What’s Your Story?

Katherine (far left) with Art History Abroad in Venice, April 2019.

Earlier this year, our Founder, Katherine Stievater visited several Gap Year programs in Europe. While with one of these programs, she spent time with a group of Gap Year students in Italy, and had the chance to speak with them over the course of several days about “Why” – why did they choose to take a step off the traditional path, and defer college for a year? This is not an easy choice for some students — as earlier posts have noted, FOMO (Fear of Missing Out!) is a concern, as well as simply the willingness to be viewed as “different”. The students Katherine spoke with each had their own reasons, and stories.

  • “I didn’t feel like living in the world that I was told to live in – I wanted independence, and to take a break from things.”
  • “I wanted to grow up a bit before college.”
  • “My degree is only 3 years but would have done a gap year anyway!”
  • “I wasn’t ready for college – I have lived in a bubble, and now am understanding different cultures.”
  • “I just didn’t want to go to college right away. I wanted to spend some time doing other things.”
  • “I needed more time to make my college decision – I was sick so didn’t graduate until after everyone else anyway.”
  • “I was completely burned out. I just felt like I couldn’t study anymore and needed a break.”
  • “I have never been apart from my parents. I am a bit of a homebody, and wanted to make sure I was comfortable living apart from my parents.”
  • “I didn’t feel the need to go right to college. I wanted to get some space and experience before university. Where I’m from taking this time is pretty normal.”
  • “Both my parents and my sister took a gap year, so I always knew I wanted to do this – and I love to travel.”

So, what’s your story??

Interview with Lucia Poggi (UChicago ’23)

Interview by Anna Nickerson

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Photo: Lucia (left) on the campaign trail in Northern Virginia!

It is a common misconception that in order to take a gap year, you must travel abroad extensively. Many students choose to forgo travel-based programs and focus on other opportunities, such as Gapper Lucia Poggi. Lucia just finished up her gap year, which consisted of career-centered work in the U.S. as well as independent travel. Gap Year Solutions recently spoke with Lucia and asked her about her year. Lucia’s experience serves as an important example that not all gap years are “One Size Fits All.” Independently planned gap years take time and careful attention to plan. Keep reading to learn more about Lucia’s gap year and the advice she has for potential gappers!

Tell me about yourself and your gap year.

I am from Richmond, Virginia and I went to the Hotchkiss School, a boarding school in Connecticut. I deferred my admission from the University of Chicago in order to take a gap year that combined some of my interests. I am really interested in political campaigning, so I wanted this to be a big part of my gap year.

Originally my parents were actually open to the idea of a gap year, but they didn’t want me to do a program. They felt that because I’m now an adult, I should plan my own experience and live where I want. When I started planning my year, the timing worked out perfectly because it was during midterms season. I worked in Northern Virginia on a political campaign for someone aspiring to be in the House of Representatives, 10th district. I wanted to do some resume-building and get real work experience in political campaigning. I lived in a house with fellow Hotchkiss alumni, whom I found through our alumni app.

In the Spring, I traveled to Bonair, a small Dutch island in the Carribbean. I lived and worked there for 3 months. 3 days out of the week, I volunteered for a turtle conservation organization and during the rest of the week, I waited tables at a local restaurant. I also did a lot of scuba diving, which was great.

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Photo: Lucia and friends scuba diving in Bonaire

What skills do you think you learned on your gap year?

I think the work experience in political campaigning provided me with a lot of professional skills. More specifically, I learned how to structure and organize my time during my entire gap year. One big challenge I had was that the elections ended in Mid-November, but I didn’t go to Bonaire until January. This left me with a couple months of unstructured time, so I wish I had maybe been more productive during those months in Richmond.

I also learned how to live alone and with fewer people than I’m used to. At Hotchkiss, I was constantly surrounded by friends, roommates, and my classmates. There was always an opportunity to be around other people, but my gap year forced me to be with only a few people or even by myself. As an extrovert, I think this was a really important skill for me to learn especially in preparation for college.

How did Hotchkiss support you in your decision to take a gap year?

 Hotchkiss was very supportive and encouraging of my decision to take a gap year, among other students who also chose that path. Out of my graduating class of about 172, somewhere between 10-12 students chose to take a gap year before attending college. Compared to my middle school, which was a K-12, I felt much more supported by Hotchkiss to take a gap year. Some schools can make you feel like an underachiever for taking a gap year, but that wasn’t the case at Hotchkiss.

