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.