What and Why – A Gap Year Explained

“What’re you doing next year?”

It’s the catch-all phrase used by extended family members, neighbors, and teachers to hear what’s next for every recent high school graduate. A simple question expecting a simple answer. However, my complex response often creates more confusion than comprehension. This post provides a condensed explanation of what’s next for me.

This next year I’ll be taking a gap year before enrolling at the University of Alabama for the Fall of 2018 where I will be studying electrical engineering. For my gap year, I will be working and traveling in Europe from September to December and Asia from January to June.

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My anticipated Fall travel route from Iceland to Amsterdam. Pins mark two-week stays.

What is a gap year?

A gap year is when a high school or college graduate postpones his immediate education/career by a year. Because this term is so widely used for a variety of reasons, it almost always needs to be defined on an individual basis. A gap year for me means I deferred my admission, scholarships, and program participation at Alabama for a full year. Everything remains the same except for my first enrollment term. By postponing, I’m able to use a year to experience the non-academic world in a significant way.

My plan for this year has changed many times. At first I wanted to go through a well established program. I applied through Rotary International to be a foreign exchange student in southern Brazil. My age disqualified me. Next I applied through the National Security Language Initiative for Youth to study Chinese in Taiwan (a program I previously participated in for a summer in China). My age again disqualified me. It turned out these study abroad gap year programs rely on a reciprocal visa program that is only for students 19 and under. Because I would turn 20 while on the visa, I am ineligible for most of these programs. Established programs quickly became nonviable.

Downtrodden and facing dwindling prospects, I stumbled onto three similar websites:

  • Wwoof.net (Good)
  • HelpX.net (Better)
  • Workaway.info (Best)

How it works

These businesses connect foreign hosts needing help with travelers seeking unique experiences. They’re like Airbnb, but instead of paying for a room with cash, travelers contribute to a project for 15-40 hours per week. Helpers also typically live with the hosts and share meals together.IMG-20170708-WA0034

After setting up a profile that resembles a mesh between LinkedIn and Tinder, adding this dorky profile picture, and paying a $25 fee, I started scrolling through hosts. Searching is like fun job hunting. The thousands of profiles detail expectations and contain reviews from former travelers. But, instead of Indeed.com’s lists of trite company mission statements, these profiles list details like languages spoken and other cultural exchange opportunities. Who knew job searching could be fun?

At the time of writing, I have made three arrangements:

  1. Southern France – Assisting a middle aged man build an ecohome. The finished house should only use energy produced from solar panels on the roof.
  2. Rome – Managing an eco-tourism organization’s social media.
  3. Swiss Alps near Bern – Helping an elderly woman chop wood and care for her animals: a cat, a dog, sheep, chickens, and a reindeer. A reindeer!

Clearly these arrangements are not traditional Super 8 bookings. Their novelty sometimes elicits skepticism. On more than one occasion I’ve been asked (even by my father) “How do you know these aren’t criminals wanting to rob or kill you?”

There are a few barriers for would-be-successful felons. First, you have to pay for listings on the workaway website. Second, there’s a robust review system in place that allows you to see the experiences of past travelers. And third, anonymous reporting can quickly take down a malicious host. So no, Dad, I don’t think I’ll be killed by a Swiss grandma and her reindeer sidekick.

Why?

I’ve always disliked the expectation to enter college just months after high school graduation. Having only lived in an academic world for twelve years, I want broader experiences. No more standardized tests and no more GPA fixation.

Although confident I want to work in the renewable energy sector, I want to see what the industry truly looks like. That’s why I’m trying to find relevant hosts, shadow opportunities, and means to attend climate conferences.

IMG_0605 (1).JPGBut, I still want to use the year to advance academically. I plan to hone a number of career-oriented skills – not because they’re required, but because I deem them valuable.

Writing is priority #1. It’s a universally useful skill. By forcing myself to write everyday, I hope to better distill information into clearer sentences. Rather than limiting myself to one language however, I want to also communicate in Chinese. Throughout the year I plan to continue my four years of learning through flashcards, graded readers, and conversations. My studies will then culminate in a three month stint in Taiwan. There is no better (or harsher) teacher than immersion. By experience I’ve learned it can easily switch fruit and anatomy terminology, causing an unnamed student (definitely NOT me) to ask his host mother if it was okay to eat butt.

Details and logistics aside, I will not be attending college this year. The decision was easily made even if it was shocking to some. It was a no-brainer. I stood, with newfound independence, at a critical intersection. A gap year simply led where I wanted to go. Leading to career experiences, personal development, and places unknown, my path takes a detour – a detour I embark on with only a backpack and the knowledge I’ll rejoin my friends in a year.

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