By Contributing Writer Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, faculty member and Diversity & Inclusion Manager at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) ; photograph courtesy Deborah Sussex/NOLS
So far my blog posts have kept to more practical advice for outdoor enthusiasts, but I figured every once in a while I would be entitled to a soapbox. See, I have a bone or few to pick with “The Gap Year.” By this, I mean what we’ve chosen to call the time students spend traveling, volunteering, adventuring, and playing between their primary schooling and higher education.
To me, “gap” evokes images of nothingness, emptiness, space in between substance. But a Gap Year is anything but empty! My Gap Years have been the most fulfilling experiences in my life. It’s a plain misnomer. Folks in the U.K. have got it right: They call this experience “The Sandwich Year.” And for good reason, too. Think of all the meaty goodness that can fill this time in between conventional academic pursuits! Your wallet may not be bottomless, but finances aside, you can do anything: Work for a nonprofit aid organization in Africa; teach English in Southeast Asia; go to Antarctica to research glaciers; pick fruit through Europe; be a nanny . . . in the Riviera; or go on a semester or yearlong backcountry expedition with NOLS almost anywhere in the world. Maybe by the time my four-year-old is in college, he can go to Mars! No “gappiness.” More like an all-you-can-eat sandwich buffet.
And here’s another problem I have with the Gap Year. Does it have to be between high school and college? What about that year you decide to study the Mount Kilimanjaro glaciers to complement your grad school thesis in climatology? What about that yearlong hiatus from your stressful career as a lawyer in your 30s when you’re just plain done with the rat race? How about the year spent with your family living out of your van, climbing and camping across the U.S.? What about the year spent in your 50s going to canoe school to learn how to build boats? What about the year of training for triathlons in your 60s so you can win first place in your age category in every race? I would argue, nay, I contend—that anyone can take a Gap Year (or two or three) any time in their lives.
Another bone to pick with the Gap Year. It might be a “gap” from scholastic pursuits, but by no means is it a “gap” from learning. With adventure comes an education you cannot receive within the four walls of a traditional classroom. Traveling alone in northern India, you learn how to catch a train without getting squeezed out by the masses, how to ask for directions in Hindi, what not to eat on the streets, and how to use the (infamous) Indian toilets. Backpacking with all your belongings on your back, you learn about simplicity, self-reliance, and responsibility. Kicking steps along a glacier in the Wind Rivers as part of a rope team, you feel empowered, like you can take on any terrain in the world. A broken down bus in the middle of rural South America can make you resourceful and teach patience. Helping rural women in Bangladesh build sustainable local enterprises teaches you creativity—thinking out of the box. And when your plans to ski the peaks of Kyrgyzstan get stymied by political instability, you learn to deal with uncertainty, go with the flow, and roll with the punches.
My last issue with the Gap Year is the whole perspective on life that this term connotes. Imagine this: a photo of life as a series of “important” touchstone events: school, college, your first job, your wedding, the birth of your kids, your retirement, and the various “gaps” in between filled with travel, adventure, and epic pursuits. The Gap Year-ists live their lives with this photo on their refrigerators. I want you to take that photo and throw it in the garbage. Now, take the negative of that photo (yes, it’s not a digital camera) and stick it on your fridge. In that negative, your life is one big adventure, and the gaps are filled with more mundane pursuits like high school, college, etcetera. In this negative, “Gap Year” has no meaning.
Life is just a big multi-deckered sandwich. Enjoy the buffet. Click here for more on spending your “Gap Year” with NOLS. Maybe it’ll turn into your life!