Exploring the World & Myself: Why I’m Taking a Gap Year

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Everyone has different reasons for taking a gap year – whether it be simply a need for adventure and travel or a break from school. Preparing to begin my Gap Year has caused me to reflect on the reasons I decided to initially embark upon this crazy adventure.

Like many things, my decision to take a Gap Year started with high school. I’ll be honest – high school was not at all an easy or enjoyable time in my life. While I did make some amazing memories and had many friends as well as very good grades, I found it extremely hard to match my inner feelings with the happy persona I showed to everyone. I may have appeared to be a happy, go lucky girl, but in reality there were many mornings I simply didn’t think I would be able to get out of bed and head to the school that caused me so much anxiety and stress.

To put it lightly, I suffered from an extreme case of cognitive dissonance – my inner dark feelings colliding with my happy, go lucky appearance.

I have a particular photo on my phone of myself and some friends at a conference I helped organize. We’re all smiling with our arms around each other. We look like a very happy, tight knit group of friends. And to be fair, we really were. Unbeknownst to the eye however, in the moment this picture was taken I was in the midst of a panic attack and tears were pouring from my eyes. It was at this point I knew something needed to change. Fast – before it was too late. A couple weeks later I found myself in the emergency room of the local hospital. My eyes and cheeks were burning from the tears that had been pouring from my eyes for the last five hours. It was there that I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and the symptoms of depression that come with it. That was the definitive breaking point.

I went on antidepressants to control my mood swings (and to give my poor eyes a break from crying). Those few weeks in between that visit to the hospital and the medication taking effect were the scariest weeks of my life. I couldn’t trust myself, I felt like I wasn’t in control of who I was anymore. I was honestly scared for my life.

Thankfully, a year and a half later I can barely recognize that person. I am still on medication for my anxiety and depression, but I have come miles and grown leaps and bounds since that cold spring evening last year. One thing I knew then, and still know now, is that I needed time to explore who I was away from an institution like school or a full time job. I needed to figure out how I could become the best version of myself possible before I headed off to any kind of university or college.

A Gap Year to Explore the World & Myself

This is when the idea of a Gap Year first came to mind. In August of last year I made a spur of the moment decision to visit my family in Germany for a month before completing my final year of high school. This trip marked a decision that has impacted my life ever since. The decision to once more begin taking risks, to once more begin living. It was there in Germany that I realized life (and travel) is all about taking risks, taking a chance, daring to leap without looking back.

In Germany, meeting my cousins for the first time

In Germany, meeting my cousins for the first time

I felt myself again for the first time in many months in Germany. I felt alive in a way I hadn’t for a long while (as cliché as that may sound). I began writing again, something I hadn’t done for a long time. It was during this time that I began blogging about my experiences with mental health and travel. I not only fell back in love with travel, but I also fell back in love writing, with putting words to page in a way that was honest and made me vulnerable.

That month in Germany stitched me back together again. I begged my mother to let me stay in Germany, to let me finish high school there. (You can read about that experience here.) Ultimately, due to the wrath of my mother and pleading from my father, I came back to finish that final year of high school. But things had changed. No longer was I having panic attacks on a daily basis (I actually made it an ENTIRE YEAR of not having a single panic attack on the bus). No longer did I care so much about the difference between a 90% and a 94%.

I had changed. That change brought on my love of travel. I experienced first handedly how travel can change a person. Make no mistake – I’m not advocating for anyone to quit their job and travel in hopes of fixing all their problems and becoming a better person. Adventurous Kate wrote a fantastic article about why we can’t expect travel to fix all our problems. But for me, that month away from home and in a completely different environment completely changed me.

Complete, unapologetic happiness at Schloss Crottorf, Germany.

Complete, unapologetic happiness at Schloss Crottorf, Germany.

Doing the Hard Work

So, for the past year I have been working hard to make my dream of travelling and returning to Germany a reality. I have spent countless hours on my knees weeding gardens, have babysat many a screaming toddler (on top of maintaining a decent grade point average in order to eventually go to university) and in the past two months have worked a full time job. It is only now I am ready to embark on my journey. And make no mistake – I have fought, hard, in order to make this experience possible. Many assume that if you are travelling often or taking a Gap Year, or in my case writing about the best parts of travel, that you must not be working for it. There is a common myth that in order to travel you must have rich parents.

While it is true that I have been blessed with wonderful, loving parents, it is my work ethic and love for travel that has enabled me to embark on this year long trip.

I’m going with little more than nothing in my bank account. I am relying on the hospitality of loved ones (and their couches) and the kindness of strangers. I realize I’m naive and young and stupid and all the things an eighteen year old girl preparing for her first solo trip can be, but I am prepared for whatever hurdles life throws at me. I can take it. I’ve proved that over and over again. I have survived storms and tsunamis (though internal they may be), I have climbed mountains and have had my fair share of battles. I can do this (I repeat in my head as I prepare to step on the plane, as I say goodbye to my perfect family).

