No one who has traveled would argue the educational benefits. I’ve never spoken to a traveler, even someone who’s spent just two weeks in a resort somewhere, who hasn’t learned something about themselves or others, culture, history, geography or humanity, by getting out into the world a little bit. And yet, travel is not seen as integral to a well rounded education.
When experts and parent talk about education they talk about school, four walls, curriculum and testing. They focus on university entrance, preparation for the work force and making sure that children are prepared to make enough money to keep them moving forward. Those are important things, to be sure.
Somewhere along the journey we’ve lost sight of a few things, educationally speaking. Charlotte Mason, a revolutionary educator at the turn of the 20th century in the UK, asserted that, “Education is for delight, ornament, and ability.” To her way of thinking, income generation was something else entirely. Something is lost when the whole focus of education becomes “getting ahead” in some capacity. Namely, the delight, and the ornament, which undergird the ability.
“If I could make one change in the current educational system it would be to make a year abroad a mandate for every student.”
If I could make one change in the current educational system it would be to make a year abroad a mandate for every student. Preferably, not a study abroad program that placed them into the home of one of the educated elite in a wealthy country, but a year actually in the world, living, working, volunteering, exploring and pursuing their passions, figuring it out, and charting their own courses, alongside of individuals who live as differently as possible from the student’s home experience. That kind of experience changes lives and broadens minds like nothing else can. Often, those young people return with a clarity of purpose and perspective that allows them to begin their adult lives with intention that they would not have developed without the time in the world.
This week I’ve been collecting stories for the Travel Access Project. I’ve asked numerous people about their gap year travels, trips of a few months to a year that generally happen between high school and university, or graduation and their first career job. I asked them what they learned, how it changed them, and why it mattered. If you’ve got a young person in your life who is considering a gap year and you’re wondering if it’s worth it, be encouraged and let the results speak for themselves:
Emily Sommerville, from the UK
“During the first few months in SA I fell in love with the world I found myself in. It was by no means an easy 10 months. I felt the pressure of being 3 hours from a town, one of 10 white people for miles, in a new culture very different from my own and the dangers of rural Africa in terms of animals, infection and people. But I loved it and fell in love with the amazing community I lived in. The spirit, happiness and perseverance in the light of such poverty was amazing.
My eyes were opened to the reality of life, how brutal, painful and hard it can be. Watching women pregnant with their tenth child because they have no freedom to be protected, looking into the eyes of children who have HIV due to rape, looking at the scars on children’s backs because they have been hit repeatedly by a drunk and aggressive parent, seeing the scars on a child’s head because they have been hit with a machete…but despite this these people welcome you with open arms and love. It made me realise how lucky I was and how much help these people need and deserve. So in the end I stayed for 10 months, returning to start university.
On returning to the UK I was asked to join the Zoe Trust. Since my return I have raised over £15,000 through 5 fundraising events for the trust as well as pushing through the £66,000 relocation of an orphanage on behalf of the trust.
“Why am I returning? Because I can’t forget what I saw. I learnt during my gap year the power of education and that is something that has stayed inside me ever since.”
So 4 years on since my gap year and I expected to be employed in a scientific research company living on the outskirts of London, hopefully about to put down a deposit on a house and start my working life. Instead as I finish training as a teacher I am preparing to return to South Africa for 8 months on behalf of the charity.
Why am I returning? Because I can’t forget what I saw. I learnt during my gap year the power of education and that is something that has stayed inside me ever since. Children deserve to be educated and that is something that I want to dedicate my life to through my own teaching and my work through the Zoe trust.
So did my gap year affect me? Yes it changed my life completely!”
Michael McCormick, from the USA
“Looking back 3 months ago, I was finally prepping for this trip. Just coming to the realization that I was about to leave my home for five and half months. Just coming to grips that I was out of reach of parents, friends, and family if I got in a fix. And then I got to Switzerland, and finally found out what life as an adult is like… Hard. Harder than anything I’ve ever had to do.
“I think about the people in my life that I admire and I’ve realized recently that even from all I’ve come to know about them, I could never really understand what it’s like to truly breach the wall to the unknown until I did it myself.”
I think about the people in my life that I admire and I’ve realized recently that even from all I’ve come to know about them, I could never really understand what it’s like to truly breach the wall to the unknown until I did it myself. This whole trip has been an unknown. The classes were more intense, the adult experience harder, the lessons about handling money (which I thought I was fairly good at) were tougher. I had to learn to budget what I had during my first month here… even that wasn’t enough. Then I got into a fix and didn’t have enough money to pay rent and eat at the same time.
It’s honestly been one of the most humbling, terrifying learning experiences of my life.
Still though, I learned a lot through the experience of being in Switzerland by myself. It’s more than made up for all of the fun I haven’t had. I’m going to go back to the States more prepared for life. Couldn’t ask for more.”
Shelby Rutherford, from the USA
“Going to China changed me in many ways but one of the more prominent is that I am more relaxed and about doing things. I’m also careful about what I want, and what I think I need. The people in the part of China that I visited live very simply. They don’t have a lot of clothing, they don’t have a washer and dryer or dishwasher. I’ve just learned to be extremely grateful for what I have.
“I’ve just learned to be extremely grateful for what I have. “
I learned that as Americans we are incredibly quick to judge. It makes me want to learn more, to get to know more cultures, so that I can change my way of living more. There is so much out there that God has put on this planet for us and I feel that people don’t take advantage of it enough.
Did you take a gap year? Have you learned things while traveling that have changed your life? Share them with us!
Photo credits: PhotoSkech