Study Abroad

Lessons From A Gap Year

How did you learn to iron a shirt?

I remember precisely where and when I learned. It was September 1989 in Gandia, Spain, in a lovely home two blocks from the beach. My Spanish host mother, Josefina, raised her eyebrows when she saw me in my unironed jeans. She let that one pass, but pulled me aside for a lesson when I appeared in a lightly wrinkled cotton blouse. I have used the technique she taught me that day each time I’ve sidled up to the ironing board for the past twenty-five years.

How to press my clothes was just one of innumerable lessons I learned when I left my rural Pennsylvania home to spend ten months in Spain as a Rotary International Youth Exchange student.

Living with a spirited host family readied me for the challenges of roommates and dormitory life: I was forced to learn how to share living space with strangers, to adjust to their routines and to conform to the constraints of their household (showering twice a week was plenty, according to my host parents).

Experiencing a complete language immersion honed my listening skills and forced me to pay attention to social cues. The mental strain of thinking and communicating in Spanish all day created an ideal environment for self-reflection: when I was tired of reaching out, I often turned inward to consider and question: “What am I doing here? What is happening in this situation? How is this different from what I know?”

I learned to make my modest stipend last.  Getting myself to and from school in the city using public transportation, managing my class schedule and keeping up with homework  (and asking for academic help when I needed it) forced me to think ahead, plan my time, budget my money and maintain a healthy level of awareness of my situation.

Drinking socially (and legally) with friends helped me see the line that exists between ‘pleasant’ and ‘excessive.’ It was considered unseemly by my Spanish peers to make a fool of oneself by drinking too much alcohol. I discovered that young adults could have really strong opinions about politics and the state. It was hard to go unnoticed as an exchange student:  people paid attention to what I did, and what I said, so I had to think carefully about both.

Operating in a climate of uncertainty and newness forced me to stretch myself in ways that I hadn’t in high school. Now I’m a parent of two girls and a multi-lingual professional with a master’s degree in international relations, a background in higher education administration, and an enduring belief in the promise of peace through international understanding. For me, the Gap Year was excellent preparation for life in college and beyond in ways I could never have anticipated.

It's more than just backpacking

Study Abroad's New Focus is Job Skills We've always believed in the many merits of Study Abroad and have encouraged our clients to take full advantage of these opportunities. However, employers have not felt as warmly about these opportunities, often dismissing them as "a few months backpacking through Europe."

However, that tide is slowly turning and, thanks to people like Cheryl Matherly, the former assistant dean of students for career and international education at Rice University, who are helping students to describe their study abroad experience in terms of transferrable, marketable skills.

Hopefully, more and more employers will see that value that hiring a graduate who has spent time navigating their way through a foreign culture can bring to their companies.

How to kick the tires of study abroad programs

7 Signs of Successful Study Abroad Programs No question - more colleges are offering more study abroad opportunities. Some colleges are even requiring it. However, if you're serious about taking advantage of this tremendous opportunity, be sure to spend some time in the Study Abroad Office asking these hard questions. The more you know, the more successful and rewarding your experience abroad will be.

Going to college? Bring your passport!

Academic Outcomes of Study Abroad The students we have known who have taken advantage of the opportunities offered at their schools to study abroad have returned with a certain je ne sais quoi. A twinkle in their eye, an air of confidence, a better sense of themselves and what they want from their education all seem to be a part of it. Indeed, they returned changed, and changed for the better. This opportunity to learn how to live in a new culture, communicate in a foreign language, and tackle new challenges creates a unique opportunity for students to see what they are really capable of. When they return, more important than their verbal fluency, understanding of a new culture, or the richness of the new friends they have made is what they have learned about themselves. This study confirms that in addition to all those benefits, students return from their study abroad more focused on their studies.