Intent on attending a top-ranked school, Sara Collins, 18, an exchange student from London, described her senior year at a New England boarding school as a self-imposed regime that didn't allow for anything but AP preparation or "transcript buffing." But when the news came that she'd been rejected by her first-choice school, she cried.
"I just didn't understand; I thought I did all the right things, from ingratiating myself at alumnae events and playing in the school band way longer than I ever wanted to."
Looking back, she admits her efforts were excessive, but when the bad news came, she became even more determined.
"Rejection means re-evaluation time, right?" Collins said. "I thought it was time to reboot, work even harder, and try again."
Enter the gap year.
A rite-of-passage-like break from school during when young people can enter adulthood in a mindful and supported manner, gap years can provide students with the time, space, and support needed to explore, experiment, and reflect on who they are and who they want to become.
The idea of a gap year often frightens parents, who worry their children won't go to college if they take a break, but there is something to be said for taking a risk.
According to the Year Out Group, an organization in the UK that helps guide students through their gap year, 90% of students who participate actually do go to college. Two-thirds (66%) take their post-deferral work more seriously and 60% zero-in on what they want to study.
Many students who take a gap year report feeling enlightened and more academically driven upon their return home, but with a difference: Their outlook may be less focused on requirements, courses, and grades.
In an email from the mountainous region of Himachal, India, Collins wrote, "At first I just wanted to do something that would help me get a big name college on my future resume, but going somewhere where I get lost (in a good way) and where I don't speak the language forced me to get inside myself and learn how to be really honest with myself."
Collins' daily routine begins with helping tend to her host family's goats, followed by a meal in a circle of newly-made friends. In the afternoons, she helps tend a community garden, or the women who sew colorful saris and other garments.
"I feel lucky to have this opportunity," Collins said. "I feel like I'm reaching a whole new level of self-awareness. I'm bashing through a lot of insecurities that high school created, and it's just the beginning of my journey."
During a gap year in 2017, Naomi Akinyemi, 22, also from London, traveled to several countries, including a three-month stint in Rabat, Morocco, where she interned for six weeks with an educational charity. She also taught English to Spanish students in the south of Spain.
"It made me feel a lot more capable and confident," said Akinyemi, who described herself as "formerly shy." She said she hated doing even small things alone, like shopping or eating away from home. "I met people of different ages from loads of countries, which helped me realize I could make friends in any situation. I was a lot more confident when it was time to start at uni."
Unlike Collins' and Akinyemi's experiences, which involved solo travel, the typical Gap Year involves group travel. Mark Shapiro, 20, from Brooklyn, N.Y., took part in a program through which he earned numerous safety and outdoor certificates in the jungles of Costa Rica.
A lifelong fan of camping, rock climbing, and the wilderness, Shapiro hiked to a remote Costa Rican village and established a base camp with six other gap year students. Over a four-month period, the group took day trips around the surrounding uncharted territory. The scariest moment, he recalls, was training to get his Wilderness First Responder certificate. While strapped to a 50-pound dummy, he had to rappel down a 100-foot waterfall.
Becoming certified was a small portion of the trip. He learned to cook, scuba dive, and create a safe stretcher made entirely of wood and vines. Three months later, unharmed and successful, he came out of the jungle stronger and nicely equipped with laminated certification cards.
Whether it is a program, an individual trip, or an internship in a town next to yours, the chance to experience all that you can, free of grades and other commitments, is a rare opportunity that often becomes impossible once life gets started after schooling is finished.
"To say that I know exactly how this will change me, I can't. But I know that it will," said Collins. "I do know one thing: I would do it again and again, no question."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Phillipa Spencer, 18, is an iGeneration Youth reporter from London, England.
Read more stories at igenerationyouth.com.