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gap years are good

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Some things are very culture specific.

I’ve never met an educated Brit who hadn’t been abroad. Never.

More than half of all Americans don’t own a passport.

I view overseas travel as an important part of life. Really, when it comes down to it, I don’t think there’s a very good substitute and that someone who hasn’t travelled at all has lived a sheltered or narrow life (so far).

I didn’t do one myself, but I now see a gap year as a really, really brilliant idea. There are essentially two main variations. In the first you work at a slightly tedious low-paid job for several months to save money which pays for an extended (say 3 month) trip around the world. In the second, you work for slightly less time at the tedious job and supplement your savings with working abroad. Typically this trip involved more than 6 months travel.

Even 10 years ago, when I could have taken one, they were already ubiquitous enough that there was a gap year circuit for Brits. Fly from London to Bangkok, go overland to Singapore, then fly to either Melbourne or Sydney, overland to Cairns. At this point take an optional aside to New Zealand. Finish up by flying to Los Angeles, travelling overland to New York, and then fly back to London. Working abroad would take place in either Australia or New Zealand, and the main alternative would be travelling across India rather than South East Asia.

If the concept is entrenched in the UK and I think Ireland, it is positively compulsory amongst Antipodeans. Based on my own encounters, for Aussies and Kiwis the overseas experience often seems to include a stint working in London, extensive travel around Europe and North America, plus I think South East Asia and/or India. I’m not sure whether the circuit is as well-defined as it is for Brits - most of the Australians and New Zealanders I’ve met seem to be pretty well travelled and get to a wide variety of places.

On the other hand, whilst I’ve met a few Canadians who are on the road for a long period, Americans seem to shun the gap year concept. The same arguments that I remember from reading the paper in the UK 15 years ago about the damage gap years could do to your career prospects seem to be still in vogue amongst US writers.

Apparently, although almost everyone who takes a gap year between school and university in the UK returns to complete their degree, in the US students are much more likely not to bother. And this would be a terrible thing? Quite frankly, if you’re going to be aimless, far better to do it whilst earning money than spending it on expensive tuition.

Although, in other countries the experience of travelling abroad for an extended period of time teaches young adults valuable life skills and broaden their horizons, the only thing it would do to Americans is destroy their ability to concentrate in classes. The people that I started university with who had been on gap years didn’t feel like a year older than me, they seemed more like 5 years older - and much more ready to start studying again after their time off than those of us who hadn’t been off the education treadmill.

If I had the opportunity, I would encourage everyone under the age of 25 to take a year out, make plans, and travel for an extended period. Working abroad for a few months is even better. I feel like living proof that once you start a career, you’re much less inclined to give it all up for a while to travel (but you still should if you feel you have the opportunity).

Although two or three week vacations are really good - they are how I intend to finish off seeing the world - extended 2+ month trips are a completely different beast and can really test and develop you in a way that few other experiences do.

If you know anyone in high school or college, suggest they take a gap year.

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28 comments for “gap years are good”

  1. Yes you’re right, in the U.S. hardly anyone takes time off between highschool and college to travel. I wish I had. A small percent travel Europe the summer after college graduation but these are generally the spoiled kids who don’t have to get a job right after college. It’s the same with vacations too. Europeans take long vacations whereas Americans hardly ever take an annual vacation of more than 4-5 days. Sigh. It’s our puritan work ethic I guess.

    Posted by Sallie's Niece | November 3, 2008, 5:16 pm
  2. As a result of taking a “gap year” you can ….. say that you took a “gap year” so you don’t have to do it later. Kind of like a bucket list? I have friends with kids who took “gap years.” They remain clueless about what to do next. Also, many young adults took 4-5 “gap years” by partying their way through college, living on student loans.

    Posted by Mr. ToughMoneyLove | November 3, 2008, 6:09 pm
  3. What do you mean by “educated”?

    Posted by Jeremy | November 3, 2008, 7:02 pm
  4. The problem with taking time off is that you are making the same wage out of university.

    I worked in my first job at age 20 with a 30 year old (first post-uni job for him as well) who had taken several years off to travel & work in Europe.

    But I didn’t have a spouse and 3 kids to feed on a “just out of university” salary.

    BTW, in the past a U.S. citizen didn’t need a passport to travel to the closest countries - Canada/Carribean/Mexico/Central America.

    Only recent post-9/11 concerns now mandate a passport to return to the U.S. by air (or by land & sea after 1/1/2009)

    Posted by Bill in NC | November 3, 2008, 7:22 pm
  5. I absolutely agree. Gap years are great. Sabbaticals are great too. And so is travel.

    Posted by Curious Cat Investing Blog | November 4, 2008, 12:20 am
  6. I have never heard them called this before, but totally agree and think travel (especially at a young age) is vital.

    Posted by bluntmoney | November 4, 2008, 2:53 am
  7. My wife and I have taken two 6 month breaks to travel the world. Best months of my life. There is no doubt in my mind that I would be a completely different person today without those two breaks.

