It isn’t difficult to argue that the stereotypical ‘gap yah’, of private school teens gallivanting on parent funded, year-long trips around South East Asia, is dead. More and more students are choosing gap years as a viable option between school and university. Whether using the time to earn money, travel or build your CV, taking a year away from academia is now an option valued by universities and future employers alike.
From personal experience of my own, gap year, I have discovered the innumerable benefits to taking time from academia to mature to broaden my view of what I hope to achieve after university. Holding down a steady job, developing my career, planning and self-funding my own travel, in short living like an adult, has been hugely rewarding. However, I have also found, both through my own experience and watching friends who have also undertaken a year off, that learning to live like an adult also means learning to live with the isolation that can come with not following a strict academic path.
Take Freshers week as a prime example. For new university students, this means a jam-packed seven days of riotous pre-drinks, UV parties and numerous hungover mornings. But they are also learning how to live independently, making new friends and starting new academic disciplines. Despite my happiness for their success, I found it impossible to watch my friends begin this journey of new-found independence and not feel left behind. I could pursue a number of exciting opportunities from internships to travel, but as the age-old adage says, comparison is the thief of joy. It is difficult to feel you are really making a worthwhile use of your year when your friends are developing the necessary skills that come from not living with their parents, even if that is only learning how to perfect the staple pesto pasta.
It’s not just how fast you feel you’re managing to move in life in comparison to your uni friends, the social side of gap years can also lead to isolation. As a self-proclaimed extrovert, not having a large group of friends around me every day was a shock, even if it shouldn’t have realistically been that much of a surprise to me. Having only three friends who were also taking gap years, and trying to maintain these friendships alongside hectic full time working schedules, was much more difficult than I had anticipated. Our school days are a lot more social than we realise, and only being able to socialise with friends twice or so a week can easily leave you feeling lonely, or that you’re wasting what is meant to be a wonderful year feeling in a rut.
This is in no way an attempt to disparage gap years. If sent back in time to the end of year 13, I know for certain I would chose the same path again. Yet being suddenly shoved into the adult world at 18, having to get a job and figure out what you want to gain from this vast amount of time you have available can leave you feeling detached, particularly when the university experience does offer more cushioning when stepping into the adult world.
Naturally, everyone’s gap years are different. Plenty of people have highly sociable, informative and rewarding years, and planning a year full of exciting opportunities isn’t too difficult when there are a wealth of travelling and volunteer sites available to students. Taking a gap year for mental health purposes can also be a massively helpful endeavour, allowing you to take the time from academia to adjust your focus and prepare yourself to get the most from university. Yet, there are few narratives that actually acknowledge that sense of seclusion that comes with taking a year away from the somewhat relentless academic ladder. It can leave you feeling that the natural isolation you may feel is in someway abnormal, heightening any sense of detachment.
If you are taking a gap year, know your experience of this year is going to be decidedly different to that of your classmates who are beginning university, but not always in a negative way. Be aware that feeling stuck or isolated from the typical ‘student lifestyle’ is completely normal, and no one has a wholly positive gap year, no matter what the self-indulgent articles you may read say.
Reach out to other people you know taking a year off, even if you may not have been previously close. It may surprise you to know that they share many of your own worries and feelings. Finally, if you do start to feel lonely, take it as motivation to pursue something exciting that you know you wouldn’t have the opportunity to do if you were studying full time. Whether that be travelling to a new continent or applying for exciting internships, recognise that you are pursuing your own self-development and celebrate your own independence.