Women on beach at sunrise

Women on beach at sunrise ()

In today’s American society, the number one question seniors get asked their final year of high school is some variation of, "So, what college are you going to next year?" Now, there is only one 'acceptable' answer to this question — anything other than, "I'm going to *insert college here* in the fall" results in a look of disapproval followed by condescending remarks about how hard it is to go back once you've taken a break.

Now let me back it up a bit. Since the ripe young age of five, I had been placed in the best schools, no matter where we moved to. During middle, and especially high school, I had taken the most advanced courses and even took additional college classes at a state university while still in high school. I was the definition of an over-achiever, teacher’s pet, and let’s face it, a nerd. And even more than that, I LOVED school. I loved homework and getting good grades and even more than all of that, I loved learning. That's why it probably came as a shock when I was the one to answer, "Oh, I'm not going to school next year. I'm taking a gap year."

I’m not saying my decision to put school off was always easy or fun, but I will say I would make the same decision ten times over. What people don’t understand is that it wasn't that I failed to apply or didn't get into my dream school. It was an opportunity to move to Europe and enroll in the school of life. To me, the most important things I could learn couldn't be found in textbooks, but rather through experiencing other cultures and customs. In the States, the option to take a year off before college to travel or work is rarely discussed and when it is, it is rarely spoken of highly. I am not saying a gap year should be a time for laziness or partying, but rather an enriching and cultural experience.

During my gap year, I finally realized what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I realized the perfect university I wanted to go to wasn't actually the best fit for me. I realized I couldn't bear to leave Europe and the simpler, healthier lifestyle I adapted. I fell in love with London and decided to make it my home. I became independent, yet open-minded. I became more accepting and understanding. I realized that there was so much more out there for me than America’s plastic society and paper towns. I learned the importance of enjoying life's simple pleasures in Italy, the kindness of strangers in Portugal, hospitality in Greece, and so much more. I learned that in the U.S., we don't take the time to breathe and enjoy the simple things in life. We care more about the clothes we wear, the cars we drive and makeup than the world’s amazing wonders and experiencing things outside of our comfort zones.

If all of that isn’t convincing enough, consider the other more personal benefits. My gap year gave me the time I needed to grow up and find my passion in life. I didn't feel the need to jump right into a program that wasn't right for me just because society told me that was the right thing to do. I didn't waste thousands of dollars on tuition fees. I didn't forfeit college because I wasn't ready or felt unable. Rather than setting me back, my ‘year off’ set me up for an even brighter future with experiences I never dreamed I would have. For me, a gap year meant freedom. Not to be confused with a lack of responsibility (I worked an almost-full time job), but rather a chance to grow with limited distractions. I was able to focus on mending relationships with my family, to develop hobbies, to learn real-life lessons, and so much more. I have realized over and over again that life is so much more than paychecks and material items. It’s about people, experiences, and knowledge. And honestly, that’s what your gap year can be about. Whatever your reason may be, consider breaking free of societal norms and take a year to expand your world view and/or help other people (volunteering is a great option!).

My gap year ultimately opened my eyes to my country’s flaws, but it also showed me our strengths. I realized that these other countries are so much more than names and ink marks on maps. They contain real people with real hearts. We may not always speak the same language but we can understand one another, we feel the same emotions, and we share the same bond that all humans do. Gap years may not be for everyone, but I wouldn't trade a single moment of mine for, well, the world.

The best stories from EUROPE, in your inbox

Sign up to receive travel tips, local event details, restaurant reviews, recipes, community news, and more every week from Stripes Europe.

Sign Up Now