When I was in college, I didn’t appreciate the harsh reality of a 9-5 job. When you’re young you see the world as full of possibility, and it is. But as you get older, take a job and start a family, those possibilities narrow. Employers expect a lot. American workers have the least paid vacation time of all wealthy industrial nations. For most of us, unless we quit our jobs, leaving our lives for a year is not a possibility. But for college-age adults, taking a year off before or during college is a much more realistic option.
When I was in college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was all over the place: doing art, studying philosophy, playing music and being an activist. I was passionate about everything but lacked focus. I think I would have benefited greatly from a year abroad working on a real-world problem. We think of college as an opportunity for self-discovery but trying to figure yourself out within a college’s walls is like trying to breathe in a vacuum. It is especially tough with all the pressure and stress of getting good grades. College is a wonderful opportunity for a certain kind of learning, but sometimes it lacks practicality and realism. It’s easy to gain confidence without losing naïveté and that can be dangerous and confusing.
I think traveling to volunteer provides the real-world experience college lacks. It is impossible to travel to a small village in Africa without seeing your own privilege. In addition to the obvious benefits of volunteering—helping others, being part of something bigger than yourself, learning about a new culture—a volunteering college student learns how vast the world is, and how much work needs to be done to make lives livable. She sees herself through the eyes of people who are vastly different: culturally, economically, and socially.
Typically, college students can petition for time off to travel, especially if those travels involve academically relevant work. Taking a whole year to delve into a volunteer project means taking a year away from the college culture. It means making a life in a foreign place with new people and new challenges. It is an extraordinary opportunity for growth at a time when growth is exponential. The gap year abroad can help transform an unfocused kid into a driven adult.
Carpe Diem’s study abroad program offers gap year and 3-month opportunities for summer breaks or semester-long projects. They specialize in the student volunteer and provide opportunities for earning college credit through Portland State University. They have ongoing programs in Asia, Africa, Central America, South America, Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia. Global Citizen Year, United Planet, and I-to-I Volunteering also offer exciting gap-year programs.