The Benefits of a Gap Year – 5 Years Later

It’s hard to believe that it’s been over five years since I embarked on the journey of a lifetime – my gap year. This experience sparked my wanderlust and helped me establish the confidence to travel solo.  After high school, I spent a year interning and studying near Nuremberg, Germany via a full scholarship through the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program.

When I was accepted into the program, I had no idea what I was hoping to gain from my CBYX experience.  The reasons to take a gap year are endless, but I knew I wanted to improve my German, travel within Europe, and land a cool internship. I was able to accomplish all of these things, along with several other unexpected feats, before returning home and transitioning to college.

On social media, it looked like my gap year consisted exclusively of trips to Paris, Prague, and Amsterdam. Like most, I selectively curated my social media accounts, only posting pictures and sentiments from that year’s highlights. If you take a look at my Facebook page circa 2011, you’ll mostly see pictures of me smiling at our farewell reception in the Reichstag, or sipping a beer at Oktoberfest.

There’s no doubt that the year was full of happy, fun memories. I frequently refer to my gap year as being one of the most challenging but most-rewarding experience of my life.  After all, change starts once you leave your comfort zone. Still, I’ve always been reluctant to share the lows I encountered that year.

Nuremberg Germany CBYX Gap Year

When I tell others about my exchange experience, I depict a glossed-up version of events. I tend to eschew the fact that I lived in a tiny town in Bavaria where I had to commute nearly two hours everyday for an unpaid internship and had to leave my awesome host family for a family I didn’t mesh well with at all.  I also usually fail to mention how awkward my American accent made me feel on a daily basis or the many cultural faux-pas I made that year.

My year in Germany provided with me all the amazing benefits reaped when immersing yourself in another culture – including heightened cultural awareness, learning a new language, and a new world perspective. These are obviously all wonderful rewards, and I am so grateful to have experienced their lasting effects. As formative as my first internship experiences were and as rewarding as it was to improve my German, I wouldn’t say these aspects were the most conducive to personal growth that year.

When reflecting candidly on my time in Germany, I can ascertain that one of the most valuable aspects of my gap year – one that I use almost every day – is the fact that it forced me to learn how to roll with punches, and how to react proactively when things don’t go as expected. I don’t want to delve too much into my personal pitfalls that year, but everyone who has taken a gap year or studied abroad knows that it can be a tumultuous experience at times.

Nuremberg Germany CBYX Gap Year

Like most 18 year-olds, I didn’t fully realize how little control I had over my life, nor did I know how to cope with this fact. I thought if I made a blueprint and worked hard, things would go my way. Now that I’ve graduated college and have experienced the “real world”, this idea seems laughable now. My romantic notions of a gap year in Germany were widely left unfulfilled, but the year managed to check boxes I didn’t know existed. I discovered a newfound sense of independence – one that I now can’t imagine life without.

Nuremberg Germany CBYX Gap Year

After leaving home for an unfamiliar city in Germany, the idea of going off to college was no longer intimidating. Unlike many of my classmates freshman year, I didn’t struggle with being away from home or adjusting to life without my parents. In fact, a lot of things that used to stress me out don’t make me nervous anymore. After surviving a year away from home in a strange country at a relatively young age, life in general somehow always felt slightly less daunting. 

I used to let self-doubt or any inkling of uncertainty influence my decisions, even to the point where I considered turning down a generous scholarship from a university in Washington, DC in favor of a smaller school closer to home. Had I not done a gap year, I’m not sure if I would have been able to muster up the courage to travel alone to Istanbul for my first solo trip.

It’s a relief to be able to go through life feeling better equipped to deal with the unfamiliar. I don’t want lingering regrets later in life knowing that I turned down opportunities because I was afraid or listened to resounding what ifs.

Nuremberg Germany CBYX Gap Year

The possibility of failure can be discouraging, sometimes even crippling. However, after having so many plans and goals altered over the last few years, I realize that John Lennon’s overly-quoted lyrics are spot on: Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

My gap year helped me uncover my passions – including traveling, language, and German History. It also impacted my choice of major, my career choices, and connections I made later on as a young-professional. My year in Germany helped me realize that there is so much to be gained from embracing the unknown. I’m so thankful my gap year gave me the courage to do so.

 If you took a gap year, how does your experience still impact you and what were you hoping to gain? I always love hearing about others’ experiences. The possibilities for an amazing year out are endless and I’m interested in knowing how others spent theirs!

If you’re interested in the full-scholarship I received for my gap year, click here to learn more about Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange. If you’re not sure you can afford a gap year, check out my list of free or low-cost gap year suggestions!

