Monday, November 8, 2010

Why U.S. Students Should Take a Gap Year

Delicately carved statues and sculptures adorn the grounds of a temple in Bangkok, Thailand (photo by Simone Cannon) 

The Gap Year has been a unquestioned travel tradition and rite of passage for years for teenagers and twenty-somethings in Europe and Australia since the 1960s. After the equivalent of high school and before starting either university or work, young people store their belongings, load up their backpack, get their "jabs" (travel vaccinations) and hit the road for a year or longer. The idea is to travel and explore as much of the world as possible before settling down into the daily routine and responsibilities of a family, a job and a mortgage. The trip is about freedom and fun, but also about gaining insight and experience and learning independence through decision-making and personal responsibility; in other words, the first step to becoming a self-actualized, well-rounded adult. 

A beach stop on a kayaking excursion, Cathedral Cove, Hahei, New Zealand (photo by Simone Cannon)       

The time between school and university/work is ideal for travel. People in their 20s are normally at the peak of their energy, enthusiasm and health and are eager to explore the world with an open mind. Most of their ideas are still forming, so they can experience other cultures in an unbiased way, taking away lessons and views possibly very different than what they have been exposed to at home. It may also be the only truly free time for traveling and exploring alone or with friends that they will have in their lives, especially after entering demanding careers and starting families, when other priorities take precedent. Although still largely a European and Australian tradition, young people in countries such as the US, Canada and Asia are beginning to join the traveling ranks in large numbers. Thanks to technology such as the Internet, GPS and electronic storage devices such as Ipods, netbooks and e-readers, travel has become much easier and much less risky. Travelers can stay in contact with friends and family, check real-time status on flights, as well as weather and political conditions in places they plan to visit or make hotel reservations. It is also incredibly easy to connect with fellow gap year travelers, especially with the wealth of gap year websites and groups.

Feeding the fish from the back of a dive boat, Great Barrier Reef, Cairns, Australia (photo by Simone Cannon)

Hostels offer many opportunities for group excursions, activities, parties, BBQs and ride-sharing. Most hostels also provide much needed services to backpackers: sending and receiving messages, storing luggage, reserving dorm beds or private rooms and providing maps, guides and suggestions for local areas. The opportunities for gap travelers are endless. A traveler can choose to travel independently or with a group, or a little of both; volunteer to work in an impoverished community or national park; take part in an exchange program in order to learn a new language or skill; alternate travel with work to pay for room and board or to earn extra cash (short term or seasonal work visas for students are widely available); stay with a local family in an immersion program; or teach English and other languages. There are hundreds of gap year blogs, groups and networks that can provide information, connections and shared experiences with other travelers. Sites such as, RealGap Experience, Lonely Planet's travel forum, ThornTree and  and USA Gap Year Fairs are treasure troves of information, providing ideas, routes, connections, suggestions, cautions, encouragement and assistance with necessities such as travel insurance or lodging.

Luis zip-lining in Bariloche, Patagonia, Argentina (photo by Simone Cannon)

It is especially important for North American Gap-Yearers to take this time to travel, as Americans and Canadians generally have much less vacation time once they start a career and are less inclined as they get older to travel internationally. Insularity and limited knowledge of world culture and geography will influence their lives and political opinions as adults. If the habit of travel, adventure, exploration and open-mindedness is ingrained at a young age, it will likely remain into adulthood. I traveled internationally for the first time when I was five years old and with only my younger sister when I was seven (in the 1960s it was still possible for children to travel unaccompanied) and I have been traveling ever since. The world is an amazing, friendly, welcoming, life-enhancing, exotic, breathtaking and surprising place. At the very least, the gap year provides a chance for the adventure of a lifetime, and at most, it begins the habit of lifelong traveling. Either way, you can't go wrong.

Simone and some Gap Year travelers on the Great Wall of China, Simatai, China  


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