How My Gap Year Changed My Life

by Juliana Sebben

Anyone who knows me knows I wasn’t really sure about starting college straight after high school. I trudged through the mud of the college admissions process like it was the only path I could take and couldn’t even feign excitement when acceptance letters started rolling in. Without a clue as to what I wanted to do with my life, college didn’t seem like a sensical next step, but I felt like I had no other choice. So, when the time came, off to SUNY New Paltz I went.

Unsurprisingly, freshman year ended up being filled with upset and frustration. My displeasure at being in college carried into all aspects of my life and tainted every experience. I remember waiting for things to get to better and then, when finals rolled around and I was still miserable, thinking, “This is it? Are you kidding me? The best four years of my life?” I genuinely believed that my life was over, that I had climbed to the top of the beautiful mountain of life (college being the magnificent peak) only to realize that the view was a field of dead grass littered with cheap beer cans. In the formulaic layout of birth, school, college, career, retirement, and death, which has been drilled so deeply into our heads since childhood, college is the highlight. Imagine my distress, then, when I realized that college meant less long days of laughing and learning with a hundred of my best friends and more solitary meals of rice and salad than I could stomach.

But there was a silver lining. All of the frustration I felt at being in college overpowered the fear I’d had about doing the unthinkable, something I’d always wanted but had been warned against: taking a year off.

I began to formulate a plan and, by the time I was ready to sign a form of deferral for my school, I had one all set. For a little over a year, starting in July of 2017 and ending in August of 2018, I would be somewhere new doing something I’d never done before with people I had just met. It would start at a sleepaway camp in upstate New York, where I would spend the summer working as a counselor. Then I’d fly to Costa Rica for a WorkAway exchange program in which I’d wash dishes at a jungle surf camp in exchange for housing. Finally, I’d complete 10-months of service with AmeriCorps NCCC, working and living with a team of 12 strangers in different communities around the United States, and then maybe I’d return to SUNY New Paltz in the fall.

Unsurprisingly, my gap year ended up being the single best year of my life yet. It transformed me completely. Here’s how:

  1. It gave me space to think. There’s this unspoken assumption we all share that life is like a conveyor belt carrying us from one thing to the next, without any opportunity to hit pause. But when we rush through school without taking so much as a single second to breathe and consider who we are, what we have to offer the world and how we want to do it, we end up selling ourselves short. We get a degree in something we don’t actually enjoy, we float passively while life carries us along and then get upset when we end up somewhere we never wanted to be and we rack up tens of thousands of dollars of debt in the process.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with going straight through school if you have a plan and know how to best utilize college to execute it, but there’s also nothing wrong with taking some time off to catch your breath and reevaluate. There’s no time limit on getting your degree.

  1. It put me in touch with myself. One of my favorite sayings is “Wherever you go, there you are.” To me, this means that everything you have, both good and bad, follows you in any direction. Putting myself in so many distinctly different situations and scenarios revealed me to myself so clearly; it carved me out of my traditional life so that I could easily identify my strengths, weaknesses, and the places I need work. When everything is different, we look for the sameness. During my gap year, the only constant for most of it was me. Ironically, my realization of that was when I began to change, too.

  2. It introduced me to ways of living that I hadn’t even known were possible. I met so many different people in so many different walks of life during that year I was away – full-time travelers who get paid for the pictures they post, a teacher who instructs internationally and speaks more languages than I can count on one hand, people who work in national parks and camp in tents with their co-workers, crazy stuff that I didn’t even know existed. I was 19-years-old and had gone all my life thinking there was only one way to live; the year I spent out of school showed me that there doesn’t have to be. There are no rules to life, only consequences and some adventures are worth the sacrifice.

I would recommend a gap year to every student on the planet. It doesn’t have to be as long or intense as mine was, and it definitely doesn’t have to be expensive (in fact, the most impactful of my experiences: the 10 months I spent with AmeriCorps NCCC, paid me for my time). My gap year has given me clarity, perspective, irreplaceable life experience and invaluable friendships. When I did eventually return to SUNY New Paltz, it was with a deeper understanding of myself and the world around me which has made my experience this time around much more enjoyable.

If a gap year is something you’ve ever considered before, I encourage you to go for it. You don’t have to be rich or special or anything other than what you already are to make it happen; you just have to be willing to take the risk.


A version of this post originally appeared in “Clarity” The Teller May 2019 Issue 6

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