Seven Life Lessons I Learned on My Gap Year
By Regan O’Donnell, ARCC Gap Alumna
“My Gap Year was loaded with crazy adventures, new experiences and lots of reflection. This year allowed me to go to places and do things I may never otherwise have the chance to do.”
For my Gap Year, I went to East Africa with ARCC. I went into the semester with no expectations or worries, which I think allowed me to have the most open mind as possible. Going on that semester was probably the single greatest experience of my life and I came home with a lot of growth, knowledge, and appreciation for new things.
After being home in Boston for only a week I hopped on another plane and moved down to Florida where I would be spending the next four months working and living by myself. Mixed in the middle of my time in Florida, I joined my uncle on a one week trip to Delhi, India. To end my year I went to Spain to walk the Camino Frances which is a 500-mile walk across the country. Taking only a small backpack, I walked 15 miles a day and stayed in hostels along the way.
My Gap Year was loaded with crazy adventures, new experiences and lots of reflection. This year allowed me to go to places and do things I may never otherwise have the chance to do. Here are just some (of many) lessons I learned on my gap year that have impacted my way of thinking.
1. Not all People are Created Equal
This might seem obvious, and something that you have probably heard in different varieties, but I feel like one of the biggest lessons I learned on my gap year was a new way of understanding of people now that I have been exposed to so much this year. I have been lucky to be born into a fortunate life with a loving family in a developed country which alone has given way more opportunities for success than many other people can say. However, I didn’t choose to be born into this life, I was simply lucky that God chose me to be here. There are people all around the world born into danger and unsteadiness and I was really struck by that when I saw it firsthand in East Africa. I think what has shocked me the most is the inequity that women face around the world. In light of political events in the U.S. this is an interesting time in the world regarding women’s rights. I have been eye-opened and shocked at the way women are viewed around the world. Many many countries still don’t allow women to vote, require them to be very conservatively dressed in a way the men don’t have to and don’t have the same basic rights.
In the winter I joined my uncle on a business trip in India. I flew by myself and spent two days alone before meeting up with him and his colleagues. One of his colleagues is a seller from Bangladesh who is a young Muslim man. We spent the weekend together and had a great time touring around the city. My uncle is a huge jokester so we were constantly playing practical jokes and I was having a great time being the only girl there. After the trip, he called my uncle and told him that I completely changed his view on women. He is a devout Muslim and believes in Sharia law, which means he views women as inferior to men and as wives and daughters it is their duty to do as the men in their life say. He was raised in an environment where this was the norm and had never left this bubble until meeting me. He was impressed by my independence and ability to hang out with a group of men. I was so happy to hear that he said this because I feel like I changed someone’s view by just being myself.
2. Maturity and Age Do Not Always Correlate
I believe that people are aged by their experiences. Knowledge defines people’s maturity because it is what they call upon to interact with others. Of course, knowledge can be obtained in school, but there’s a difference between the kind of knowledge you get out of a book and the kind you get by going out and learning something. It could’ve been easy for me to go to school this year, graduate and move to a big city and work a job in an office right after college. Maybe that is what I’ll do next year, but this year I decided to break that pattern and experience life. By keeping myself on that path I was limiting myself to what I could see and experience. Instead, I am traveling, living, seeing, tuning in and experiencing life. I can’t get over how many people have said to me they are shocked by how much I’ve “grown up” this year, and people who meet me are shocked when I say I am only 18. I have done a lot in these 18 years, but mostly the last 9 months that have matured me and aged me in a way that I couldn’t have imagined.
3. Happiness Can Be Achieved From Simplicity
As our group of twelve ARCC students was walking through a remote village in Meserani, Tanzania, headed to our Massai homestays, hundreds of kids flocked towards us. We certainly drew the attention of most people because it wasn’t often that twelve tall white people walked through their village. I will always remember this moment for one reason: the joy of the people. Looking back it was one of those moments where I couldn’t have been any farther from home. I was in a remote village surrounded by people who didn’t speak the same language as me. But I could tell that despite the fact that there was so little there, there was so much happiness. Throughout the entire semester, I was amazed by the quality of life that people had in East Africa. In places where resources are scarce and people are struggling to eat and drink everyday, you would suspect a lot of misery and distress but it was quite the opposite. Everyone is appreciative of the little blessings and they find the joy in simplicity. At first, I couldn’t understand it, but then I myself started to feel a new kind of happiness as I settled into a life there. I have never lived with so little clothing and simple amenities before, but I can honestly say I was at my happiest when I was over there. When you take all of the “stuff” away is when you really have the chance to see life for its simplicity.
