Last year, I graduated from college with a humanities degree, certain about one thing and one thing only: what I would for the next year. While my friends were already entering graduate school or starting careers, I would be taking a year off to teach English in France. Many people take a gap year right after college in order to travel and figure out what they want to do with their life. My own reasons for putting off the real world for another year were numerous: I wanted to have the opportunity to travel and to live in another country (and get paid for it), I wanted to practice my French, which I had studied in college, I wanted to gain teaching experience, and, most of all, after seventeen years in the American school system striving to be an overachiever, I just wanted a break from stress.
By the time graduation rolled around in June, I already knew that I had been accepted to the Teaching Assistant Program in France, a program that places American students in French schools where they assist the English teachers in their classes. Before I even left the country, I had a number of goals, but even more questions. These were questions about myself that I hoped I would magically find the answers to if I spent time in another country: “What do I want to do with my life? Do I like teaching enough to pursue it as a career? What should my next steps be after my gap year?”
My gap year is coming to a close, and I have yet to find an absolute answer to any of these questions. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean I consider the time I’ve spent here a waste. Far from it. I’ve learned more than I had ever imagined I would, but what I did learn was not what I expected.
1. It’s okay to not know exactly what you want to do with your life, even if you’ve already finished college. I’ve realized that unlike many of my friends who have picked a set career path, like law school or medicine, studying the humanities leaves you open to many opportunities, and it’s hard to pick one direction to follow. Just because I don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing in ten years doesn’t mean I won’t be successful at whatever that is. I still have many passions and areas of interest. I haven’t yet decided to specialize solely in one area, and that leaves me more flexible to find a career that will satisfy me.
2. One year of teaching abroad won’t give you enough experience to know whether you like teaching or not. One thing I’ve come to realize is just how different the educations systems are in every country. While teaching is similar in all cultures, I don’t think my one year of teaching in France is enough to determine whether I would also enjoy teaching in the U.S., and I would guess the same is probably true of most teaching abroad programs. Still, it’s useful experience. I feel more comfortable in front of a classroom now, but I need to try my hand in a classroom in the U.S. before I decide to become a teacher.
3. Improving your level in a foreign language doesn’t happen in leaps and bounds. It happens very slowly, and in a moment you can forget everything you’ve learned. I studied French all throughout high school. During college, I even studied abroad for a semester in France, so I was pretty confident of my ability to speak when I arrived for my gap year here. Living in France, I get to practice the language nearly every day, and to use it in a daily context. Still, sometimes a colleague will ask me a question in French, and my mind will go blank. I will stutter, unable to come up with a response. These little embarrassing moments happen, no matter how long you’ve been studying a language, but overall the more you practice, the more you will notice slow, but steady improvement in your fluency.
4. Traveling and living abroad has taught me to value personal interactions, even fleeting ones, more than material possessions. Being able to fit all of your possessions into a couple of suitcases is a useful skill. You figure out what your absolute base level of comfort is, and you might discover that you need fewer things than you thought. And since you don’t have room in your bags for lots of material souvenirs, you instead focus on having the best possible experience and connecting to people you meet. Airlines don’t charge extra for bringing home good memories.
5. Lastly, I have learned to enjoy life again. After four years in a high-achieving, high-stress environment in college, having a job that allows me vacation and free time is an incredible gift. I was reminded that it’s not necessary to always to work to the point of exhaustion in order to have a fulfilling life. While living abroad, I’ve had time to make new friends, explore several different countries, visit museums, and write and read for my own pleasure. My time off here has been just as valuable and rewarding as my time on the job.
A gap year is not for everyone, and if you choose to take one, it won’t solve all of your problems or nagging questions. But if you let it, it may answer questions you never thought to ask.