I am broke but happy. Anxious but hopeful. I have a backpack on my back and a camera by my side. There’s nothing more I could ask for in the world.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with their mental health please see a professional as soon as possible. You can find a list of mental health resources HERE. Know that while friends are also great to talk to, there is nothing more helpful than talking to a certified professional about what you are feeling.

Should I go to College After my Gap Year?

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You’ve tackled the world. You’ve marched confidently off the beaten path (even if your heart broke a little as your friends all shared first-year experiences as college freshmen). You’ve grown leaps and bounds, and are excited at the prospect of continuing to grow and learn. But you’re wondering: is college the next best move for me in my life? Is it a conducive environment to the type of growing and learning I want to do?

The Value of a College Degree

There are a lot of benefits to attending college and earning an undergraduate degree. Oftentimes, these benefits are intangible (and don’t necessarily make their way onto your transcript). While classes are important and developing solid relationships with your professors ideal, there’s a lot of growth that happens out of the classroom, too.

There are myriads of clubs and causes to get involved with. There are passionate, weird, different, eclectic, normal people – all within close confines – and you learn how to interact effectively with each of them. There are folks with mindsets and philosophies and perspectives you’ve never been exposed to. There is training in how to think critically, how to argue productively, and how to compose logical statements. Plus, it’s fun (late night pizza, anyone?!).

That Being Said…

A college degree isn’t for everyone. Some might opt for a community college experience instead of a sleep-away-school ← totally awesome option for the money conscious/savvy student. Some students might end their Gap Year and want to keep traveling and learning experientially. You can get a job – part-time or otherwise – and bump up that piggy bank. You might want to sign up for the military, an apprenticeship, or another trainee program.

In short, there are many paths you can opt to take. But going to college should be a choice you weigh considerably. Here are some general questions to ask yourself as you navigate these waters:

What are your goals?

Certainly, not all career paths require college degrees; however, others do. How will this chapter of life – college – contribute to your overarching life mission? If you want to work with refugees or other marginalized populations, perhaps more direct-experience with these peoples through an internship would add value to your eventual formal studies in global development. If you want to devote your life to teaching English as a second language, there’s nothing wrong with taking a teaching gig abroad instead of attending school yourself, but understand that those with a degree are making a lot more money than those without.

To be clear: college can benefit you in ways beyond the actual degree, but it’s up to you to decide if it is necessary to accomplish your goals in life.

What Are Your Motivations for College?

If you feel motivated to go to college because it feels like the “right” thing to do or because you’re feeling pressured from outside sources (here’s lookin’ at you, mom and dad), you might need to go back to square one. College is a significant investment. Very significant. We’re talking thousands and thousands of dollars here. If your only reason for going to school is to make others happy – and not because it is what you truly want – your motivation to attend classes and perform well scholastically might decrease over time, potentially undermining the endeavor altogether.

Are You Crazy-Passionate Right Now & in Need of an Outlet?

College campuses are hotbeds for change, full of individuals hungry to make a dent in the world and help others. Living in this community can be jarring and exciting for a young activist in the making. If you’re on fire for any given cause (Women’s rights? Education equality? Access to clean water?) in light of your Gap Year experiences, consider channeling that fervor in a healthy, fertile environment – like the kind you can find on a college campus.

Does College Have to Happen RIGHT NOW?

Or, can you hold off for a year or more? You might decide that you definitely want to go to college, but the idea of term papers and sororities and three-lattes-per-day sounds off-putting at this stage of life. Attending college is a full-time job (a badass one, if you consider your only tasks are to learn and read and try to better understand the world); if you’re not ready to take on the commitment yet, hold off until you are.

Do You Know What You Want to Accomplish, Academically?

One of the perks of the Gap Year experience is clarity towards your life purpose and vocation. If you return from abroad, ready to hit the ground running and know exactly what you’d like to study and where, then you might be a great fit for going to college. Not wasting precious time (and money) on an undecided major will help you feel focused and accomplished in your collegiate career.

Do You Have the Resources?

If you thought your Gap Year bills were expensive, wait ’til you get a load of a tuition invoice. While financial aid, work-study programs, scholarships, and grants are all well and dandy, there’s still typically a good deal of money you have to fork out independently. Some students are fortunate in that family members will foot their college bills or subsidize their living expenses. Others might not be as lucky. Ask yourself if this is debt you’re willing to take on.

Then, think creatively. Perhaps combining the best of your international Gap Year experience with university would work. Check into the countries, abroad, where even foreign students can attend for free, or at rates far less than the ones found at US schools. There are international options, at excellent schools, for a fraction of the costs inside the USA.

