When I was 22, I took a gap year break after graduating from college. I moved to Japan and taught English. When I was 32, I took another gap year that turned into a career changer. I left the classroom and took up the keyword. Over the past eight months, I’ve traveled to six countries and worked on freelance writing and my own fiction projects. I couldn’t be happier or more excited about the future. If you’re wondering what a gap year is, it’s very simple. You leave mainstream society and travel. You work along the way and make lifelong friends. It’s an exciting and spiritual journey as well as a practical exploration. You wander the world, get lost, and in the end find yourself.
If I haven’t convinced you, here are ten reasons why gap years work:
1. Travel, Of course. Do you want to live in Australia for a year? Or do you want to traipse around South America for 12 months straight? Do you want to see the midnight sun in Reykjavik or swim with sea lions in the Galapagos Islands? Travel should be the core factor in your gap year but make sure to set goals and develop strategies to reach them. See the real world and you’ll see yourself in a new light.
2. Make New Friends. While some people think the world is small, it’s actually a well-plodded trail. When visiting places like Southeast Asia or Europe, most backpackers will be following popular circuits through a region. In South America, Neil and I stumbled upon friends we’d made volunteering in Cusco, Peru while in a back alley restaurant in La Paz, Bolivia. When you make friends, you roll with a posse. You create a traveling family and explore new places with familiar faces. We spent Neil’s birthday in Lima with our Belgian travel friends and later met up with them for New Year’s in Plaza de Armas.
3. Discover Who You Truly Are. The true metal of a person emerges in uncertain times: when you’re lost in the subway or asked a direct question over drinks in a hostel. Who you are and what you really think about the world starts to surface. Suddenly, you’ll have a point of view on the world and a concrete idea of how life is truly lived in small villages and along silty waterways. You’ll develop an opinion about life and have the real world experiences to back it up.
4. Make Time to Read and Write. Every traveler needs a good book. Fiction or non-fiction, guidebook or magazine. On a gap year, you’ll have hours of down time to read or write about your experiences. In South East Asia, almost every town will have a second hand book shop. On my first gap year after university, I reread the science fiction series, Dune in succession. I paid 45 baht in Bangkok for book one and traded it for book two in Sukhothai.
5. Work for Pocket Cash. Neil and I have signed contracts as English teachers in Japan and have friends who have tried other lines of work for pocket cash. Two Aussie friends worked a theme park in Canada. One fellow American trades hostel accommodation for managing the front desk. If you are a teacher, cook, or nurse there are always opportunities abroad.
6. Study a New Language. Immersing yourself in a new culture can jumpstart the path to a new language. In Cusco, Peru, both Neil and I began intensive Spanish classes. The private sessions were two hours Monday through Friday and helped with our comprehension and expression.
7. Live in a Dorm. Hostels aren’t all about sleeping on bunkbeds and enduring the snoring guy (or girl) across the room. They are also about camaraderie and socializing. Share stories and get tips on new places to visit. While in Otavalo, we met a lovely British woman traveling solo. We shared our experiences on the road and for two days hiked the countryside north of Quito. We saw indigenous Otavalenos herding sheep, met a family of musicians, and found our way to Parque Condor too.
8. Impress Future Bosses. Many Americans believe that the only key to a good job is through formal education. They think that with a degree in hand, employers will swoon at their feet. But gap year travelers know better. If you fold in volunteering, learning, and working over a gap year, employers will be curious, wondering what it was like to be in Kenya, Bolivia, or Vietnam.
9. For One Year, Live Without an Alarm Clock. A good day starts when your eyes open naturally in the morning. No screaming alarm. No pestering snooze button. Just the sunlight filtering through the blinds and a big yawn to salute the morning. I think most people will agree that an alarm clock signals a new day for over 50% of their lives. On your gap year, let yourself start the day.
10. Search for the Perfect Sunset. At its truest essence, a gap year is about you and the little moments on the travel trail when your mind clicks and you realize: I can’t believe I am here. For me, sunset is always a time for these little revelations. In Luang Prabang, the Galapagos Islands, and Vilcabamba, Ecuador; I’ve had these moments. With a drink and a sinking sun, I’d take an hour to stop whatever I was doing to just watch one more day end.