Sofia Gnabasik has always been an adventurer. After biking across America the summer before her senior year and going on a rigorous hiking trip in Utah at the end of her high school career, she decided she needed a new challenge before college. Her adventure of choice? A gap year.
After applying to college like the rest of her classmates, Sofia accepted the admissions offer from Bates College and then deferred enrollment for a year.
Like many other high school students who decide to take gap years before college, Sofia decided it was necessary after the high school haul. “Although I enjoyed high school,” she says, “I found my busy schedule of school work, dance, tennis practices, and volunteering to be often grueling and exhausting. And while I tried hard to base my class selections and extracurriculars on my interests and passions, I inevitably devoted a lot of time and effort into creating a favorable college résumé.” Needless to say, she was completely burnt out.
The obvious advantages of a gap year–a long period of time free from the pressures of academic life and at the “complete disposal” of the student–appealed greatly to Sofia. “For years, I had dreamed of studying and volunteering in Central America, as well as spending more time outside, hiking, biking, and skiing. A gap year seemed like a great opportunity for me to complete some of the passions I had harbored during high school but was unable to realize.”
However, Sofia soon realized that the process of creating her gap year experience was much more overwhelming than she initially thought, especially without other friends deciding to take the same path. “The process of planning my year required a lot of research, and was accompanied by a lot of unknowns. In addition, all of my friends from high school went straight to college, which sometimes made me question if I had made the right choice.”
Lucky for Sofia, she had an absolutely wonderful support system: her parents were instrumental to the planning and execution of her gap year, as were her friends and extended family, even when she felt like she was alone.
Her research process was especially challenging, since Sofia wanted to spend as little money as possible for her gap year. “Although I knew that I wanted to live in Central or South America, I had no idea where to begin the search. I preferably wanted to go without [an established] program, both to save money, and also to have a more direct and independent experience. However, avoiding programs made the situation even more difficult to research. Through asking around friends and family, a diverse array of options presented themselves.” In addition, Sofia spent the previous summer working hard to pay for a large portion of her gap year herself.
After some more soul searching, Sofia’s original plan–to spend a year in a Spanish-speaking country–changed. She decided she wanted to have more than one experience during her gap year, and because of her rigorous biking and hiking background, she thought an outdoorsy adventure trip would be a great addition to her plans.
Eventually, in September 2012, Sofia set out for her gap year extravaganza. She spent the first three months participating in an outdoor leadership course with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) based in Wyoming. The itinerary was a dream: along with her group, Sofia went rock climbing in western South Dakota; hiking in the Wind River mountain range in Wyoming; backpacking in the canyons of southern Utah; and back country skiing and winter camping in the Absaroka mountain range in Wyoming. WOW.
Sofia found the experience to be a refreshing break from the pressures and struggles of life back at home; the skills she acquired during her time on the NOLS trip were invaluable. “I learned a ton about back country travel, self sufficiency, and leadership. In addition, I made very close friends,” she recalls. “But I also feel like I learned a lot about myself, like how to be selfless even in the face or adversity, how to better take advantage of all the opportunities I am presented, as well as developing a deeper understanding of what experiences I find most fulfilling.”
After her NOLS trip, Sofia spent December and January at home catching up with family and friends and saving money for the second part of her gap year. At the end of January 2013, she left for Somoto, Nicaragua, located in the north central part of the Central American nation. Currently, she is staying with friends of family friends and volunteering at a school, where she teaches English, art, and sports to students ages six through eighteen who are at high risk of not finishing their education. Sofia will be in Nicaragua until the end of April, and she is loving every minute of it.
In fact, her time in Nicaragua has been the best part of her gap year. “My favorite part about this year has been living in conditions so different from what I am used to. It has been eye opening to live in a different culture and learn how people live with so much less than what I am accustomed to, yet they are so grateful for the little they do have. I have gained new perspectives on what I really value in my life, and also realized many things I have come to take for granted.”
Would Sofia do her gap year experience again if she had the choice? Absolutely. “I have learned so much that I don’t think I could have learn in a college classroom. For example, I don’t think they teach how to gut a fish in the average freshman seminar!” she jokes. “I feel very prepared to start college this fall, and I am really looking forward to taking advantage of all of the opportunities during the next four years. I think I will have a lot more energy and motivation for my work than I would have if I had gone straight to school.”
As Sofia touched on earlier, another huge bonus of a gap year comes with the lessons learned that cannot come from a traditional classroom setting. “I think this year allowed me to focus more on the things that I value in my life,” Sofia explains. “I learned how to be more appreciative of the little things, whether that be a warm meal after a long day, or the pure silence every night in the canyons. When I returned back to normal life although I did not refuse to sleep in my bed or take a warm shower, I have been trying hard to incorporate my new found appreciations, and identify those things in my life that I really value.”
Overall, Sofia recommends a gap year to anyone burnt out from high school and looking to recharge while still learning important life lessons. She came out of her gap year with more energy and appreciation for the life she is about to begin at school in the fall.
Her advice to students wanting to make the most out of their gap year? “I believe the student must be passionate about their plans, motivated enough to use their time wisely and productively, and capable and prepared to deal with challenges when they arise.”