A gap year allows you to slow down, check up on yourself and ask what it is that really matters to you.
I began my gap year by making a map of myself. I was sitting outside a noodle house in the small village of Shaxi in Yunnan Province. It was late September, and I had finally realized that I was taking a gap year not just to practice my Chinese but also because I felt profoundly lost.
This was reflected in the archipelago I drew to represent my mind: a Land of Curiosity, an Isle of Ambivalence and a Whirlpool of Self-Doubt. I wanted to find the Spire of Clarity, located at the center of the map, ensconced in clouds. Beneath it I had annotated, “Does it exist?”
A gap year often becomes a stress test of the self. Leaving home means leaving your comfort zone. For me, the year I spent in Princeton University’s Bridge Year Program in China meant finding out whether I lived up to my own values and whether those were values I wanted to have.
Struggling through conversations in Mandarin with my host family taught me patience. Tolerance and listening were encouraged by long debates over mahjong about why Americans can carry guns. Staring down pickpockets on the bus meant that, for the first time, I developed incredible eye contact. None of this was easy. I had the vocabulary of a 5-year-old, no sense of Chinese social decorum, and my resume meant less than a hill of beans to the people with whom I lived and worked. I came to China thinking that my vocabulary and my ability to socialize well and achievements were what I was. But I left realizing that they have almost nothing to do with who I am.
Knowing a little more about yourself before you get to college makes the experience much easier. You are more enthusiastic about school, having spent a year away. You have a renewed sense of what subjects actually matter to your own intellectual growth. You don’t mind speaking up in class and sharing your story because there is so much on your mind. You have an easier time finding friends because you have a better sense of your own values. More practically, social engagements like Greek life or dinner discussions with trustees or auditions for that improv group become much less frightening when you have gone through the experience of living abroad on your own.
Of course, taking a gap year doesn’t give you a monopoly on wisdom. You will still make mistakes and still get disappointing grades and still occasionally lock yourself out of your dorm. But considering how fast life goes by at college, you will be glad you have had a year to reflect. Soon you will be a senior applying for jobs or grad school or fellowships. Then you will be somewhere else continuing your studies or working eight to 14 hours a day, and then you will maybe meet a person you like, and then you might have kids, and then, if you have not answered these basic questions, you will have what our society calls a mid-life crisis. Build in time for reflection now, and it may change the direction of your entire life.
A gap year allows you to slow down, check up on yourself and ask what it is that really matters to you. You will not always find answers.
I began my year by making a map of myself. None of that mental geography has changed. What has changed is my ability to navigate that terrain. I do not know what my future holds. Often I am not sure what I want. But I know that when situations are tough, I can survive, take charge and remain true to my values. Time coupled with discomfort gives perspective and, ultimately, clarity. Turns out, the Spire of Clarity does exist.