So, you want to take a gap year. Who wouldn’t? A year away from the pressure of school, devoted entirely to something of your choosing. But here’s the problem: the world is full of so many cool things to do, and you have no idea what you want to do. You’re afraid of choosing the wrong focus, or finding something amazing too late. You may also fear that gap years are exclusive to people with a lot of money (thankfully, FSU has changed that!). As my gap year comes to a close, I find that I actually have quite a bit of advice for those considering a year off.
Go overseas. I can’t stress how vital I find this to be. America is a beautiful nation, but going out and seeing how people across the world live is ultimately and amazingly rewarding. You’ll see lifestyles and habits that amaze, shock, and amuse you, and I promise, the locals will also find your habits strange (“What do you mean you don’t wash your socks by hand? Do Americans really only go to the grocery store once a week? Why do you people eat so much cheese?”). There’s a lot of vague, intellectual talk regarding “cultural exchange” that makes it seem like you’ll become a movie-style adventurer, constantly feel like everything is ~different~ and ~sooooo cultural~, but, actually, sometimes you’re just going to sit in a McDonald’s and talk about how strange it is that America doesn’t have high-speed rail (by the way, McDonald’s in China have soy milk at breakfast time. It’s surprisingly good).
Be wary of costly programs. The program I went through was completely free. I paid no fees, and even received a small stipend every month in exchange for teaching and caring for a child. I paid for my flights and my independent travel, but living with a host family ensured I never paid rent, and my life was comfortable. Now that I know how easy it is to find good programs that require either a small fee or none at all, it seems laughable to shell out thousands of dollars to volunteer overseas. In fact, speaking of volunteering overseas…
If you volunteer or do a mission trip, research beforehand. I mean,really research. Having good intentions is not enough. There’s a reason we say “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Sometimes, well-meaning Americans can be deceived into doing something harmful. A pretty picture on a website of smiling children does not mean that this agency is legitimate, or that they deserve your time and effort. And, about your effort — don’t be arrogant enough to think that you can go build houses in some rural village if you’ve never picked up a hammer. Don’t sign up to teach English if you don’t know grammar. You know your skills. You’re likely a very talented young person with drive. Do what suits you, because that’s how you’ll do the most good.
Please, for the love of all that is good, don’t volunteer at orphanages. I’ll spare the speech. Just read this article.
Think for the longterm. This is just a year, after all. I foolishly went into my gap year thinking that all it would take was a year, and I would know the direction my life would take. Now, I have less answers and more questions. The way to find yourself is to lose yourself, as cliche as that sounds. But follow your interests and you’ll see that this gap year will indeed play a part in your life. Want to learn a certain language? Choose a country where it’s spoken. Want to learn a skill? Find a program that can help with that. After all, a gap year is temporary, and therefore, your ability to help others is limited. Longterm engagement is how we can substantially change the world for the better, and your gap year can help you acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to prepare for your future longterm engagement with this world we call home.