Malia Obama’s announcement about her decision to take a gap year has caused quite a stir on the internet, so I wanted to share my thoughts about my own (rather unexpected) gap year. Here is the article that I originally posted on Medium:
A few months ago, Malia Obama graduated high school and announced her decision to take a year off before starting college at Harvard University.
This announcement rocked America with questions: a year off between high school and college? That can’t be a good idea! Oh, it turns out top universities are endorsing and in some cases funding it? Oh, it turns out they’ve been doing it in Europe for centuries? How intriguing!
I was going to quietly bite my lip and resist the urge to smirk that ‘I did that before it was a thing’, however, I feel it might be more helpful for me to share the rather unconventional story of my gap year instead. For potential gap year candidates and the curious onlooker, this is how life-changing a gap year can be.
Once upon a time…
I was that weird kid who lugged ‘Which Major is For You’ reference books (that weighed about as much as I did) around the library. By the time I was in middle school I had begun narrowing down my college options and thinking about which classes I wanted to take. To say I was excited about going to college would be an incredible understatement. I was berserk.
In no way was Susanna M. Olson, the college enthusiast of the century, planning to take a gap year. However, life is a funny thing. When I graduated high school in 2014, I was accepted into 4 promising schools. I eventually narrowed my choice to one school that I was decently happy with. At the last minute, a series of unfortunate events, a careless mistake, and a couple of technical glitches left the door to my university slammed shut in my face.
It was less than a month before classes were scheduled to begin. I had already turned down all my other offers. I couldn’t go to college.
Yet somehow, I wasn’t as devastated as I figured I should be. I had heard about this gap year thing. I had a load of creative projects and personal goals that had been on the back burner since 9th grade (realistically speaking they were gonna stay there for the rest of my college-going years). What if I took a year off to learn more about myself and pursue the things I’d never quite had the time to pursue? Then perhaps I’d end up getting more bang for my buck when I got to college anyway.
So began my accidental gap year.
Now, before I tell you how it changed my life for the better and yadda yadda ya miracles and stuff… I just want to make something very clear: some people associate gap years with wealthy youngsters ‘finding themselves’ while paying (questionably ethical) organizations to volunteer and tour poor villages in third world countries or something of that nature. Travel is often an essential part of broadening your perspective and I would argue that it is an important element in any gap year plan, but that doesn’t mean that gap years are limited to children whose parents have the money to pay for epic international adventures.
I spent eleven months of my gap year working and enjoying the ordinary adventure of living at home. Those eleven months paid for my one month traveling in Europe. I’m not putting down voluntourism programs. That is a different controversy for another day. Those kids very likely have had valuable experiences; what I am saying is that those types of adventures are not a necessary part of a gap year. It is essential to remember that ‘a gap year’ means something different to every single person who takes one. Each gap year experience is extremely personal because it means getting off the assumed path for successful 21st-century young people to do your own thing for a year.
Personally, my gap year consisted of:
Career exploring and finding out more about what I wanted to do:
- Worked/interned with two different companies as a content creator
- Saved money while working to travel to Europe at the end of the year
- Started a blog
- Taught cultural geography to homeschool kids
- Volunteered in my local community
- Researched universities and career paths
Working on projects I’d been putting off:
- Studied Italian
- Finished the first draft of a historical-fiction novel and began preparing it for publication.
- Spent time with my family (since I knew that I would likely be moving away to college when the year finished).
- Ran my first 10k.
- Made a list of crazy foods I wanted to learn to cook and cooked them all.
- Took online MOOC courses from top universities in fields I was interested in.
- Made a list of 50 classic books I wanted to read and read them all (and then some).
In the end, I had an incredible year full of learning, working, traveling, teaching, trying new things I’d never thought of doing before and finishing projects I’d been putting off for ages. Even though I lived at home for the majority of the year, I stayed busy every single day and enjoyed every minute (almost).
How it changed my life
- Like many ambitious teens, I found that I had lost track of my physical and emotional health during the last two stressful years of high school. Rather than move straight into a strange new environment, taking a gap year gave me the time I needed to tackle my health issues head on. I worked on developing healthy emotional habits and beat my running and fitness goals.
- I had time to explore my interests and think deeply about what motivates me. I taught classes and took classes. I read great books and studied random interesting things. I volunteered and explored careers.
- I had time to zero in on my life-long side hobby of writing and developed it into something more. I finished the historical fiction novel I had begun years before and wrote a 50k first draft of a fantasy novel in 30 days for NaNoWriMo. I learned that spending time writing gave me more joy than anything else. I learned how to take myself seriously as a writer and pursued ways to turn my writing into a viable career option.
By the end of the year I saw quite a few concrete results:
- I was healthier and happier than I had been since middle school
- I had a practical list of life goals and had a head start on fulfilling the objectives I had planned to reach those goals.
And guess what? After all that, I realized that if I had gotten into the mediocre degree program I was about to start out of high school, I would have felt stuck and unsatisfied. In fact, my dreams had solidified in such unexpected ways that I ended up applying to a completely new set of colleges and being accepted into some very highly rated programs.
I finished the year with a clearer set of goals for my life. I knew what I wanted to study in college and how I wanted to allocate my free time. I had the maturity, confidence, and lil bit of savings I needed to move to Wales and start my undergraduate degree there (something I never would have considered out of high school). I was able to continue many of the habits I developed during my gap year, including a fitness routine and making time for my blog and other creative writing projects.
I wouldn’t have chosen a gap year but I couldn’t be more grateful that it happened. I recommend a gap year to anyone who is self-motivated and ready to explore their world and themselves. If you have unsolidified thoughts about your dreams or important personal projects that have been waiting too long… you may need to take some time out of the pre-supposed path of life to learn to live intentionally.
Some writers believe that if you worry about your characters the plot will naturally follow (and be awesome). Whether or not that is sound writing advice I couldn’t say, but I do believe the logic applies to crafting our real-life stories. Taking a year off after high school gave me the time I needed to focus on building myself as a person. It gave me a place to stand outside of the mad rush of students pining for top test scores to think deeply about my life goals and how I planned to reach them. This in turn greatly influenced my plans for my college career and future.
To Malia Obama and all the other high school seniors choosing this path, I want to say good luck and happy adventuring!
Have you ever considered taking a gap year or known someone who did it? What were your impressions?