July 13, 2015

Taking this gap year is the best decision I have made in my life so far ... by Hayden McCall

I first heard about gap years during the spring break of my junior year from a family friend whose daughter had taken a gap year. The idea of taking a year before college to travel, explore the world, and take some time away from the classroom was completely foreign to me, but I was intrigued. I did a bit of initial research and was excited by the countless opportunities available to gap year students. However, I still had a grueling junior spring to complete, and by the time my senior fall rolled around, I was so wrapped up in maintaining my grades, working on college applications, and getting my ACT score up just one more point, that the idea of taking a gap year was put on a back burner in my mind.

Come spring of my senior year, things had started to slow down. I knew that I would be attending the University of Virginia and I was thrilled about it. A gap year was still an option, but I felt ready and excited to get to school. It wasn't until I ran into those same family friends again that I was reminded of all of the amazing opportunities available to me if I deferred my admission for a year. I still wasn't sure whether or not I wanted to take the leap, so I decided to reach out to the Center for Interim Programs to see what my own gap year could look like. I hung up the phone after my initial consultation with Jason and immediately emailed UVA. 24 hours later, I heard back that my deferral of admission until the fall of 2015 was approved, and I was officially taking a gap year!

I narrowed down the broad list of options that Jason had presented to me based on my interests, and I decided to start my year with a structured group trip to China, Laos, and Cambodia.

Three months with 1 backpack, 13 students, and 3 instructors was the most different and amazing experience I have ever had. I was introduced to a part of the world that I knew very little about and I gained invaluable skills as we traveled from China to the coast of Cambodia. I learned, over the course of those 3 months, that I don't always need to know what is going to happen next - that it's okay to just let go and go with the flow. I learned how to travel like a local, how to barter in markets, and how to make friends even when you only have a few words of common vocabulary. I learned how to make it through a trek when all I want to do is sit down and not take another step.

I also learned more than I ever imagined from my fellow group members. Traveling for 3 months with the same small group certainly had its ups and downs. There were times when all I wanted was to be alone, but there was no chance of that happening in the near future, and there were other times that I had so much appreciation and respect for my fellow group members that I couldn't imagine traveling without them. In the end, I came away with a few friends who I know I will have for the rest of my life, and I am so grateful for the experiences we shared together.

The highlight of my fall trip for me was a 2 and a half week home stay on an island in the middle of the Mekong River. I lived with a host mother and father, and, for 3 days, "my" 6 siblings. They all arrived - 2 all the way from Bangkok, Thailand - to celebrate one sister's engagement. We had a traditional Baci ceremony celebrating my sister and her fiancé and then we proceeded to have a huge party with lots of music, food, and dancing. Morning chats over breakfast with my host mother consisted of her speaking to me in Lao and me responding in English and broken Lao.

Lots of hand signals made our conversations feel a lot like a game of charades. After breakfast, I would walk the quarter mile to school along the 2 mile bike path that ran the length of the island. After language lessons under the gazebo in the school yard, I would head back home to practice my new vocabulary and relax on the porch with my mom, Biang, before lunch.

After lunch, I would take a long nap with my family on the cool ceramic tiles in our home. I would head back to school to teach English lessons in the afternoon and then I would return home for a quick dip in the river right behind our house. An early dinner was followed by watching Thai soap operas on our TV and my whole family would fall into bed around 7:30pm or 8 each night. Other highlights included biking to Angor Wat to watch the sunrise, reaching the summit of our Tiger Leaping Gorge trek in China, taking a 3 day/2 night boat from Northern Cambodia to Phnom Penh, and an amazing temple stay in China.

I returned home in December and had about a month of relaxing and seeing my family before I took off for my next gap year placement: an internship as a production assistant for a community arts event in Wellington, New Zealand!

I lived with 4 other Americans who were also in New Zealand for internships. I learned a lot about living on my own and making the best of an experience that is not as I imagined. A typical day consisted of walking 30-45 minutes to the office where I would work from about 9-4. I was in charge of managing the artists and making sure that they had everything that they needed by the time the event rolled around. After work, I would walk home along the waterfront, go to the gym, and then return home to relax and have dinner or go to a movie at the theater down the street.

When my internship ended, I decided to travel for 2 weeks in the South Island. I chose to go on a bus tour that is targeted for 18-25 year olds. I had the time of my life! My group traveled up the East Coast from Christchurch and looped back down the West Coast, ultimately ending up in Queenstown.

Along the way, I met some amazing friends from around the world, learned how to surf, went skydiving, bungy jumping, and canyon swinging (a NZ specialty!). I crossed a few things off of my bucket list and had a lot of fun doing it! I returned home in April and got a job at a retail shop. Although not as exciting as my other adventures, it was nice to be at home for a few months before I head off to school in the fall.

I am so grateful for my parent's support and for Jason's help in crafting my year. I sometimes find it hard to believe that I almost did not capitalize on the incredible opportunity that is a gap year. Although I definitely could have gone to school last fall, I am so much more excited about picking my classes and getting back to work than I would have been had I gone to school a year ago.  I can say that, without a doubt, taking this gap year is the best decision I have made in my life so far. I encourage anyone and everyone to take a gap year, I promise that you will not regret it one bit.

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