Cue the dramatic music, a young woman saying “I just feel like I need to find myself” with a huge backpack on her back as she jumps onto a train or motorcycle or airplane. The scene fades out. Surprisingly enough, this more or less captures the essence of a gap year, or at least what I believe a gap year should be.
This year, I am being entirely selfish. Sure, I am doing a year of full-time community service and have very little time (or money) to myself, but it’s still the year of me. If you decide to take a timed break from school or work or whatever grand plan you have, there’s really no other reason to do it than to connect (or reconnect) with yourself. Not being able to do that within the confines of structured education is a huge reason why I had so much emotional and social turbulence during my first year of school. I got lost in high school, trying to make myself the ideal college applicant, and then it felt like I evaporated in the rush of trying to figure college out. Now I’m stepping back and allowing myself to take on a year of full-time self-care.
The idea of a gap year is self-centered. You are essentially saying “I’m not ready to take the typical next step on this path and I want to hang out by myself for a year and not technically get any closer to accomplishing my academic or career goals.” That is something that should be embraced. When else in your life are you going to have the opportunity to do something like this? It’s so much harder to do once you’ve embarked on a career or have started a family. There is going to be significantly less time to think about yourself and to figure out what you need to be your best you. So you might as well do it now.
I also argue that one of the absolute most selfish kinds of gap years you can take is a service year- and not for the obvious reasons. Not because doing service makes you feel Mother Teresa-esque, or because you can brag about it on college and job applications, but because you get the most out of things when you give the most of yourself. When I’m working 50 hours a week, getting up at 5:30 every day, walking to work, cooking my own meals, I actively have to force myself to think about myself, a lot of the time, I’m on auto-pilot. I am the purest version of myself because I don’t have time to be fake. When I take the time to think about me, that thought goes a lot further than it typically would. I think about how my words and demeanor affect my surroundings, my work, my roommates. I’m able to identify the things that I don’t like or need, and try to change them. I’m trying to be softer, kinder, gentler. I’m doing my best to cut out negativity and to think before I speak. I still struggle with finding the balance of over and under sharing. This is all a result of the work I do. I need to be my best, most efficient me in order to give my service work what it deserves. In immersing myself fully in a very different and complicated environment, I am learning about myself and how my strengths can contribute to it and the broader world.
I’ve also been forced to figure out a self-care routine that keeps me alive. This is one of the things I most struggled with in college. I was terrified of being alone and had the most painful case of FOMO in the world. I always chose socializing over sleep, and slacking off academically was never an option in my mind. I didn’t make time to exercise, and while my eating habits started out okay (the school food upset my stomach, so I didn’t eat much beyond veggies and rice), they deteriorated as I became more dissatisfied with the environment. I literally cannot do that this year. I would go crazy. Everyone needs an outlet, and that becomes even more true and apparent when you work a high stress job. I’ve heard horror stories of more senior service members going to the hospital with stress migraines when they were in my shoes. During training, it was stressed that we must take care of ourselves if we want to last the year. So, I’ve figured out what I need. I go to yoga every day because it takes my focus off of work, my social life, and college applications. When I’m balancing in side crow, I’m not thinking about my plans for the weekend, or if I’m going to get accepted to Macalester or not. It’s a break from life. I eat healthy. Donuts, which are everywhere in Detroit, while tempting, make me sick, along with most other sweets. So, I don’t even buy them to begin with. I make all of my meals in advance so I can get the necessary 7 1/2 hours of sleep a night. Most importantly, I’ve learned how to say no to social situations when I need my alone time (which is a lot). I’m okay with not being a social butterfly this year because learning how to like myself is so much more important than forcing myself into situations that my gut tells me are going to be stressful. I want to be my own best friend.
This is my gap year. It belongs to me. I dedicate it to myself in honor of the future when I know how to stay grounded and mindful under stress. I’m being selfish this year, but, hey, if it looks good on my transfer applications, I’m alright with that too.