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  • Reply
    August 6, 2015 at 7:11 am

    I love your honesty! It can be hard to admit the downs with the ups. Even going out of state for college was a straight culture shock for me- worse than any country I’ve visited. Can’t even imagine what Germany would be like.


  • Reply
    Hannah @ Traveling Banana
    August 6, 2015 at 11:18 am

    Wow, such beautiful pics and a great look back! I feel similar about my first year abroad in Spain – it taught me so much and also STARTED so much! I think a year in another country around that age is such a great idea for everyone – it opens up your mind and world. 🙂

  • Reply
    August 6, 2015 at 4:21 pm

    Thanks, Hannah! Spain sounds amazing and I’m so glad you can relate to my post! I totally agree that it’s such a good idea from everyone to take a gap year, and I’m so excited to see that they’re becoming more common in the US. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Reply
    August 6, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    Thanks, Lauren! Now I’m curious to know which state you went to college in?

  • Reply
    August 7, 2015 at 9:25 am

    I also did the CBYX Vocational Program this past year and ended up in Berlin. Everything you say in your post really hits home, especially being back home in the USA.

    What really compelled me to take a gap year was the ability to learn more about the German culture and become fluent in the language. The internship was just sort of an added bonus, and mine actually was a great internship that really will prepare me for what I want to do in the future.

    Of course my gap year still impacts me because I just got back two months ago, but even now I can see how dramatically it will impact my future. I very much feel confident travelling alone and have learned a lot about being able to just survive in society i.e. learning about finances. I was very much planning on attending a school in America when I got back but being over in Berlin gave me a chance to apply for a great program with the German government, which I’ll be doing in Berlin this year and then hopefully studying in Germany afterwards. Had I not taken my gap year, I would have probably been in a school in America (that I actually really like) studying something that I didn’t want to (I was going to be a music major, but now I want to do something in engineering).

    I loved your article and as an exchange student I find it extremely relateable and also very true in many aspects.

  • Reply
    August 12, 2015 at 4:24 am

    Hi Jontyler! I’m so glad you enjoyed my post, and that it resonated with you. Congratulations on completing the CBYX program, and your decision to continue on in Berlin. Best of luck and thanks for reading 🙂

  • Reply
    August 19, 2015 at 9:32 pm

    I absolutely agree with you! I left high school a year early for a gap year and spent 3 months of that backpacking and volunteering in South America. I always focus on the good things, but flying to Ecuador on a one way ticket at 18 was HARD. But I learned so much and it definitely helped me have the confidence to move abroad permanently after uni.

    • Reply
      August 20, 2015 at 11:10 pm

      I’m glad you’re gap year proved helpful in the long run, moving abroad is hard! I was intimidated moving to Germany, so I can only imagine how much more difficult it was to adjust to life in Ecuador. Thanks for stopping by, Adeline!

  • Reply
    Phyllis Goode
    April 6, 2017 at 5:24 pm

    Hey I’m Phyllis-I found your blog from Pinterest.

    I also took a gap year. I did a working holiday in Australia, volunteered in China, and surprisingly (at the time) ended up going to Indonesia and Fiji. It definitely changed my life. Like you, I can’t imagine college without this time off first. Great post!


    • Reply
      April 9, 2017 at 11:37 pm

      Hi Phyllis! Thanks for stopping by my blog, I’m happy you came across my pin! That sounds like an amazing experience! I’m glad you can relate, I’ve never met anyone who regrets taking a gap year 🙂

  • Reply
    April 13, 2017 at 8:04 pm

    This post is a bit old, but it still found its way onto my gap year planning board. I’m currently a senior in high school and I’m planning a shortish soloish England/France trip and THIS was actually really encouraging. I want to travel and push myself out of my comfort zone and seeing someone who did just that is awesome. It’s comforting to know that even if it’s difficult at times and scary, I will come out with a more decisive and independent nature…. hopefully. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Reply
      April 14, 2017 at 4:05 pm

      Hi Noelle! Thanks for stopping by, I’m glad you found this post helpful! I’m working on shifting the focus of my blog to gap years, so you might want to subscribe to get more stories about other women taking gap years! It’s always scary to set off into the unknown, but you will come out stronger on the other side. Good luck on your gap year, I’m sure you will have a wonderful time!

  • Reply
    Ava Meena
    April 19, 2017 at 7:52 am

    I absolutely understand and agree with you. I spent a year in Germany when my husbands company sent him for training (we lived not far from Nuremberg, in Schweinfurt) and it definitely made me feel better equipped to handle problems in my life. Few things are intimidating after living in Germany – even more so since you did it solo and at such a young age! Thanks for sharing these honest thoughts. 🙂

    • Reply
      April 19, 2017 at 10:17 am

      Thanks Ava! It was hard but worth it! Glad to hear you had a similar experience!

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