4. There are Endless Ways to Make Your Mark on the World
As most people know, there are endless problems in the world, which in turn means there are endless possibilities to help. I used to question the purpose of making little changes, but I think the best way to describe it is through a mini story that our group in East Africa revisited many times. “A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement. She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!” The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”
5. Talk to People and Get to Know Their Story
Anyone who meets me for the first time will say I gave the impression of a shy, reserved person. I don’t think I would describe myself that way, but I have always been awkward when meeting new people. My gap semester forced me outside of my comfort zone in that way because I was forced into meeting new people not only within my group but every day along the way. Gradually I became way more comfortable talking to people, and a lot of that was probably due to the fact that the culture in East Africa is very friendly and outgoing, so it was easy to reciprocate. Looking back, I am so happy that I have gotten over this hurdle because it has allowed me to enhance not only my travel experiences but my overall relationships with people. One of the things I learned on my gap year is everybody has a complex character and background that is unique to that person, so allowing yourself to learn more about people will open your mind and change your perspective.
6. Hard Work Doesn’t Necessarily Correlate to High Income
This winter I have been working in a breakfast and lunch restaurant earning a little bit more than minimum wage. I have always held jobs growing up, but this was the first time that I was the youngest and the only person not relying on my income for my life and expenses. I have absolutely loved the job. The restaurant is a happy environment, with great food and it’s right on the beach! This experience has made me question a lot about wealth and income within our own country. I read a book called Nickel and Dimed where a 30-something journalist writes a piece on low-income people in America. She has three different minimum wage jobs and for one month each she lives her life completely dependent on the money she earns from those jobs. All of the struggles and statistics she wrote about came to life when I began working in the restaurant. The servers are mostly younger women and the kitchen staff are all older guys who have immigrated from Central America. I have become close to one of them who has told me a lot about him. He works every day at our restaurant and five nights a week at another restaurant with only 30 minutes in between the two jobs. Basically, 90% of his waking hours are spent at work. In his opinion, he has escaped a life in Mexico of extreme poverty and has landed in the country of opportunity. But when I heard his story, I was shocked that someone who worked so hard was still struggling to get by with all of the taxes and expenses he has.
Growing up I have always been told that “hard work will lead to success,” but I don’t think I see that to be true anymore. I don’t think I have met anyone who works harder than some of my coworkers, yet they still face so many obstacles. This is the same story for many people and it has me thinking about what success really means. Making a ton of money? Happiness? And is that achieved from hard work or circumstance or what kind of life you’re born into? Is your love of education an automatic gateway to certain opportunities? I don’t know if I can answer those questions yet, but they have certainly got me thinking.
7. Say “Yes” While You Can
Never in my life have I been so free to do (almost) whatever I want. Part of my reasoning to take a Gap Year was to allow myself to do things on a whim and be spontaneous. I am a firm believer that spontaneous plans are some of the best ones and one of my recent adventures proved that theory. My uncle called me in February and told me he was going to India on a work trip a week from that day and that I could come if I wanted to. I called my boss at work and told her this would be the only time I would request off all winter and I really wanted to go. She said yes so I booked a plane ticket and planned the entire trip in about 24 hours. Before I knew it I was in Delhi (by myself for two days) and got to experience this amazing country I had always wanted to go to. Though the trip was short, I packed it in with tons of cool adventures and experiences and felt like I got a good taste for the city. If you are at a place in your life where you have the ability to take chances and create experiences for yourself that might sound a little crazy, jump on them! Even though it hurt to spend a months’ work of income on the trip, I wouldn’t take it back for anything because in that week I did and learned way more than I ever would’ve if I had just worked at the restaurant for another week.
These are just seven of the many lessons I learned on my gap year and a huge part of the reason that I have learned so much throughout this Gap Year is because of my mentality going into the experience. I knew I wanted to get the most I possibly could out of my gap year, so I allowed myself to have an open mind. I put down Netflix and instead read a book a week. I’ve learned how to analyze and take in my surroundings and information. It is one thing to travel a lot, but what you get out of it will reflect in how much you put into it.