Are You Ready to Make This Decision?

Whether you send off that application to (insert dream college here) or choose another path to postpone college life, you need to feel confident in your decision.Much like it took a degree of bravery when you chose to do a Gap Year, aim to have an equivalent sense of purpose towards your college decision.

Should You go to College Right Away After Your Gap Year?

Maybe. Should you go right now? Maybe not.

Don’t feel rushed to make a decision. Make sure you have many conversations – with friends, parents, other friends’ parents, your favorite high school teacher, your manager from your after school job, your mentor, whoever you look up to in life – and use all of their insights to come to a decision that feels right for YOU and you alone.

Remember: being “successful” is subjective and there are plenty of “successful” people who have lead meaningful, lives of impact with (and without) a degree in tow.

“A Visitor, Not A Victim!” – Staying Safe Traveling Overseas on a Gap Year

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Before you go to college, or when you are there, are you planning to enjoy the intellectual and memorable experience of traveling abroad? Last year approximately 300,000 American students traveled overseas; the majority had a great time and returned home safely. However, a few did not! They became victims of accidents, petty or serious crime and, occasionally, terrorism. As a result, I’m sure you share our concern for your safety when you go abroad.

The majority of these problems are avoidable if you are aware of the risks when overseas. In fact, most victims of crime unwittingly put themselves into a vulnerable situation. No doubt you are already aware of some of the “do’s and don’ts” when traveling, but are you sure you have considered all the issues that could arise?

  • How should you be prepared for a traffic accident which results in your being taken to a hospital unconscious?
  • How should you evacuate from a smoke filled, burning building?
  • How can you stay out of trouble when you travel to other cities in the region beyond your initial destination?

Study Abroad Safely 101

Study Abroad Safely is a web based course designed to address these questions – and many more. It was developed to prepare you for the security challenges you will face abroad – and to reassure your parents and family that you will be thoroughly prepared to look after yourself during your trip.

This course was conceptualized and designed through the collaboration of a former British Intelligence Officer and his wife, both of whom have worked and traveled all over the world, a former executive leader of one of the largest and most respected international educational exchange programs in the U.S., and a defense contractor who is a mother of three children, all of whom have participated in study abroad programs.

In under two hours, you and your parents can consider how you should prepare for the trip, how you need to maintain situational awareness during your visit abroad and how you, and they, should respond in every imaginable emergency situation. The course addresses medical and health issues in detail, how to avoid accidents, your security when you arrive and at your accommodation, and staying out of trouble when out and about during the day – and at night. It will enable you to enjoy your trip – and stay safe.

The course is fun to watch and provides travel safety recommendations that will remain applicable for the rest of your life beyond this particular trip.

AGA Discount!

The course is available through the American Gap Association for only $49 and can be viewed repeatedly over a period of 3 days. It concludes with a list of useful websites to assist your further pre-travel research and a template for the preparation of your personal Communications and Action Plan.

Enter the discount code: AGA-2016

When you are overseas, only one person is responsible for your personal safety and that person is you!

Watch this course so you will be a “Visitor, not a Victim”!

Endorsements

“I have been organizing groups of high school students traveling to all corners of the world for years. Although designed for university age students, I believe this course contains invaluable advice for all student travelers. I strongly recommend it to students, parents and any trip supervisors.”
Melissa Brown, Director of Global Education, Holton-Arms School, Bethesda, MD

“What you have done with these videos and their message is amazing! I enjoyed every minute of the tutorials. They thoroughly covered every situation as well as various methods of preparation necessary for any study abroad opportunity. Your program is the first time I’ve really felt that every possible scenario has been discussed and I was learning something new. It actually taught me a couple of new tricks.

It was both very informative and fun to go through. I recommend it to anyone before their first trip abroad or their next study abroad experience. It was wonderful to see that this program not only presented common situations for students and parents involved in study abroad, but it also emphasized the importance of respecting foreign culture and societal customs.
This program is worth watching, and I cannot wait to tell my friends and classmates about it!”
Kali B – College student

“I would recommend this program to everyone who will be studying abroad in the future! Through the knowledge I gained from this program I felt I was well suited while traveling abroad in Europe. The lessons I learned allowed me to be the only student in my group in Barcelona to not have experiences with stolen property. I felt comfortable while traveling abroad and owe that to this program.”
Courtney E – College student

“I thoroughly enjoyed the course. I now realize the importance of preparation for my future trips abroad and how I can better look after myself while I’m away. I was also surprised to learn how the US Embassies overseas could help me in an emergency. I would recommend this course to all my friends who are traveling overseas.”
Megan S. – High school student and Summer Immersion Program participant

“So, How Was Your Gap Year?” Answers to the Inevitable Question

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In a nutshell: don’t default to the easy, generic responses of “good,” “great,” or “fine.” We’re glad it was all of those things, but you owe it to yourself – and the lessons you learned – AND the people you met along the way – to tell your communities back home even more.

