For some, gap years are about taking a year off to travel and “experience life.” For others they are a chance to pursue an interest or dream before diving into the commitment of college. For still others, they are a chance to hit the ‘re-set’ button because of poor grades in high school, not getting into a student’s top choice college, or stepping out of patterns of behavior that have not really served a person. Everyone taking a gap year has (or should have) their own reasons for taking that year away.
But what impact do these reasons have and how can you ensure that your gap year is going to make a difference? Sure, you can use your gap year just to ‘take some time off,’ but it is what you DO with the experience that is going to make the difference in your life.
In my many years of experience working with students taking a gap year I have heard an incredibly wide range of reasons for students wanting to take a gap year, but in terms of how that year actually gets spent, there are far fewer things that I believe will actually make a difference and have a lasting impact 10 years later.So what should you be sure to include during your gap year? Here is the list of 10 things that I would want every gap year student to experience, regardless of how they choose to spend their year:
So what should you be sure to include during your gap year? Here is the list of 10 things that I would want every gap year student to experience, regardless of how they choose to spend their year:
- Leave home. This may mean leaving your home country and traveling internationally (which is a great idea if you can do it), or it may simply mean leaving the town or city you are currently living in. But whatever it means for you, leave home for somewhere else; make a change, because without it, you will never gain that new perspective on the world – or on your home – that you really need.
- Stretch (yourself). No, I don’t mean exercise, though there is nothing wrong with that. Stretch yourself mentally and emotionally. Do something you have not done before, and do something you would not normally do. This could mean anything from trying new foods (fried crickets anyone?) to trying out a new skill (scuba diving? Zip lining?). If you don’t stretch yourself, you will never learn what your own limits are.
- Sleep on the ground. Yes, you heard me. Not on a couch, not in a youth hostel bunk bed, but on the ground. Learning to sleep on the ground will teach you that you can indeed be comfortable anywhere. And sleeping on the ground gets you back to the basics, puts you in touch with the earth, and gives you the knowledge and confidence that you can go anywhere, and you will still be fine.
- Learn a new skill. Or many skills. It could be a language, or how to juggle, or how to pitch a new business idea. It doesn’t matter what the skill is; what matters is that you are learning something new that can and will serve you in the future. To be impactful, your gap year needs to be a time of learning, not doing things you already know how to do.
- Make a friend. Your networks of peers, colleagues and friends are what are going to sustain you in life and through difficult times. Making a friend is about reaching out beyond yourself, learning that life is about give and take, learning that it takes empathy to be a true friend to someone else. If you don’t make at least one new friend on your gap year, you haven’t made the most of your time.
- Turn off your cell phone. You don’t need to get rid of it, but you do need to learn how to turn it off. Not for the whole year, but for enough time to learn that you can survive without it. Whether that is for a day, or a week, or a month, (or one day a week, or one week a month), turning off your phone will show you that you can be happy without being plugged in. I know that is hard to believe, but young people survived – and even thrived – before the days of cell phones. Turning off your cell phone will teach you to be more self-reliant, more independent, and more in control of your own happiness.
- Write a poem. Or a song. Or choreograph a dance for yourself. Learn to express yourself in a new and different way. We communicate with others every day of our lives, and yet we tend to always use the same tired ways. Writing a poem forces you express yourself in a new way, widening your ability to communicate, to connect. It makes you think about the words you use, and how you put them together. Writing poetry on your gap year (or about your gap year?) will give you a new and fresh perspective during your year.
- Slow down. Take it easy. Breathe. Look around you. So often we are judged or measured by what we do and what we have accomplished, rather than what who we are. By slowing down and paying attention to where you are, you will be practicing what the Buddhists call ‘mindfulness.’ Being mindful of yourself, your surroundings, those with you, in the moment. This is a practice which will benefit you for the rest of your life.
- Do something for someone else. Your gap year can’t and shouldn’t just be about you. Because you don’t exist in a bubble, and you are here because of other people. So think about others: go visit your grandmother whom you have not seen and spend some time helping her out in her garden; go volunteer in a home for troubled youth; go donate some of your time – you have a whole year – to making someone else’s life just a little bit easier. You will be glad that you did.
- Do something for the planet. This beautiful earth is the only home we have. And I hate to say it, but it is under threat. Climate change and a whole set of related issues are threatening us. Not just our ‘way of life,’ but the very survival of many of the world’s people, cultures, environments, ecosystems. During your gap year, take some time to think about what you want to do to address this issue – and then go do it.
If you can do these ten things during your gap year, I can guarantee that you will have an incredibly impactful time. It doesn’t matter what else you do; this is the foundation, the building blocks, of a life changing experience.