83: My Great Gap Year

83: My Great Gap Year

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Getting In...To College

My Great Gap Year

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.

~Henry Miller

After a drawn-out and often painful college application process, I received a deferred acceptance from Georgetown in the middle of the summer. This forced me to take the gap year that I had always contemplated.

I didn’t see any rush to graduate from college. And, inserting a year between high school and college seemed like free time to me. After college, I’d probably get a job that would turn into a career. When else could I take a year to travel, to do something different, to learn something about myself? Whatever the possible merits of a gap year, I never got to make the decision. I had a year and a month before freshman orientation and I had to do something.

I wound up in Salamanca, Spain in September. I went with a company that organizes study abroad at universities. So my companions in the program were mostly college juniors and seniors. After an orientation weekend in London at the end of August, we flew to Madrid and boarded a bus to Salamanca. One of my clearest memories on that bus trip was spotting the ancient cathedral of Salamanca rise up over the Rio Telme from a distance.

When my roommate, Mike, and I got off the bus, Luisi, a spunky four-foot ten-inch Spanish woman greeted us. It turned out that we would be living in a boarding house rather than a family’s home.

This was a lucky break. We lived with an international group that, in November, wished me a happy nineteenth birthday in seven languages (each of which someone spoke fluently). Apart from Luisi, I made three great friends who I am still in touch with three years later: Mike is from Texas, Rainer is from Bavaria (in Southern Germany), and Victor is from Vitoria in the Basque Country of Spain. We talked about girls, politics, music, travel and anything else, in our steadily improving Spanish. Victor always helped us along.

About halfway through the semester, I realized that three and a half months in Salamanca wasn’t going to be enough. I decided I wanted to spend the second semester in Spain as well. I started pitching half-baked ideas to my parents, who gently pointed out my plans’ logistical flaws. One particularly fanciful scheme was to spend the winter and early spring as a ski bum in the Pyrenees. It took quite a bit of constructive criticism to get me to let go of that idea. Eventually, after developing and rejecting a handful of ideas, I found a job in Madrid.

I went home for Christmas and headed back to Spain in January, with no idea where I would live. After a week of running around, I found a place on the outskirts of the city near the office I’d be working in. It was far away from the city center but it was cheap. And my two new roommates, Vicente and Paco, were great and spoke absolutely no English, which was a big plus for me.

I spent my five months in Madrid working full time, but I got plenty of time off per the norm in Spain, where every obscure religious holiday is celebrated, seemingly always with a three or four day weekend. I spent my long weekends and vacations traveling around Spain haphazardly. I’d leave Madrid with a one-way train or bus ticket and a rough idea of an itinerary. I never knew exactly where I’d stay or how I’d get back, but things always worked themselves out.

One time while traveling in Andalucía (in Southern Spain) during Easter week, I was unable to find a room in a hostel in Sevilla. So, I caught a late night bus to Málaga, several hours away, and slept in a tent on the beach. On a trip to Mallorca (a Spanish island in the Mediterranean), I wound up on a secluded part of the Northern coast after the buses stopped running. I managed to hitchhike back to Palma where I slept in the ferry station for a few hours before heading back to the mainland on an early morning departure.

Experiences like these were fun and they make good stories. However, the most valuable thing I got from traveling on my own was the confidence that came from being responsible for myself, with no safety net.

Everywhere I traveled, I made a point of visiting art museums. I was kind of surprised at myself for this. Before going to Spain, I had been pretty indifferent to art. I didn’t dread field trips to art museums, but they were hardly my favorite way to spend a day. In Salamanca, I had taken a course about Renaissance and Baroque Spanish art because I needed one more course and it was the only one available that fit into my schedule. By the time I got to Madrid, I found myself excited to visit the Prado and even reading about art in my free time.

Art has turned into one of my primary interests. (I’m writing this story in Spain, where I’m spending the summer doing research on a contemporary Spanish painter.) Since my gap year in Spain, I’ve noticed how my interests and priorities have changed. Spending so much time by myself in a different setting forced me to reassess a lot of assumptions I had about myself.

When I got back to the U.S. and enrolled at Georgetown, I felt more comfortable with myself than I had in high school. I was more confident that when I became interested in something, it was worth pursuing. Conversely, when I left an interest or activity behind, I was more comfortable with that decision. I think that while in Spain I went through a sometimes-uncomfortable process of introspection. I reevaluated my values and interests. I realized that some things I’d actually thought were important to me weren’t. Other times, I concluded that certain interests or values really were important to me after thinking about them critically for the first time. This made me more confident that they were worth keeping.

Overall, getting a deferred acceptance was one of the luckiest things that has ever happened to me. I graduated from high school a little confused about who I was and entered Georgetown a lot more sure of myself. A gap year was exactly what I needed. Taking a year off isn’t right for everyone, but it might be perfect if you want to learn a bit about yourself before embarking on the next phase of your education.

~Michael Damiano

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