Alec D’Alelio has been chased by monkeys. “It was five o’clock a.m.,” recalled the SESP freshman. “We woke to give ourselves enough time to hike up to the sunrise viewing peak, but some monkeys decided that we had invaded their personal space, and their snarls turned to yells as they ran at us.”
D’Alelio is accustomed to unconventional experiences: He decided to take a gap year with a language immersion program in Shanghai before starting college. Sitting in Norbucks on a crowded Friday morning, D’Alelio is conspicuous in a bucket hat, wide-rimmed glasses and a Hawaiian shirt. D’Alelio’s modest recalling of his trek up China’s Huangshan mountains belies the significance of his “life-changing” past twelve months.
Increasing numbers of college-age students are choosing to spend gap years abroad, and that choice is affecting long-run success in both their education and careers. According to the American Gap Association (AGA), 60 percent of gap year students reported that the experience either affirmed or exposed them to their current major or professional path. These statistics are showing on NU’s campus, where gap year students have been able to use their experiences to narrow their focus of study, but remain open-minded.
“I became increasingly interested in linguistics, history, philosophy and even religion as a result of my gap year,” said D’Alelio whose credentials include mastering the Shanghai restaurant scene, teaching English at local schools and backpacking through Laos and Cambodia. D’Alelio arrived in Shanghai with no Mandarin experience, forced to use charades and Google Translate as his lifelines during his first few weeks.
The AGA reports 92 percent of gap year participants choose to travel in order to “gain life experiences and grow personally.” The ability to step away from school life is a privilege however, with most AGA-accredited programs costing upwards of $10,000. The AGA claims to have given away almost 3 million dollars in aid in 2014, and states the advantages of taking a gap year outweigh monetary costs. The organization cites benefits like increased ease in working in groups, re-ignited curiosity, field experience and 88 percent increased employability.
SESP sophomore Isabel Benatar said her gap year helped prepare her for the independence of college life, although the transition from her year of travel was intimidating at first.
“It was one of the only times in my life that I felt I was being treated completely like an adult, and no one was concerned with or even aware of [my] age,” said Benatar, who was originally nervous to adopt the title of “freshman” upon arriving at NU. Benatar also said that she felt her gap year gave her a heightened awareness of her ability to impact others no matter the expectations of a specific time and place.
“I was a volunteer, a student, a teacher and a friend,” Benatar said, recalling her time teaching children at a school in Chile. Benatar did not consider herself bound by those roles, and as a result she came to know herself better. “It made me realize that our whole life we always fall into a category, and it was interesting just [discovering] me,” she said.
Adam Chanes, a Weinberg freshman, found his gap year provided the opportunity to evaluate his relationship with the greater world. Chanes traveled to an Israeli yeshiva, a seminary for young men, because it was typical of kids from his hometown. But Chanes found his interactions with the “ugly and beautiful sides of conflict” in Israeli and Palestinian communities provided personal connections and broadened his perspective by bringing him outside his comfort zone.
“I now know the importance of stressing intellectual and cultural encounters in places that are different and even uncomfortable,” Chanes said. “The intellectually and ultimately spiritually enriching experience [taught me] I don’t ... need to be one-minded or all-focused in the specific classes that will further my career plans.”
Pausing to gain an understanding of one’s aspirations requires bravery, but allows students to realize that it’s acceptable to change life tracks and use the college years to “just be me.”
Weinberg senior Lucy Blumberg literally switched academic paths after her year abroad, transitioning from pre-medicine to a humanities track after she fainted in a Senegalese medical clinic.
Blumberg “constantly asked herself” for what reasons she chose to spend a year in an African country, and admits she originally took the trip for “more selfish reasons than doing good.” In other words, she was more motivated by the allure of adventure than the chance to learn and be charitable.
The senior’s self-awareness reflects a common cynicism regarding the true intentions of students taking gap years abroad.
“It is worth thinking about who can take a gap year. A lot of programs are really expensive. [In most cases, students are exposed to] the same selections of America’s population [they see at home], and don’t get the chance to learn a lot about the host country or the United States,” Blumberg said.
Blumberg traveled with the program Global Citizen Year, which claims to “slide” its tuition from $500 to $32,500 based on a student’s need. The organization states it has awarded nearly 8 million dollars in aid to date. GCY’s emphasis on aid contributed to Blumberg’s appreciation for the unique ability to take a trip.
“Before we [encourage] everyone to take a gap year, let’s first make these programs more accessible, and try to be really intentional with them. I didn’t think about that until coming to NU,” she said.
Blumberg also emphasizes that success is not immediate, and doesn’t come without becoming comfortable with thriving in the moment. On campus, the senior applies that knowledge to her roles both leading Project Wildcat trips and exploring her post-graduate opportunities.
“[Remembering] there’s so much more to life than a job ... has cut a lot of stress down from my life,” Blumberg said. “Through mentoring other students, I try to impart that stress-free, bigger-than-life attitude ... and personally, I am taking the time to really think about what I want.”