When I graduated from high school and embarked on what would become two gap years, I started to call myself “the drifting spinster.” Spinster, because I was single and single people take to exaggeration and self-pity; and drifting—because that’s exactly how it feels when you’re out of high school.
In most parts of the world, the fad has yet to really catch on. According to UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service), only five percent of UK-based students took a deferred year in 2015. Numbers in the U.S. vary, but according to PBS, deferred students account for only one percent of American college freshmen. In China, gap years are virtually non-existent since the education system does not give extra points for any creativity outside the classroom.
In Scandinavia (where I attended high school), it is totally different. According to a study by the Nordic Institute for Studies, 50 percent of Scandinavian students take gap years. The median age for college graduates is 29. All of my Swedish friends took gap years.
When I asked my friends about their gap year experiences, they were bubbling with stories of hand injuries, skinny-dipping and spiritual enlightenment. My classmate, Helena Flockhart, spent her gap year working, then backpacking, around China and Australia. Her favorite moment of this year was a spontaneous ride on a small plane that took off on the sandy beach of Frazer Island. “I feel like it was really symbolic of the gap year experience,” she explained. “I just decided, screw it, I’ll just splash out and get on this teeny tiny plane that may crash into the ocean that’s infested with sharks.”
I decided to travel to Beijing during my (first) gap year. I had lived in China before, but I wanted to choose a new city that I could claim as my own. When I arrived in Beijing, I had friends of a friend waiting to meet me. From the very first day, I was given a crash-course on how to live alone—and since I was living with my Chinese friends, I had to do it the local way. The very first thing I went to buy were slippers to wear around the house. I learned where to buy the cheapest groceries (¥ 2.5 for six carrots) and my friend from Inner Mongolia taught me how to cook. Later, when cooking a dish she had taught me, a roommate peered over and said, “Woah, you can make Manchurian food?” This was my new life.
A gap year allows you to take a break and re-evaluate your life choices—since choosing your course of study obviously has great impact on how your life will unfold. “Honestly, most of my friends I know that went straight into university dropped out,” says Flockhart.
Her observation isn’t far from the truth. According to ACT Inc., one third of college freshmen in the U.S. don’t end up returning to the same institution for a second year.
Give yourself a break between your studies, and you’ll likely start university with a newfound vigor. In Joe O’Shea’s aptly named book Gap Year, he found that in the U.S. and UK, students who had taken a gap year were more likely to graduate with higher grades than individuals who went straight to college. In one study, Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson interviewed 280 college students and found that students who took gap years reported overwhelming satisfaction with their jobs after university.
In the study I mentioned earlier, by Haigler and Nelson, “finding more about yourself” was the top reason students in the U.S. took gap years. But what does that even mean?
In Hanna Glover’s gap year, she went to a bible college in Toronto. Towards the end of the year, she interned at a publishing company and a book store. She even printed her own book of poetry. “Publishing my book was incredible!” she says.
After a gap year, lots of students decide to go in a totally different direction. Glover thought she wanted to go into business after high school, but today, she is considering creative writing and the publishing industry.
Of course, for some, a gap year can be synonymous with a year-long Netflix binge. “Don’t do nothing,” Glover stresses. “Nothing is going to happen if you don’t make it happen. So make sure you get out there.”
Taking a gap year forces you to learn how to cope with no structure, and understand what success outside of a classroom might look like, in scenarios where there are no teachers to praise and encourage you. Everyone will have to deal with this feeling of aimlessness and lack of direction. It is just that students who go straight to university prolong that feeling until graduation.
“University will still be there,” Glover points out, “It’s not going anywhere.” So if the thought of no school terrifies you, apply for a deferral so that university will be waiting for you.
The ordinary world
I struggled to find a job. In my first week in Beijing, I went to about six job interviews for English teaching. None of them provided visas, so I tried different jobs. Eventually, I landed an internship with an expat magazine, and was suddenly whisked off to fancy restaurants and hidden-away bars. Even so, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being incredibly lonely. There were days where I would wake up and be shaken by an intense loneliness. In my dreams, I was surrounded by people, but here in this tiny bed in Beijing, I was alone.
I eventually made friends through my internship. And in this year, I have interviewed young Chinese celebrities at a Michael Kors art exhibition, danced in the rain on the rooftops of Sanlitun, traveled by train to Suzhou for 14 hours with a standing ticket on Chinese New Year, comforted a friend on the first day of snowfall when her father died.
On my last day in my apartment in Beijing, I wasn’t alone anymore. In that tiny bed, I was enveloped by a city full of people who loved and cared for me.
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