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.
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.
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.
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.
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!