Why did you decide to take a Gap Year? What got you interested?

 A lot of people at Hotchkiss actually take gap years, so that got me interested. I felt that it would be great to do a lot of things on a gap year that I couldn’t necessarily do once I’m in college or working in my professional career.

I was also feeling burnt out from school. I couldn’t get excited about signing up for classes and I knew that if I took a year off to re-evaluate, I would thrive much more at school.

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Photo: Lucia and her brother traveling on her gap year.

What was the biggest challenge on your gap year?

Definitely the unstructured time between the Fall and Spring sections of my gap year. Even though I learned how to manage my time better, this was challenging. If I did my gap year again, I would have planned more in between then.

What advice do you have for someone who is planning on taking a gap year?

Make sure you talk to people who have taken a gap year! I also think you should get a good balance of productivity and fun and doing things that you actually want to do or are interested in, rather than just doing things that look good on a resume.

 

How My Gap Year Made Me A Better College Student (And Better Person)

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After 13 years of rigorous academics in a very competitive school system, I felt burnout and lacked the motivation to continue on with my studies.  I performed well in the classes I enjoyed, but not so well in others that bored me.   Learning in the classroom was no longer something I enjoyed, it was something I loathed.  After I got out of school and back from my sports practices, I liked to hang out with my friends.  I never did my homework.  I just didn’t see the point.  When would I ever use geometry or physics in the “real world”?  I used to be the first person to tell you that grades didn’t matter, and make up some excuse as to why that was.  Unfortunately, college admissions officers didn’t love my way of thinking, and my top choice college closed its doors on me. I ended up getting an early-action acceptance offer from Fairfield University, but I just wasn’t that excited about going to college. I knew it was time to go to Plan B.

The Miracle Cure: A Gap Year?

My mom suggested I consider a gap year during my sophomore year of high school, but I didn’t give it any thought at the time. But by late senior year I was at a point where I no longer desired to learn and I felt much more excited to gain real-world knowledge through experiential learning. And with the cost of college rising every year, my parents wanted to make sure their investment in my education would be sound. I decided on my own to take a gap year. (No one should be forced to take a gap year, it has to come from within.  If my parents had forced me to take a gap year, I would have experienced intense FOMO and longed to be with my friends experiencing college life.)

Originally, I had planned on spending a semester in the South Pacific. However, that changed once I discovered a “once in a lifetime trip” to Cuba which opened up shortly after Obama visited the country in 2015.  Due to the large expense of the trip in the spring, my parents and I formulated a carrot and stick approach.  I would work in the fall and winter and this money would help pay for a trip abroad in the spring. That divided my gap year up into three distinct semesters, or as I like to say “chunks.”

Chunk One: Real World Experiences

In September 2016 I worked as a “jack-of-all-trades” at a resort in southern Maine. I had many different jobs, from serving food on the cabana to working the register at a store in the facility.  Working in the hospitality industry taught me valuable life lessons, and I could write many blog posts on everything I learned just from that field.  During my time in Maine I was fortunate to be able to live near the hotel in a house that has been in my family for many years.  However, it was anything but easy.  It was the first time I had truly lived alone, and I had adult responsibilities for the first time. My parents had bestowed a tremendous amount of responsibility on me, and I had to prove to them I could succeed.  I got up every day and biked the mile or so to work, rain or shine in order to fulfill my end of the deal.  If I was lazy and decided to not cook dinner, I would have no food to eat.  If I missed work because I was tired from staying up too late, I would get fired.  I was put in a situation where failure was not possible.  This was the first valuable lesson I learned early on during the year: You’re on your own as an adult, and if you don’t do it no one else will. It was almost like getting a shock treatment in independence.  Slowly, I developed a daily routine and started thriving at both home and my job at the resort.

This brings me to another way I grew during the gap year: I developed a solid work ethic.  Even though I have had summer jobs since I was 14, this was the first time where I was working towards a goal other than making spending money.  I had a goal of making money to travel abroad and pursued it with both passion and determination.  In the future when life gets tough, I can always look back and reminisce on my experiences in Maine that taught me the importance of a work ethic and enabled me to mature and develop my independence.

