only feel incredibly proud upon completing whatever it is that they set out to do, but that they’ll learn invaluable lessons from their failures as well. I think the AGA can do a lot of heavy, in-the-trenches lifting in terms of policy and formal frameworks.
Providers can keep providing their excellent services, especially by ensuring safety, but also making sure that there’s real substance to their programs. This time frame is one of the few opportunities that we have to experience a true rite of passage, because that simply doesn’t happen anywhere else in our culture. And providers need to create a structure and program that asks the right questions, puts kids in difficult situations, and allows them to learn from their own mistakes while providing insightful and guiding mentorship along the way.
Parents would do well to let go a bit. To let kids learn to define success for themselves. I assume what parents want for their kids is for them to be healthy, and figure out a way to support themselves doing something that’s meaningful for them; I don’t think that with our current system we’re achieving that as readily as we could be, and a gap year is, again, the perfect antidote.
We need to support kids in their coming of age by providing them with a sound structure, but also by allowing students to make mistakes for themselves–I can’t tell you how many things I’ve been told that only made sense once I royally screwed those very things up.
If you could tell a young person setting out on a Gap Year one thing, what would it be?
JUST DO IT!!!!! (Assuming I get royalties from Nike for saying that ;))
Really though–jump, dive, leap, whatever. Not much good comes from living a life prescribed for you, so go on, get outta here, vamanos!
I trust that if you put yourself out there, if you challenge yourself, explore with curiosity, and get outside of your comfort zone, you will learn exactly what you need to learn at this point in your life. Not only that, but you’re going to thrive. Really–for the rest of your life, you’re going to have this unbelievable foundation of experience that will keep you grounded in a few tenants that all world religions hold dear–for example, you’ll feel a sense of connection with everyone, with all of humanity. And you will naturally develop a deep sense of trust in life and in yourself, which is invaluable. That’s probably what I learned most on my travels–to trust in life. If you develop and strengthen that, then I guarantee you that the quality and depth of your life will reach beyond what you know is possible. If you do this, you’ll get to the heart of what it means to be a human being on this planet.