Choosing what to do after high school can feel overwhelming. With the help of Michael, our university counselor, Y4s set out to make what seems like the biggest decision in their lives. Most choose the traditional path of tertiary education, usually in the UK, US or The Netherlands. In recent years, however, a less orthodox option has increased in popularity: the option of taking a gap year.
What are the pros and cons? Is it worth it? How do you even make the decision? We asked Lexi, our alumni from the class of 2020. She is taking a gap year (2020/21) to focus on her interests, chiefly studio art, cultural anthropology and all kinds of adventure. Her year began with a two-month solo trip to Spain and Portugal. Here is what she has to say, what she learned, loved, hated and understood, and why she thinks you should do it too…
There is a beautiful period between childhood and adulthood – the period of youth. At the end of high school, you are an individual independent and responsible enough to make your own decisions, and yet unburdened by the expectations of society (and your own). When I found myself at this stage, I wanted to make use of it before thoughtlessly following the path that my culture has set for me. I wanted to take a breath, to try different ways of life, to question my values and goals, to learn to be my own person before diving back into academia. I thought about all the dreams I had dreamt up on late nights spent hovering over books in the study room, and realized I could build a year out of them and still have many to spare. So far, I consider this gap year the best decision I have ever made.
Another reason I decided to take this gap year was that, frankly, Y4 was a little too much for me. Trying to balance studying for APs, savoring the last months of high school with my friends, and now meeting college deadlines – I felt like I was under siege. I did not want to make important life decisions under that much stress. I wanted college to be something to look forward to, not another burden to bear as I struggle through my year. I felt constrained in the school system, bound not only by rules, habits and schedules, but also by relationships, expectations and responsibilities. I thought to myself, maybe it didn’t have to be this hard. I wanted to escape, and so I did.
I must admit it was scary as hell. Everyone else has a clear-cut future for at least the following three years, while you have a year-long (potentially lifelong) void in front of you, containing no certainty whatsoever. One year can seem like a lot of time when you’re at its beginning, confronted with the uncertainty and solitude of your impending future. I was afraid of the opportunity cost – was I about to waste one of the best years of my life? As cliche as it may sound, I don’t think any time spent on reflecting and focusing on yourself is wasted. I think if you fill your void with dreams, you can overcome any challenges along the way, and the trade-off is just amazing. Three months in I can already say that, even if I do nothing for the rest of the year, it will have been worth it.
I decided to start my gap year with Camino de Compostela, a religious pilgrimage through Spain (although I myself am not religious). I chose the Silver Route, one of the most challenging and solitary paths – 1000km through vast lowlands and fields, in the middle of August and in the middle of a pandemic. The uncompromising heat and impending danger discouraged most pilgrims, but I really needed to do this. And so I did.
The first weeks on the Camino were uncompromisingly difficult. Everything was closed, everyone was scared of covid, the heat was unbearable, I was all alone. My biggest consolation was my freedom, the knowledge that I could quit at any point. Every day I told myself that I would just get through tomorrow, and then, satisfied with making it this far, I would go for a vacation at the sea. Just one more day. As the days piled up I went from crying every day to confident, to knowing what I was doing, and finally to loving what I was doing – to inner peace. At the end of my journey, I felt like a gentle giant who could not be shaken by anything that would come my way. It now feels like everything happened the way it was supposed to (probably also because I tried to expect as little as possible). I became confident, independent, excited about life, comfortable in my body, secure in my relationship with myself, I felt calm and gentle and strong, as opposed to the small ball of anxiety that I had been at the end of my high school studies.
I would like to make a broader case for solo traveling. On my trip, I made friends with all kinds of wonderful people of different ages, classes, ideologies and origins. I finally felt like I was my own person, like my life was mine. I learned a lot about strangers’ kindness and hospitality – instead of the paranoia of my parents and friends back home, I chose to trust strangers (with limitations of course) when they invited me into their homes, and have never regretted it. I let go of social anxiety – when you know you’re going to leave the next morning, it matters very little what you do or say – and I realized that real life might just work the same way. None of this would have happened as easily and intensely had I been traveling with a friend. Solo travel forces you to confront your freedom, to pay attention to your surroundings, to interact with strangers, and to let go of prejudice and timidity.
Venturing out on my own was scary, but now I can’t get enough – I’m already planning other, crazier adventures. Clearly, the camino is not for everyone, and you should do what excites them and brings you joy. I understand my privilege and know not everyone has the financial opportunities that I did, but it is possible to travel low-cost, even for free, as I am planning to prove in the second half of my year. The bottom line is to take risks, explore different pathways and ways of life, work on yourself, look for yourself, not just in your mind but in the world.
My only advice that I dare to give people who are considering a gap year is to think about your dreams, bucket list items, propositions that make your heart beat faster, things that sound cool but you never realistically imagined yourself doing them. Take that gap year, wherever you are in life. Do those things. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives (and to the people who are not considering a gap year, my advice is simple: consider it).