And not just the pretty stuff, either. It wasn’t always sunshine and daisies and photo-worthy moments. There were hard times. You saw a lot of stuff. Complicated stuff. And you’re still trying to figure it out. Those are the meaty details that your family and friends deserve to know – not only because you might be their only outlet to first-hand stories in extremely foreign places, but also to allow them to support you along your post-Gap Year journey.

Here’s some basic advice to get you through that awkward, cringe-worthy (but inevitable) question that will pop out of all your friends’ and family members’ mouths: how was it?

Before the Question

Memorize a few different versions of your response

You might end up being asked while waiting in line at Starbucks, while having a heart to heart with your best friend, or while checking in with your Grandma. Mentally prepare multiple versions of your go-to response, but be cognizant of including more than a simple, “It was great” kind of thing.

Plan for:

A 30 second response for those quickie convos.
“Thanks so much for asking. I grew so much through the experience, and was really surprised by X and Y. I would do it again in a heartbeat if only to hang out with my homestay mother Z one more time – her life was pretty challenging and fascinating, but I couldn’t believe how much A pervades the culture. Now I’m looking forward to and I’m already planning my return trip!”

A 10 minute response for the longer-than-normal but not quite a deep-dive convos.

Example topics to cover:

  • What you wish you knew before you went
  • Which skills you developed on accident
  • The challenges of returning home
  • What most surprised you by the country/-ies you visited
  • What you hope to incorporate into your life back home
  • Which relationships had the most impact on your life and why?

A 30 minute response for the really good listeners

Consider:

  • Creating a slideshow of favorite photos and offering some context as you filter through them
  • Playing a short video clip that depicts an aspect of your life abroad
  • Incorporating the above suggestions but sharing more details

Be sure to protect individuals’ privacy or identities if you are speaking to specific experiences.

Put together some quick photos to show others

Pick your favorite photos and sub-categorize them into their own folder on your smart phone. You might even kick it old school and have them printed (on actual paper)! Carry them in your wallet or your pursue to pull out if the opportunity presents itself. Consider creating a powerpoint presentation of your favorite snapshots to pass along digitally to friends and family.

Choose the stories you tell & filter for audience

Another proactive way to thoughtfully prepare for these conversations is to suss out which details you feel comfortable sharing with strangers, acquaintances, friends, and family. Your friends might love the story of that time you went on a date with a Chinese boy (and the hilarious text message conversations that ensued), but your teacher or professor might not find those anecdotes quite as funny (or charming).

To that end, you might want to focus more on what you learned scholastically when catching up with your academic advisor, but emphasize your personal growth more with your significant other, or aunt. Mentally differentiate which stories you’ll share with which audiences and go from there.

In the Moment

Check the time

Is this a passing conversation (like a bump-in at the grocery store or while en-route to class?) or is this a conversation that you can dig a little deeper into? Consider how much time you have to divulge the details.

Make sure their eyes don’t glaze over

Some people only ask the question to be polite. You can tell pretty quickly when an individual isn’t so interested in actually hearing the dirty details of your trip abroad. Their eyes will glaze over, they’ll lose eye contact, they’ll ask perfunctory questions, their body language will tell the tale. When you see the conversation moving this way, consider asking them a question in response to re-engage them.

Some ideas include:

  • What do you know about ?
  • Have you ever traveled abroad? What was your favorite part?
  • What would you do differently the next time you travel?
  • Where in the world do you want to go and can I come too?!

It’s important to keep the conversation a mutual dialogue rather than them listening to a dragging-on message about all the fun you had without them (even if you do focus your response on deeper, more meaningful topics versus the typical touristy play-by-play).

Balance fun quips with deeper takeaways

While your family and friends will be excited to learn you rafted the River Nile and swam with the fishies in the Great Barrier Reef, you are doing yourself a HUGE disservice by making these tales the focal point of your conversations.

One: It dumbs down your experience.

Two:
It detracts from your overall Gap Year goals – which was to learn more about the world in a meaningful and impactful way.

Three: You rob the individual of learning new perspectives on the lives of people that might be far away physically, but are pretty close emotionally/mentally/spiritually.

Add value to the conversation and avoid shallow discourse. Share your new truths and your new goals. Share your journey to clarity about said truths and goals. Recount the morning you woke up with a chicken in your bed, but remind listeners of how much we really take for granted in our own country, too.

With these tips in mind, you’re going to NAIL those conversations – and both parties will walk away enriched by the experience.

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