Chunk Two: Helping Others to Help Myself

My second chunk was in my hometown of Belmont, MA where I worked at an upscale Italian restaurant and volunteered at a food pantry in Boston.  The grit, determination, and work ethic I developed at the resort carried back to my new job where I was regularly working 40 hours a week.  At the restaurant, I became friends with a group of three brothers my age who were immigrants from Colombia.  When our conversations would drift from work to life, I came to realize that college was most likely out of their reach.  I thought about how much I had resented schooling and realized that I never fully appreciated my access to high quality education.

Besides working at the restaurant, I also volunteered once a week at a food pantry.  In order to get there, I had to navigate Boston’s public transportation.   It didn’t take me too long to get the “T” down to a science.  It was all very new and exciting, and it felt like a big adventure.  Working at the food pantry also made me appreciate the blessings in my life.  I was helping prepare food for people who were too sick to cook for themselves, and it felt good knowing I was doing some good.

My experiences of working full-time and volunteering developed into the third way I grew as an individual:  I realized that things that I had once taken for granted were privileges.  One of the biggest shifts in my thinking was realizing in United States college education was a privilege, not a right afforded to all.  Ninety-six percent of my high school class attended a four-year university. I had no idea that this number was not the norm in most parts of the country. This realization contributed to my increased desire to perform to the best of my abilities by not throwing away my blessings.  The gap year taught me to be aware of my privileges, and showed me that even though this world is far from perfect there are certainly ways to make a positive impact on the lives of others.

Chunk Three: Expanding My Knowledge Abroad

The final chunk of my year was the most exciting part, and what attracts many young people to take gap years: international travel.  I would be spending a semester with a group of 12 people in Cuba.  Besides doing service work and exploring the country, I was also going to be taking classes and receiving 12 college credits. The scale of what I was doing didn’t even sink in until I was already on the plane to Miami.  There would be no turning back now, I was in this for the long haul!  Before I traveled to this “forbidden island”, a friend who had recently studied abroad in Ireland shared a fantastic piece of advice with me.  She suggested that I go abroad without any expectations, not good, and especially not bad.  I carried this advice with me on my trip, and I still use it to this day when approaching new adventures in my life.

I encountered many Cubans and enjoyed having conversations with them.  The Cuban people who I met were incredibly warm and friendly, even though they were living in poverty.  I envied the close bonds all Cubans seemed to share and the general zest for life so many of them had.  This became the fourth unexpected way I grew during my gap year: In my life, the goal was going to be happiness, not monetary “success”.  The Cubans who apparently had “nothing” in terms of material goods, obviously had something much more important.  What I discovered they possessed was happiness.  I would rather be happy than have material goods.  The gap year allowed me to explore my passions to discover what I really enjoyed doing.  After spending three months traveling back in time through Cuba I came to realize that the world was so much more complex and diverse than I ever could have imagined.

Flash Forward

Flash forward to my freshman year at Fairfield University, and my G.P.A is light years ahead of where it was in high school.  After my gap year, I was determined not to let my grades slip like they had in high school.  I realized that the consequences of me slacking off would be affecting my job prospects in the “real world”.  Besides the tremendous effect it has had on my academic performance, the gap year has made me a marketable hire in the business world.  It has helped set me apart, and businesses are interested to hear what I spent my year doing while my peers were busy studying for exams and writing papers.

Another great benefit of the gap year was a general sense of global awareness.  It was really interesting to hear how people viewed the United States from the outside and learning the ins and outs of a different culture.  When trying to explain the gap year to people, I like to say for me, it was a year without societal expectations.  I was not in college, nor had I completely entered the workforce.  The year was a blank canvas, and I was able to fill it with whatever activities or passions that I desired.  Reflect for a moment and think, “When was a time you had the freedom to completely control your life?”.  Ask anyone who took a gap year and they will probably tell you that this was the overarching theme during their year of growth.

