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A Student's Study Abroad Experience

Studying abroad between high school and college was one of the most influential experiences of my life. I graduated high school at 16, and felt a little burned out after years of AP classes, late-night swim practices, orchestra rehearsals, and afternoons filled with meetings. I was eager to go to college, but also nervous about doing so with an age difference between me and my peers. A gap year was the perfect solution for me.

While I applied to colleges, I also applied to the Rotary International Youth Exchange Program. I was accepted into the program and deferred my admission to The University of Chicago (they thought a gap year was a great idea). I set off on a year-long exchange program in Bressuire, France, a town of about 20,000 people located near the Loire Valley. I knew being an exchange student would be challenging, but I did not realize at the time how much I would learn about myself during that year between high school and college.

Looking back on the experience, my gap year taught me to be self-sufficient and exposed me to a different way of thinking. There was a wonderful safety net of families and Rotarians who welcomed me into their homes, but we were still strangers when we first met with a bit of a language barrier. Throughout the year, I not only learned a new language, but I also learned a new culture, a new way of life, and that I could survive and thrive 3,000 miles away from my family. I learned to advocate for myself to school administrators, to navigate inter-personal conflict, and to take a more active role in managing my money. In many ways, I feel like I grew up more in that one year than I had in the previous three years.

My gap year made me more confident about going to college and helped me academically and socially during college. Since I had already experienced living on my own, I was not as nervous to move into the dorms or take on challenging college classes. I was able to advance more quickly through my language requirement and skipped the first year of college French, though I had not had any high school classes. This freed up my schedule to explore other classes and fields that I might not have otherwise had a chance to experience. My gap year also provided excellent fodder for internship interviews and class discussions in my International Studies major.

The lessons I began to learn in my gap year have had a lasting impact on my life. Since taking a gap year, I have not shied away from accepting jobs in cities that carried me across the country. Being an exchange student taught me that I can make friends and build a network wherever I go, it just takes a little effort. It also taught me to recognize that people come from a variety of backgrounds and to set aside my own views on why a person may act one way in favor of open dialogue. I believe my gap year made me a more empathetic and self-aware person, two skills that have been useful in the workplace.