Taking a Gap Year to Study Abroad

By: Jessica Chan

It’s about that time of year when school begins once more, during which those remnants of that debilitating condition, aka Senioritis, start to resurface (or perhaps first appear), regardless of if you actually are a senior, resulting in a dramatically decreased productivity level, a yearning desire to do anything besides what you must do for tomorrow, and, in some of us, an insatiable restlessness to be anywhere except for where we currently are.  If this last part is especially true for you, and has been for a while, taking some time off of school to go abroad might be quite the perfect fit for you.  The gap year and semester/year abroad are truly wonderful opportunities, and I personally implore each of you to think about investing a time in your life (and perhaps, by doing so, to go against the grain of the regular order of life) to get out of your comfort zone and to be humbled by the people of the world.  There are an infinite number of opportunities, programs, and places to go; in this post, I’ll touch on a few considerations anyone thinking of taking some time away from school should think about.

Where to go? What to do?
DREAM.  If money weren’t an issue, what would you do?  Ponder this question for a bit before doing anything else.  If you haven’t experienced it before, be blown away by the sheer liberation that comes with the freedom of dreaming.  You’ve got a span of time and the entire world open to you; what do you want to experience?  Where do you want to go?  There are innumerable opportunities out there that you can take advantage of, so I’ll articulate a few things you may want to consider as you think about things.  First and foremost, you should think about how you want to grow due to your semester or year away from where you are, in a brand new environment.  Just being around new people and in a new place will provide excellent fodder for personal growth, but beyond that, you need to explore what you desire to gain from your experience.  Are you hoping to find direction for your life?  Explore possible career options via an internship?  Get a new perspective by going to a school abroad?  Learn a new language so you can serve better?  Immerse yourself in service by means of missions of some sort?  Become an ethical and moral human being?  Travel and learn about cultures first-hand?  Get away from people and school so you have space to think?  All of these are superb reasons to spend time abroad.
"Two roads diverged and I -- I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference" ~ Robert Frost
Finding opportunities.  Perhaps you have an idea of how you want to grow and learn, and now you are searching for opportunities.  Considering literally the entire world is open to you, this is probably a fairly daunting task (almost on par with choosing a life path…).  And it doesn’t help that when you search “medical missions” you get about 783 possibilities.  And having a particular location in mind might cut it down to 243 possibilities if you’re lucky.  At this point, I would first suggest talking to people around you about organizations/opportunities/people they may know that could be of interest to you.  This way, you have a connection to the organization, and you know it’s not a scam (because, unfortunately, scams are a thing).  There are plenty of reputable websites if you are looking to work for your room and board (WWOOF www.wwoof.net/ if you’re into that organic farming; https://www.workaway.info/ if you’re not into organic farming, per se, but would still like to work) – these organizations typically provide a platform for hosts to offer jobs on their farm or in their household (i.e. being a nanny, tutor, etc.) to young people looking to live abroad cheaply.  You usually work 4-5 hours per day for your host in return for room and board, and you have the rest of the day free… plus, you’ve got the added benefit of having a couple locals from whom you are in a perfect position to glean cultural insight/ knowledge (especially when it comes to improving your foreign language skills).  
  • At this point, you might be concerned about that thing we call money.  While this is a real concern, I implore you to not allow it to define your search, nor make your decision.  There are lots of scholarships out there, especially if you are doing it through your university or want to study abroad, and mission trips can often be funded by donations.  Obviously finding and/or raising financial support may be a little bit more of a hassle, but there are things out there to be found!
Once you’ve found some opportunities of interest, apply.  Do it!  The sooner the better!  Cast your net wide and see what comes through; you can always say no to an opp, but you can’t do what you don’t apply for!
A gloriously and lusciously green span of a town near Salzburg, Austria viewed from a hill
Assess your options….make a decision….pack your bags….and go! (oh, and don’t forget to tell your parents at some point!)  As you think about which opportunity to take advantage of, you may also want to think about what you had originally desired to get out of your time (i.e. what you thought about whilst dreaming).  Although some of your options may look better on a résumé, is your heart really in it?  When I was figuring out what to do, I had the option of spending a semester doing Alzheimer’s research in a lab in Hong Kong.  As someone who’s more than likely going to medical school next year, this would help me get research positions later on and would look much better on my résumé than studying theology, but, when it came down to it, this was not what I wanted to do.  I’ve got the rest of my life to be in the field of medicine, but not another chance in the foreseeable future to spend a few months at a little school in Austria dedicated to studying theology and philosophy, getting a different perspective on the world, and traveling in Europe.

Bottom line: spending a semester or year away from the comfort of wherever you are now, in a new environment, surrounded by new people, and experiencing novel things is a time which lends itself to immense personal growth and memories which will be cherished for a lifetime.  I have definitely glimpsed a bit of the beauty this world has to offer in places which, especially this time last year, I would never have guessed I’d ever visit.  I have been moved by the places I’ve been, humbled by the people I’ve gotten to know, and hooked on the exhilaration that is the joy of travelling; these past four months are a time that have formed me in yet-to-be-realized ways, and a time for which I am and will be forever grateful…it’s been an incredible experience, and if you feel such adventures are calling your name, I implore you to not pass it up!

The posts published on the blog are written by a talented group of Joyce Ivy Fellows, who are all members of the Publications Team. To see who the members are, please visit here.

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