    Travel has a way of opening your mind to other points of view. You tend to be slightly more open to the possibility that you… may be.. wrong…

    Posted by Shadox | November 4, 2008, 4:16 am
  8. I totally agree with the benefits of extended travel. Interestingly the people I know who got the most out of their gap years went after their degree.
    Two years ago my Aunt took a year’s sabbatical and travelled (not back-packed!) in the States for a few months before moving to a small village in Spain to improve her language skills, she was so excited to finally get her gap year at age 55 and has convinced her employer to offer them to more people.

    Posted by Looby | November 4, 2008, 7:34 am
  9. @Jeremy:
    I mean someone who has studied/trained beyond compulsory school age. I think most people in the UK who are not *educated* have also been abroad, but I’ve met some that haven’t.

    Yes, it’s a bit mean of me to cite the US passport statistic although I still think it’s indicative of the relative weight that American society places on foreign travel.
    Taking a single year out to travel is probably worth the lost salary cost. Taking 5 years is not so much of a gap, as making a career change, with its own inherent risks and disbenefits.

    I hear you about maybe being wrong. I spent several months in the US and it seriously changed my opinion on Americans. I still wouldn’t like to live there permanently, but there are many more things I appreciate. I spent a couple of months travelling round the world, and it’s really made me aware of how odd British and English culture is.

    You’re probably right on the timing. And definitely taking a gap year is good at any age, it’s simply that life seems to get more complicated as we get older.

    Posted by plonkee | November 4, 2008, 9:47 am
  10. To be fair, it’s a quite a journey from the middle of the US to another country. We are rather large geographically. Then there’s cost - American students jump through hoops to get college costs covered, so taking a year off to travel means more loans later. One way we try to get around it is to study abroad during college.
    I used to be all gung-ho about travel and taking a year off, etc, until someone asked me to name a tangible unique benefit. As yet, I can’t, and neither has anyone else. It can also be expensive, and like anything else expensive, isn’t necessarily the best idea to do without a plan.

    We have a huge class/SES gap in the US. I’m sure if you looked at *educated* Americans, you’d see travel rates comparable to Europe.

    Posted by deepali | November 4, 2008, 7:46 pm
  11. I am educated (Master’s degree), but do not have a passport and have never been outside of North America. I did take a year off after high school and before university, but I spent it doing voluntary service (it was a 11 month church-sponsored program where I lived in another province with 4 other young volunteers).

    I don’t think I am narrow or sheltered (you may disagree of course). I live in a large multicultural city. I speak two languages on a daily basis. I read voraciously. I am interested in other cultures, whether the many immigrants I encounter locally or whether those I encounter through books (for example, two recent books I read were “Mystics, mavericks and merrymakers: an intimate journey among Hasidic girls” and “Talking hands : what sign language reveals about the mind”). Wandering around the world with a backpack has just never been among my priorities. If I were to go overseas other than a little two week trip to see the tourist sights, I would want to stay in one place for an extended period of time and really get to know that place rather than flitting around like a butterfly. For example, I would be interested in a one year job exchange. I would also be interested in humanitarian type work.

    Posted by Canadian | November 5, 2008, 8:18 pm
  12. While I’ve traveled all over the globe, lived in Europe twice (once for school, once for work) and consider myself fairly well-traveled, I’m not sure I’d agree that “not traveling” is such a terrible thing. Much like Canadian said, my dad’s never been out of the country, but is conversant in philosophy, history, politics, etc. and has a keen interest in the rest of the world. I personally think he ought to at least give Canada or Mexico a shot, but hey, that’s just my opinion.

    I would also offer that if you’re an American living in or around New York you practically live “in the world.” Any given day I can hear 50 languages spoken, go to ethnic neighborhoods and interact with people from every continent without much of an effort. It’s a different experience than, say, Indianapolis (not to bash Indianapolis, it’s just less diverse than NYC).

    I do think once you’ve traveled it’s hard to imagine NOT traveling.

    Posted by Steve | November 5, 2008, 9:34 pm
  13. @Canadian:
    I don’t necessarily think that you are sheltered overall, but I do think that *going abroad* adds something that you can’t get even from interacting extensively with immigrants. The very experience of moving somewhere else gives them a different perspective to the people *left behind*.

    I agree that short-term travel is a poor substitute for spending an extended period of time in another culture, but there are only so many years in my lifespan.

    New York is quite a diverse place, as is London. But New York is still fundamentally American, and London is still fundamentally British, and for all their similarities, they are quite different from each other. Which is kind of my point. If, for example, I hadn’t spent time in the States and seen the flags everywhere in people’s gardens I wouldn’t have really *got* the level of patriotism that pervades American society.

    Posted by plonkee | November 6, 2008, 12:58 pm
  14. Great post! Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by Roger Hamilton | November 6, 2008, 1:04 pm
  15. Well, to a certain extent, I am sort of an immigrant in my own country, having chosen to relocate in a province where people of my mother tongue are in the minority, where the dominant culture is not mine. It’s been a very broadening experience. I have been here for over 10 years now, and I think this experience has changed me profoundly. My relatives who have always lived in Western Canada just do not “get it”, even though many of them have been outside of North America, they are just less open-minded than I am (and I am not saying that just because of what I think of their political and religious views). Why would a 2 week honeymoon visit to Europe, or a guided tour of the Holy Land with some instructor from a Bible college, or a one week “missions trip” to Guatemala with the church youth group make them open-minded? It just confirmed what they already thought. The most open-minded of my relatives are the couple who spent 10 years in the Arctic, yes in Canada, but in a completely different cultural context where they spent long enough time to be challenged by it.

