Hi friends! Today is a guest post from my wonderful friend Aili about her decision to take a semester off during her college years. I hope you enjoy!
“I had this crazy dream last night where I decided to take the semester off to travel around Colombia!” I tell my boyfriend. He nods, patiently, trying not to laugh. I have a lot of dreams and ideas like this one, and most don’t pan out. Ever.
But for some reason, this one does.
At the time, I am finishing my first semester abroad in Santiago, Chile. The plan had been to spend a year in one place, get to know the people, make memories, and fulfill all dreams. I am told that is what studying abroad is all about.
I love Chile, but I begin to realize that when choosing to study abroad, I was not entirely honest with myself. I never really wanted to study abroad. I just wanted to be abroad. And just being abroad did not need to require paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition money.
The deadline for requesting a gap semester has already passed. I ask anyways. The dean approves my request.
I am writing to you now from a small wooden desk in the office of a nonprofit in Granada, Nicaragua. This is my sixth month “off”. It has been anything but free time, and yet it has been the most fulfilling time I have ever spent.
The first two months I learned about confidence and trust as I couch surfed alone around northern Argentina. Not all experiences were good. Some were among the best of my life. I met people I hope to stay friends with until one of us dies. I realized how many amazing people there are in the world left to meet.
The second month in Argentina, I volunteered with an organization called Fundación León, helping to organize workshops for people between the ages of 50 and 85.
The next four months would be spent at a nonprofit I had volunteered with two years before, called La Esperanza Granada. I have one month left.
I would write novels about my last five months if only to try and convince more people to consider taking a gap semester. Here are some things I wish I had known:
You do not have to be unhappy or troubled to take a gap semester: By no stretch of the imagination was I unhappy before deciding to take the semester off. But I knew this could be the opportunity of a lifetime.
Your gap semester can be an advantage in future work and school: Many people, myself included, told me that this would put me behind my peers once I returned for my senior year of college. I realize now that I will have an advantage, returning with a strong sense of priorities, confidence, and a larger world perspective. Pre-med students: this also applies to you.
Gap semesters can teach you what you value: I learned that stress was not worth the time and that my fast pace of life was not serving me as a person. Pauses are as important as productivity.
A gap semester is an incredible time to recharge: I am excited to return to college for my senior year. I feel rested and focused, ready for anything. I have even added yoga to my weekly plans as a way to work restoration and self-care into each week (Note: Doing yoga does not make you obligated to become a vegetarian and swap out rice for couscous).
You will meet countless inspiring people: I am convinced that this is true, whether or not you travel abroad during your gap semester. Taking time away from a school campus environment, during which you are no longer just a “student”, gives you infinite opportunities to meet people you would likely have never met otherwise. You will meet people who have chosen life paths that vary drastically from those of your college friends and professors.
You may still be able to graduate on time: For financial reasons, I would not have been able to take a gap semester if it had meant a later graduation date. Luckily, due to some extra credits earned in intensive classes, a summer class, and an AP credit, I will just have enough credits to graduate with my class. If you’re not sure how many credits you have, it’s worth finding out. You may have more than you realize.
I hope this is helpful for anyone who might benefit from a gap semester. I am, quite obviously, a huge proponent. Below are links to the organizations I worked with during my gap semester and the website for Couchsurfing, as well as a short explanation for each.
Couchsurfing.com: Couchsurfing is an online community where people from all over the world offer travelers a place to stay in their home. You may end up on a bed, a sofa, or a mattress. You truly never know. Adventure is inevitable. If you are a woman, I strongly suggest for safety reasons that you stay only with couple, gay men, or women. Once I decided to limit my search, I felt much safer.
Fundación León: This organization, based in Tucumán Argentina, offers several different volunteer opportunities with people of all ages. Most volunteers work putting on extracurricular activities for children in poorer neighborhoods. There are also opportunities to work with older adults, which is harder to find among volunteer organizations.
La Esperanza Granada: LEG works in four different schools about 30-45 minutes (by foot) from the center of Granada, Nicaragua. This organization has been around for more than ten years, and the director, Pauline Jackson, is incredible. Also, LEG offers volunteers very low-cost accommodation and an experience worth returning a second time for!
Love that she did this! While my husband and I were traveling last year for four months, we met a couple college kids that were doing this and it made me wish that we had had the guts to do it earlier! Lifetime memories that she’ll never forget!
Such a great idea! I love these points about how taking a gap year can be GOOD, not just a break from school but actually productive! Great post!
(Also, thanks for the LDR tip for my post, Sara!)
I think I really needed to read this… I’ve been struggling as to whether or not I should take a gap year between college and grad school (I just don’t think I can do grad school right now) and I love that taking a gap year has been such a great thing for you!!
I think it is awesome you took a gap year!! I felt so much pressure in college to graduate early or on time and it actually had quite the opposite effect- I think taking a break would have greatly helped me realize things I loved more!!