Advice for Gap Years

In explaining the growth someone undergoes during a gap year experience, I like to use a simple metaphor.  When an athlete is trying to build muscle or “bulk-up”, they have to lift heavy weights.  If they chose to take the easy way out and lift lighter weights, they will not get the same results.  The same basic theory applies for gap years.  Someone who leaves their comfort zone is going to grow many times more than someone who chooses to stay where it doesn’t “hurt”.  The gap year that involves taking risks and getting out of a comfort zone is going to be much more rewarding in the long term.  The fifth way I grew during my gap year came by realizing that until I could be comfortable being uncomfortable, I would never truly be happy.  Life is full of experiences that downright suck, and being able to have perspective has helped me.  Boston traffic isn’t fun, but neither was having no access to water for 6km of a 12km hike through the jungle!  I am also a firm believer that the journey is much more memorable than just focusing on the end result.  I remember my whole gap year as an unbelievable time of personal growth and understanding.  I don’t just look back to my travels in Cuba and say “yeah, that was the defining moment of this year”.  I value all the parts involved, because I would not have arrived in Cuba so prepared had it not been for the prior months.

The gap year that masks a vacation will certainly allow someone to remain comfortable and lead a very pleasurable and potentially glamourous year.  However, the learning and growth that takes place when someone is uncomfortable creates a much deeper, and more meaningful experience.  I was pushed way out of my comfort zone, and I came out a global citizen who had “real world” experiences I will carry with me for the rest of my adult life. The good news is anyone can experience similar growth and knowledge.  The one question to ask yourself is, “do I have the courage to swim against the current?”.

The Best Jobs to Learn Valuable Life Skills

 

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One of our Gappers, Hanna, working as a barista at Caffe Nero

While most people associate a “gap year” with traveling and Instagram-perfect pictures, that’s not always the reality, or the best option for many students. Many of our gappers choose to incorporate some kind of paid or unpaid job during their gap years. There are so many valuable life skills that many entry-level jobs can teach you, and most of them pay at least minimum wage! Check it out below:

  • Waiter or Waitress: Waiting tables at a restaurant, coffee shop, or even a bar can be a great option. In these jobs, you will learn to work effectively with people and serve others properly through customer service. Waiters also learn organizational skills as they navigate working with co-workers in such a busy environment. And a bonus: most waiters make a lot of money in tips!

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Some gappers preparing a beautiful meal!

  • Prep Cook/Assistant Cook in a Restaurant: This is a job that doesn’t come to everyone’s mind when they think about life skills, but it offers opportunities to learn and even move up in a company. To my surprise, I learned that prep cooks can acquire entrepreneurial skills. A prep cook is an essential job in any restaurant, and in this position you must be responsible and entrepreneurial- able to think on your feet and be creative in a spontaneous situation.
  • Retail Salesperson: As a salesperson you’ll learn… sales! Not only will you be able to sell someone a jacket or maybe even a laptop, but you’ll begin to hone in on the way in which you connect with other people. If you want to learn interpersonal and negotiation skills, you may want to look into retail. Most CEOs of Fortune 500 companies have held a sales position at one point in their lives.
  • Receptionist: This job can motivate you to move up in an organization. By working as a receptionist in any industry that you’re interested in (accounting firm, tech, retail, etc.), you can also gain networking connections to help you attain your dream job in the future. And lastly, receptionists are some of the best at time management – a necessary skill for college.
  • Camp Counselor: As a camp counselor, especially at a sleepaway camp, you’ll learn many necessary skills for college and beyond. Working with children can teach you patience, which is a great skill to master before all those group projects in college. Camp counselors also learn interpersonal skills with their campers, the campers’ parents, their fellow counselors, and even their older bosses.

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One of our students volunteering at Community Servings in Jamaica Plain

  • Volunteer: Although volunteering is inherently an unpaid position, it is a great opportunity to further your passion for anything. Whether you’re an animal lover, interested in working with underprivileged students, or want to help homeless people, organizations are always looking for new volunteers. You can learn just about any skill, and more importantly connect with a worthy cause or charity.
  • Start-Up: Many start-up ventures are interested in hiring customer service or sales reps, depending on their needs. This can be a great opportunity to learn the inner workings of the startup and venture capital world, and to gain important networking connections. On top of this, many startup CEOs and bosses are young, so can teach you relevant skills like social media management.

At Gap Year Solutions, we want students to feel empowered by their gap years. And in many cases, this doesn’t involve a year full of traveling. Choosing a job, or multiple jobs, throughout your gap year can teach you a variety of skills and provide you with insight on your passions. Contact Katherine to learn more about what your gap year could do for you.