My gap year was not a hiatus from learning, but a crash course in learning to love myself.
In high school, I was afraid to express my emotions. I was afraid to fail. I was afraid to recognize the limits of my knowledge. By the end of senior year, I wanted to take a break from classroom learning and maybe figure out what I wanted to study at college.
After spending three months hiking the Indian Himalayan Region with an outdoor leadership course and five months traveling without a program through Southeast Asia and the Pacific, I was able to free myself of living in fear. Ultimately, I became addicted to the hands-on learning I experienced during my gap year. This type of learning took away the safety nets and support networks I was accustomed to.
When I arrived at the airport in Siem Reap, Cambodia to begin my solo travel, I had no knowledge of the local language and only a hotel address. First, I knew I needed cash. Before I stepped off the plane, I had at least 15 scenarios of what my first actions should be. In a classroom setting, I could study each scenario. But in the airport, I had to look around, trust my discomfort, and make the first decision. I got cash from the ATM at the airport. Seems simple, and it was.
Second, I needed to find a ride to the hotel. Someone came up to me speaking in Khmer. I had no idea what they were saying to me. I showed them the paper with the address of my hotel, and they gestured for me to follow them. So I did.
For all you parents, I know this sounds like the beginning of a horror story, but that’s why I was there alone, without my parents.
How else could I learn to trust myself and in turn trust others?
Here’s what I found out: It is scarier sitting in a classroom thinking about all the ways things could go wrong than actually acknowledging my hesitation, asking myself why I felt that way, and then deciding it was safe to hop into the tuk-tuk to go to my hotel.
When I finally arrived at the hotel, something didn’t seem right. We were in the wrong place. It was okay! I was learning to fail and recover. I took a deep breath, felt a surge of uncertainty creep in and felt like crying. So I did. I let it out. My tuk-tuk driver came over to help me, double-checking the address I showed him. He motioned to something across the street. Once more, I trusted him as he drove me 400 feet down the road where we pulled into my correct hotel. My eyes dried up quickly, and I hugged my driver good-bye.
My gap year is filled with many stories like this one that allowed me to grow and learn. Some are mundane, while others are exciting and funny, but my eight months were comprised of a series of small events, forcing me to fall in love with myself for all that I am. That includes loving myself when I cry, make a mistake, or don’t know something.
As I went on through my gap year exploring the markets of Bangkok or earning my scuba certification in Australia, loving myself made cultural exchange possible and made me eager to learn about the world.
This curiosity is what led me to major in sociology at college. My experience led me to ask questions about hard topics such as race, class, suicide, and addiction. I could appreciate and welcome the emotions that came with these discussions and use them to get the most out of my major.
Socially, I was confident and proactive in meeting friends, going to a professor’s office hours, and even connecting with alumni. Loving myself allowed me to flourish and make the most of my formal and informal educations.