    Posted by Canadian | November 6, 2008, 3:05 pm
  16. @Canadian:
    You make the excellent point that not all travel is created equal. If you aren’t really broadening your mind then apart from the better weather, you may as well stay at home.

    I can see how moving to a different language community can be quite similar to living abroad. And certainly it should be a life changing experience.

    Posted by plonkee | November 6, 2008, 4:15 pm
  17. As an American stuck in the endless cycle of work and school, I would love to take a year off and enjoy myself, however I think it is just the culture to take short trips and get brief experiences. Also many universities in the US offer study abroad programs for semester long experiences (usually 4 months and something I did in London).

    I was told about how Aussies take a year off from school to travel, which I think is great. I just don’t see how I can do it, though. It is kind of like life seems to put you on hold between work, school and responsibilities (Girlfriends too).

    Don’t get me wrong, however. I love to travel. I’ve been to most of western Europe and China as well as South America. I don’t want to discourage anyone from doing it I just think it is a cultural thing. I agree with Steve, It is hard to imagine not traveling.

    I’m wondering if I can do this. Save up money and just go! I’m intrigued…

    Posted by Jonathan | November 6, 2008, 7:45 pm
  18. As a Kiwi currently living in the UK, who recently left the warm Californian shores (and is now freeeeezing!), I agree with Plonkee that Kiwis (and Aussies) like to travel. It’s because we’re stuck at the bottom of the world - getting anywhere else is a huge and expensive effort, so we might as well see as much as we can while we’re there!

    (The New Zealand circuit is probably to live in the UK, then do Europe, a bit of the US, then SE Asia. It tends to happen in the 2 years post-uni and is called the OE, or Overseas Experience. It’s almost expected that if you’re young and university educated, you’ll do this trip. Many companies will even give you your job back when you get home!)

    I agree with Plonkee that going abroad gives you far more than you experience staying at home, not least in coping-in-weird-situations skills. :)

    Posted by Tina | November 7, 2008, 11:12 pm
  19. I love to travel but have no money to travell.. Whatever. :D

    Posted by Air Jordans | November 8, 2008, 12:47 am
  20. If strange new places is your thing another way is simply to pick a career that involves some international exposure. I held off travel until grad school after which I essentially got all my travel paid (including per diems :-) )

    Posted by Early Retirement Extreme | November 8, 2008, 3:58 am
  21. I disagree entirely that living in a multicultural city is anything approaching the experience of extended travel (and my current and last homes are probably the two most diverse cities in Nth America), no matter how many Afghan and Ethiopian restaurants you frequent.

    Posted by guinness416 | November 9, 2008, 3:41 am
  22. Although if you think it is, come round to my house this evening, where currently an Irish immigrant and her Bangladeshi husband are sharing a couple of dozen Czech beers with a Pakistani, Pole and Aboriginal Canadian in the most multicultural city in Canada. While listening to Kila. :)

    Posted by guinness416 | November 9, 2008, 3:45 am
  23. I’ll start by saying I love to travel. My first international flight was at 9 months, and during my 4 years of undergrad I visited more than 20 countries.

    I think one big reason American’s don’t do the gap year thing is because it’s not a part of our culture. Financially it’s harder than just saving money and going to school a year later. Unless you’re a stellar candidate taking a year off to travel could hurt your chances of getting into school and potential scholarships. Aside from getting into and paying for school there is the insurance issue. If you’re a student you can generally stay on your parent’s insurance. No school=no health insurance. You could also travel after undergrad, but student loans (federal and many private) start 6 months after graduation and are based on the amount you owe, not the amount you earn.

    Most American’s also don’t have the option of working (at least legally without a lot of red tape) as they make their way around the world. Coming out of undergrad I wanted to travel for a 6 months in Australia, but getting papers to work as an American without paying someone gobs of money was near impossible. My Canadian friends don’t face the same issue.

    Finally, I’d say 1/3-1/2 of the people I know who went to college have been abroad. The majority of the rest want to go abroad, but don’t have the time or cash.

    Posted by sara l | November 10, 2008, 3:45 am
  24. I think being a Commonwealth citizen helps if you want to work abroad. On the other hand, I know that just graduated students can get a short term visa to work in the UK (I think it lasts 6 months), if you’re interested, try BUNAC for information.

    Posted by plonkee | November 10, 2008, 9:24 am
  25. I agree! They should start issuing the school backpacks and sending students out abroad to experience life rather than reading about it.

    Posted by Dave | July 2, 2009, 4:09 am
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  27. • This conversation is going no where. It’s lacking the place of a good leader to head the things to come out on conclusion.

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