5 absolutely necessary things to bring on your gap year that won’t fit into your backpack
You’ve got your camera, hiking boots, large water bottle and passport. You have a backpack half your size, and a universal charger that might not look so foreign in a few months. You’re about to embark on the trip of a lifetime — a gap year to several countries over the course of several months. It’s not easy to pack for an itinerary that spans multiple continents, climates, and changing seasons, all the while considering what is culturally appropriate for each. Can you give the same home stay gift to your host family in India and Ghana? Will they have children? Do you need to buy shampoo for all seven months? These questions make you nervous and uneasy, especially because this will be the first time away from home for so long. What will it be like to travel with the same group for so long?
These questions are all crucial to preparing for your gap year, but there are a few other things that are absolutely necessary for a meaningful gap year experience — and they won’t fit into your backpack.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from traveling on my gap year, it’s that there can be three answers to any question: “Yes” “No” and “Wait.” You see, the world doesn’t operate on the same clock that we are used to in many Western countries, and that’s ok! You will discover that things happen on their own time and in their own way, and that while it can be frustrating to not have the same cultural understanding of efficiency, it makes you think about what it means to truly live in the present. In fact, many times you’ll find that there is something you don’t understand about the system and place that is well known in the community. For example, a bus that arrives late or not at all could be understood and expected by the community because the bus driver often takes his son with a disability to doctor’s appointments. But to you and your group, it’s just late. Let this frustration spark curiosity, and question why others have different expectations than you. There will be moments when things don’t go according to plan, and there will be periods when you are tested, like in times of homesickness, strained group dynamics, and even your own development. Let yourself be tested, but do so with an open mind. Through patience and understanding, you may find that other cultures do not lack efficiency, but actually live a lifestyle built upon appreciating the little things in life. Or maybe you’ll come to understand more about yourself and that you value time management and efficiency in the same ways you are culturally accustomed to.
You are traveling with a group in a country that is not your own. Think about that. Ask yourself why. Ponder how it is that you and your group are able to do this in the first place, and then think about what it would be like to have a foreign group of students in your own community. There are a lot of responsibilities you have in this role, and they begin with humility. Aid workers, international volunteers, and those who take a gap year in developing countries are often regarded with suspicion. This is why it’s important to have a humble attitude and a critical mind. As a young, relatively unskilled student, avoid professing to have the answers. Humility is about being able to feel comfortable saying “I don’t know”. When you place humility at the center of your relationships, you open yourself up to growth and change in ways that are often undeveloped. You will meet so many people on your gap year, with knowledge, expertise, and life experiences quite different than your own. Get to know them, ask questions, and foster a true cross-cultural relationship–one with humble beginnings. Many of the greatest leaders have been successful in building movements and inspiring change precisely because they were humble. With humility, you can fast track your learning and ability to connect across cultures.
Travel gives you the unique opportunity of being in an unfamiliar place, seeing everything for the first time, and constantly learning something new. There is so much learning to be had, so many conversations to start, and relationships to make. But you are responsible for the learning you choose to seek. Be curious! Have a willingness to learn, ask questions, listen, conceive new ideas, and develop your understanding of the world. Curiosity is important – especially when working in communities – because it allows you to let go of preconceived notions of what you expected of the program, or what you thought you already knew about the world. If you are able to submit to the experiences that come your way and seek to find meaning in them, then you’ll be able to engage in deeper learning about the world and your place in it.
Traveling for months at a time is exhausting, and not always the picture-perfect Instagram feed of smiles and adventure. It is tiring, trying, and stressful at moments. It tests your relationships with group members and your knowledge of self. It is important to find something that centers you, brings you back to why you are there, and lets you take advantage of every extraordinary opportunity. Positivity will do that. On a program a few years ago, one of the students approached me at the end of the program. “It’s not fair” she said. “Tony always seems to get the best host families. He always has such a good time with them and they really open up to him. I wish my host families had been like that with me.” It wasn’t that Tony hit the jackpot with his host families. It was his positivity and enthusiasm that created a mutually strong relationship. I explained my understanding of what likely transpired, and I saw the student come to a moment of realization: “it’s not about the families,” she said. “It’s about the attitude one brings to them.”
5. Ownership and responsibility for your experience
If you’re taking a gap year with a good program that provides structure, then you are placing some of the responsibility for your experience in the hands of the organization to offer advice and support. However, the truth is that YOU are the most important determinant of how much you get out of your gap year. Your learning and growth are up to you. The time goes by fast, so it’s up to you to think critically about what it is you want to get out of this experience, and then go get it! Be authentic and don’t be afraid to seek out experiences that are different than your peers. Establish relationships with your host family, learn a new skill, explore the community you’re living in, interview people about a subject you’re interested in, keep a blog, get out of your comfort zone, and take advantage of your time there!
So, while you’re considering which shoes to bring and how many pants will fit into a backpack, I encourage you to consider the things you’ll really regret not bringing with you. Because while you need to be intentional about the the individual items on your packing list, the far greater determinant of your experience will be the attitude and outlook that you choose to bring with you. They will lead to the unforgettable memories, the cross-cultural relationships, the deeper understanding of global issues — and they won’t take up any extra space.