Out Of Ideas For Your 'Gap Year'? Traveling Abroad Might Be The Answer
Filling the 'gap' in your life after high-school can be daunting. Here's why overseas travel might be the key to both happiness and success.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | January 29, 2024
Critics often view gap years as a frivolous or unnecessary delay, arguing that they may lead to a loss of academic momentum or a lack of focus. They are not entirely wrong, as a 2015 paper in Developmental Psychology suggests.
Based on data gathered from over 2000 Australian students, the study found that while a gap year does not necessarily hinder students in terms of their psychological development or initial university enrollment, it may have an impact on their likelihood to complete their university education.
This outcome likely has to do with a concept called the "life span theory of control." The theory is relevant for high-schoolers as it suggests that direct investment in goals during key developmental transitions, like the transition from high school to university, leads to more beneficial outcomes.
While this perspective raises valid concerns, gap years offer significant benefits, especially in terms of personal growth and self-discovery. To make the most of your time, however, you must be willing to put in the work to make it worthwhile. One of the most transformative experiences you can have, especially when you might feel unsure of your future plans, is traveling overseas. Here are two reasons why.
1. Your Travels Can Be A Form Of 'Real-Life Learning'
Gap years are a period where you can explore your interests outside of a classroom, but it's important to have some learning goals during your time off from formal education.
A 2021review article published in Higher Education explored the consequences of traveling and studying abroad and has two insights that are relevant to you if you are currently contemplating an overseas gap year. Ask yourself:
- Have you ever traveled abroad? If the answer to this is no, the review says it's likely that you are going to gain a lot from the experience, more so than someone who is already well-traveled. If you do decide to travel abroad during your gap year, find a specific skill you are keen to learn beforehand, so you can find like-minded individuals who can help ease the culture shock you may experience.
- Have you zeroed in on your career or educational interests? If the answer to this is no, you are likely to benefit from being abroad. Say you're vocal about environmental conservation but not sure what to do with that passion. Spend your gap year working on conservation projects in different countries. You'll get hands-on experience and see firsthand what global environmental challenges look like. Or, if you're leaning towards something like diplomacy, learn a new language and intern with an NGO.
By combining these two elements—targeted skill development for students without prior international exposure and a focus on vocational exploration—the gap year can transcend being just a break and transform into a critical period of learning, growth and preparation for the future.
2. Gaining Rich Culture Experiences Is Most Valuable When You Are Still 'Psychologically Flexible'
Think of your personality as a living, breathing entity that's constantly evolving. A 2016 paper in Psychology and Aging echoes this idea, revealing that your traits, while somewhat stable, are still open to influence and change, especially during your teenage years and early twenties. That's exactly why a gap year spent traveling abroad is like striking gold in the world of personal development.
Traveling abroad in your late teens, you may find yourself flagging down a tuk-tuk amid the chaos of a street in Bangkok or striking up a conversation with a local artisan in a small Italian village. These are more than just cool experiences. They're your brain's workout sessions. You're learning how to communicate across language barriers, adapt to unforeseen situations and appreciate lifestyles wildly different from your own.
In a world that's more connected than ever, these skills are essential. They're the tools that will help you thrive in a multicultural workplace, bring creativity to problem-solving and build relationships that span the globe. Plus, they might just spark a new passion or career idea. Who knows? That cooking class in Cambodia might inspire you to open a fusion restaurant someday, or that volunteer stint in Africa could kindle a lifelong commitment to humanitarian work.
So, while your personality is still in its "flexible" phase, immerse yourself in as many different cultures as you can. It's the ideal time to shape who you are and who you'll become – one adventure at a time.
A gap year is an investment in yourself at a time when you're most open to growth and change. Traveling can help fill this "gap" with experiences and learnings from a variety of sources, most of which will stick with you for life. Experiencing cultures and places that are different from your own can teach you to be an empathetic, considerate and well-rounded individual, and these skills, while difficult to teach in a classroom, never go out of vogue in the real world.
Want to know if you've got what it takes to travel and live abroad for your gap year? Take the Openness To Experience Scale to find out: Openness To Experience Scale
A similar version of this article can also be found on Forbes.com, here.