There's no one reason to take a "gap year"
By Rachel Bergman
As most of my friends left for college last September, I left for Cusco, Peru. Prior to starting school, many of my friends discussed with me their worries about meeting new people, doing well in their classes, and adjusting to the world of college. And though I couldn't quite relate to their anxieties, I had my own set of nerves and fears as I got into my plane seat and headed, alone, to a foreign country where I didn't know anyone and had no idea what to expect from my four month stay there. I had anticipated my departure with excitement, but there was a moment when I thought I was insane before the Dramamine kicked in.
When I decided to defer my college acceptance for a year, friends and family constantly asked why I wanted to take a "gap year." I didn't have just one answer. I'll be going to Princeton, which is in my hometown, and I wanted to explore the world before returning to a familiar environment. I wanted to take a step back from competitive academics. I wanted to see new places, learn about very different cultures, and live in less developed countries without the luxuries and technology of home. Basically, I wanted to challenge myself and completely step out of my comfort zone.
And thus, I began my journey of a year in Cusco, Peru, in the hopes of improving my Spanish and experiencing a culture I had learned much about in my Spanish classes. I took a month long Spanish course while I was there, but my vision for the year was to work with NGOs and volunteer as a way of interacting with people in their respective countries. The Spanish school I attended set me up with a volunteer placement in a school, Los Hijos del Rey, in which I worked with students in grades first to sixth, struggling with their math lessons. Schools and the education system are very different in Peru than in the US, as memorization is a major emphasis in all subjects, including math. I found that many students ultimately fell behind because they didn't actually understand the concepts they learned, but teachers often attributed poor test results to the fact that a student "didn't know anything," instead of the possibility that he or she just learns differently. One of my more rewarding experiences of the year was teaching one of these girls, a girl that her teachers said "knew nothing," but most likely has a learning disability, how to do simple addition.
Though I loved working with the students at Los Hijos del Rey, and even made friends with the faculty, I wanted to see parts of Peru outside of touristy Cusco. I traveled a bit, and with the help of a former Spanish teacher, ended up working with an NGO, The Sacred Valley Project, in the Sacred Valley, where I tutored girls from remote villages, who stayed at a dorm created and funded by the project so that they could attend school. While living in the small town of Ollantaytambo, I also volunteered as a waitress in a local café, run by another NGO to serve natives of mountain villages that mainly caters to tourists passing through.
After briefly returning home in January, I headed to Ghana to work with another NGO, LoszuGhana, which places prospective volunteers in projects of their choice. I took on an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign, which ended up being very different than I expected, mostly because there was no already existing campaign when I got there. Ultimately, I created my own presentation about HIV/AIDS, including statistics, important information, and skits and presentations, and traveled around to several different schools around the area where I lived to give talks. This was a pretty major task, which was difficult to do especially because I didn't have the constant assistance of my directors at the NGO. I regret that I didn't push myself more to make my campaign more impactful on my own, and now realize how important it is to take initiative if I want to make a difference.
My time in Ghana was very different than the months I spent in Peru, and was probably more enlightening. In Peru, I interacted a lot with other foreigners; either people with whom I took my Spanish classes, or other volunteers working with NGOs. But I spent most of my time with Ghanaians while in Ghana, both my host family and people who eagerly talked to me on the street because of my obviously different skin color. My living conditions were very basic and I felt that I truly immersed myself in the culture completely. I had several interesting discussions about race and religion with people I just briefly met, but I struggled with the fact that people sought me out because I am an "Obruni" (white person) and the various ideas they have about Obrunis regarding money and power. It took me a while to really understand their perspective and consider how they view the rest of the world and foreigners who come to their country.
Recently, I've started to refrain from using the term "gap year," and refer to what I did as a year off or away from school. The way many people use it, a "gap year" sounds like a programmed experience that is apart from the real world, like sleep-away camp. It seems to imply that I embarked on a very deep and meaningful quest, unlike anything else I will experience in my life. While I think I learned valuable lessons about myself and the world, too many and too complex to write here, the most important part of my year was that I did in fact see the real world.
There's no one reason to take a "gap year;" there were so many factors that led me to the decision to take mine. But there's also no real reason not to take a gap year. Before graduating from high school, when my classmates found out I was taking a year off, so many of them told me, "I'd love to take a gap year…but I just can't." Some of them feared that they'd never return to school after a year away, some of them couldn't imagine what they'd do with the year, and some simply had no rationale at all other than that the typical path after high school is to go straight to college. A gap year isn't for everyone, maybe, but no one should stop themselves from considering the option just because it's not the norm.
Sometimes, I felt that I held myself back from a full Peruvian or Ghanaian experience because I knew I had a time limit on my trips; I knew that I was only in these places temporarily, and thus didn't take quite as many risks when things were tough. But now, after my traveling and working, and thinking back to these harder moments during my time abroad, I'm much less fazed by trying new and challenging things. I remember how I felt as I boarded the plane to Peru, thinking I had no idea what I was doing. I'm much more confident and eager to learn.