Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, I knew most of my peers would head to one of three paths after high school: college, trade school, or work. After I crossed the graduation stage, however, I embarked on a different path: a gap year.
Gap years, or sabbaticals between high school and university, are more common in countries like the UK and throughout Europe, but they are becoming increasingly popular in the US.
Now, honestly, I had never intended to take a gap year, and I didn’t know it was an option until late in my high school career. I had applied to universities across the Rust Belt the fall of my senior year, thinking that one of these city schools would be the right fit for me. However, when February came around, and everyone was talking about what majors they were picking or where they are looking to attend in the fall, I realized that something was not right. I had applied to schools and picked majors because I thought it was the “next right step” given the information on the brochure; however, I hadn’t thoroughly considered what this four-year investment of time and money would be bringing my future and me.
With a couple of acceptances and a few waitlist letters, I had this realization at my kitchen table. My dad sat down with me and explained another option, a gap year.
He took me up to the closest gap year fair, which was a six-hour drive to New York City, and for a weekend, I looked at all the stalls and booths advertising a variety of opportunities available for post-high school students. Whether you wanted to learn to sail or help an elephant sanctuary, there was something for everyone.
Afterwards, my parents and I sat down together to create the plan for the next year: it would be a combination of study, work, and fun.
Part 1: Study
The first part of my year was spent studying abroad. At that gap year fair, I found a program that allowed me to take three courses that I was interested in to investigate if this was something you would want to pursue in college. Packing up my 18-year-old life into two suitcases, I embarked on my biggest adventure yet: England.
In the city center of Oxford, I attended Oxford Tutorial College, a preparatory school (now known as Oxford Sixth Form) and studied Shakespeare, a choice my family suggested; art history, something I have always been interested in; and physics, a subject my teachers suggested.
Studying without the constraints of a high school grade is truly a unique experience, and I was able to recognize what a gift it was. I could dive in and out of books for the joy of learning, not for what would be on the exam.
From learning about Galileo to dissecting stained glass windows in the City of Spires, I learned so much more than just academic knowledge. I truly got to know myself and my own dreams during this time.
First, it was my only experience truly living away from home. From groceries to understanding foreign public transportation, I realized what “living on your own” really meant. Though there were some illnesses through which I wish I had my parents , I developed a newfound independence.
Second, I learned how to explore my own interests. Being a part of Oxford Tutorial College enabled me to have access to some of the University of Oxford’s benefits, like attending talks at the Oxford Union or taking myself to the Michaelmas Ball. Without the peer pressure of high school friends, I reignited my spark for the arts, language, and travel.
Lastly, I pushed myself academically. I was truly there to study, and much like university, what you put in, you get out. Though I was a slower reader in high school, I voraciously read through Shakespeare’s plays and jumped at the chance to open my [gigantic!] art history book. Being graded on a UK scale was new for me, and I was assigned more rigorous assignments than I had ever seen. But all of that only inspired me.
At the end of the three months, I had dove deep into three subjects, made a few lifelong friends, explored two new countries, and got to experience another culture.
Part 2: Work
After returning home from England, I went to work in the afternoons at my local, public high school in their after school tutoring program. This was my first “real” job post high school.
Many students in that program were unmotivated by their own academic trajectory, which was quite the contrast from my months earlier. Naively, I thought that most had this love of learning I had so prominent in my heart, but this was often not the case due to societal, economic, or social pressures on these teenagers.
Throughout these months, I learned more than just the value of a dollar. I was able to gain a unique perspective on education, one that recognized my own privilege and support growing up, and gain empathy within the teaching journey. I was able to try to reposition the assignments to find meaning, like comparing poetry to music or angles in geometry to shots on the basketball court, or find ways for other students to explore their own academic or extracurricular interests.
I was also able to utilize this extra time to take college visits, attend open days, and truly break the college application process down into a granular level. I was going to do it right the second time around, and I committed myself to research and thoughtfulness throughout the process.
Part 3: Fun
As I was still eighteen, the summer was also focused on fun.
My sister was getting married in the August before my freshman year of college (and by this time, the stress of university apps had subsided, as I had decided I would be moving an 8 hour drive south to North Carolina. From June onwards of my gap year, my schedule was full of attending family reunions and events before the big move, planning activities, like Pittsburgh Pirates baseball games, with friends, and learning the difference between hydrangeas and peonies as a Maid of Honor!
When I started school that fall, I realized that my gap year was a great decision then, and looking back at it now, almost eight years later, I recognize what a pivotal decision that year was in my entire journey.