With contributions to global culture that include amazing street style, perfect croissants, and IKEA Scandi gems, Europeans have a lot of things pretty figured out. Another uber-smart idea that’s classically European? Traveling during a gap year. The concept is becoming more popular with Americans, who are adapting the tradition of spending a year traveling after high school or college into a mid-career break in their late 20s or 30s. Whenever you take a gap year, it’ll absolutely be life-changing. Below, six women share the biggest lessons they learned during their gap years at home and abroad.
1. It can help you deal with your anxiety and learn how capable you are. “I took a gap year after college and it changed my life. The biggest lesson I learned is that forcing yourself out of your comfort zone is the best possible thing you can do for yourself. Travel makes doing this so easy, as it’s nearly impossible to head overseas and not experience anything unfamiliar or confusing. I used to suffer from debilitating anxiety and panic attacks before I traveled, but once I left, they disappeared completely. I used to worry about everything going wrong and whether I’d be able to cope on my own in a foreign country, but travel shows you you’re far more capable than you ever believed. You learn that if something bad does happen, you just need to stop, take a deep breath, and figure it out.” (via Lauren Juliff)
2. You’ll learn that you’re capable of building a community from scratch. “I’d always wanted to be more brave and adventurous, so I went to live in Argentina for the summer after my first year of graduate school. I set out from my apartment in Buenos Aires the first day to look for a cafe to work in, but I was too nervous about my non-existent Spanish to go inside. So I wrote two rules for myself on a Post-it and stuck it above my desk: First, I had to meet someone new every day. Second, I had to walk four miles (that way, I figured, I’d see the city, instead of lounging around in my pajamas). Slowly, I worked up the courage to say hello to a woman in my dance class, the waiter at the bookstore café, and a student at the library. Those connections led to holiday invitations and movie nights and Spanish practice. Though it was painfully difficult at first, I’d made an entire community for myself in this new city — something I never imagined I’d be able to do.” (via Shoshana Akabas)
3. It can unlock your creativity in unexpected ways. “Four months ago, I embarked on an adult gap year as a backpacking digital nomad. I’m traveling because I believe we should always be curious and take the title of ‘lifelong learner’ very seriously. The lights will never all turn green at the same time. If you want to seek a creative rejuvenation or a shake up in your surroundings and community, travel allows you to uncover what you didn’t know you needed to thrive.” (via Madison Hanna)
4. You’ll become a grounded world citizen. “In 2014, I spent a year in Senegal with a program called Global Citizen Year (GCY). I chose Senegal because I wanted to experience living in a Muslim country different from Malaysia. Before leaving on my gap year, my concerns revolved primarily around infrastructure. How would I access internet when I needed it? What would I eat? What kind of toilet would I have to deal with? But I quickly learned that these physical needs were no matter. I learned to tie a pagne (Senegalese wrap skirt), do laundry, and set up my mosquito net with relative ease. What turned out to be most frustrating was how difficult it proved to develop deep, meaningful relationships when language, values, and worldview differed so drastically between myself and everyone else around me. In other words, I learnt what truly matters to me. I would venture to guess each of us learns something surprising of ourselves in the process. We bring this groundedness and inspiration forward into whatever we go on to do post-gap year. And the world needs more inspired, grounded people!” (via Aiman Ahmad Marzio)
5. It will give you space to align your daily life with your purpose. “I quit my job at the end of 2015 and took a year off to recalibrate myself. I took a four-month solo trip across the US (with very little planning), during which I visited 27 states and met hundreds of strangers. I learned that it can be extremely difficult for us to hear our own voice when there is so much noise all around us. That noise can come in the form of societal expectations, demands, and pressures. I think this is especially true for ambitious women who want to do everything and make everyone happy. Sometimes the only way for us to actually hear ourselves is to make a dramatic life change and give up everything — especially when we know the life we’re leading is not in alignment with who we are and who we can be.” (via Snow White Bui)
6. You’ll discover that big risks can pay off. “In mid-2013, at the age of 33, I began a 20-month career break that included eight months of international travel and a three-month road trip through the US. One of the biggest lessons I learned is that courageous leaps are sometimes required. They’re always scary, but they’re also the moments when you feel most alive and present in your life. That is a gift that a gap year gives you — perspective, presence, and appreciation for the life you have and the life you choose to live.” (via Katrina McGhee)