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I had many new experiences during my gap year, I lived on my own for the first time, I took college courses in Spanish, I met new people and tried new things, but the takeaway that I will carry with me for the rest of my life is the importance of taking advantage of opportunities when they arise. Last summer, my plan was to live in Spain from late August until April. I was going to play hockey and take classes. By December however, I was a different person who wanted different things. I changed my original plan as new opportunities came up. I missed class to travel to Milan, Zurich, and the Canary Islands. Before I left for these trips, I often considered that I could just go some other time in order to not miss class and stick to my plan. These small adjustments had prepared me for the most consequential change to my plan that I made, the decision to forgo the rest of the hockey season and another semester of classes in order to go on a NOLS trip to Patagonia. Again though, I nearly didn’t do it. I felt like I was abandoning my original plan, like I was giving up, like I was failing. Even after I put down the deposit for the trip, I still felt like I had failed. It actually wasn’t until I was in Patagonia that I realized that it is not failure to change plans. I had grown over my gap year, and as a result I was ready to experience new things. I found an opportunity and I went with it, and as a result I had one of the best months of my life.
If you are planning to take a gap year, I guess what I am trying to say is that it is hard to tell who you will be 6 months from now, especially during a such time of personal growth and change that a gap year is. So, if you are part way into a plan that you made months ago and you begin craving something different, you should go with it. You haven’t failed or by changing your plan, you have actually grown to the point where you are ready for new experiences. This growth is much more meaningful than putting your head down and sticking to a plan that you made back when you were a different person.
To all of the incoming gap year students,
To start this letter, I want to congratulate each an everyone one of you for getting into Duke and deciding to take a gap year. I’m sure that the vast majority of your friends are going straight to college, and the decision to take a year off was probably a tough one. As excited as I was to take my gap year, I went through a lot of the feelings that I’m sure have crossed your mind at least once by now. I had this underlying sense that I was falling behind. That in not going directly to college, I wasn’t going to have the same experiences as my high school friends.
While I know now that I am in no way “behind,” I was partially right. My first year away from home was vastly different from all of my friends. Although, different does not mean worse. I promise your experiences will not be the same as those of your friends. During my year in Granada, Spain, I traveled solo, met people from over 30 different countries, learned a new language, and found lifetime friends. I had an unforgettable time that sparked a love of travelling that I doubt I’ll ever lose.
The biggest changes I faced weren’t what I expected. I thought the initial language barrier or even the food would be the biggest difference between my life in the US and my life in Spain. First of all, you will be going from total structure to absolute freedom in a matter of months. Coming from high school, you will be used to days jam packed with classes, extracurriculars, and other responsibilities. On your gap year, you will have find your own balance between planning and spontaneity. The other main change in my life were the people I spent my time with. I was used to mainly being around other high schoolers. In Spain, I had friends from everywhere all with unique backgrounds and experiences. Everyone was in completely different stages of their lives. Some days I watched a Spanish reality singing competition with my 15 year-old host sister while on others I got tapas with my friend who starts medical school in the fall. On your gap year, you are going to be around a wide variety of people no matter where you choose to go. I’ve learned that forming relationships with people that don’t have your same life experiences makes you into a great listener. It opens your mind to new points of views you may have never thought of before.
So, to the next cohort of gap year students, I promise you will end the year more self-assured and open-minded. Remember to be patient and flexible, because if Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that plans can change suddenly.
Back in the end of December I made what was a very difficult decision. I was going to leave Spain. I had originally planned on staying in Spain until April, but I was having more difficulty in Spain than I imagined. Of course there were incredible successes too. Every day I could feel my Spanish improving. I no longer had any trouble understanding anything that was said to me, could easily respond, and was even beginning to understand random conversations that I heard on the street. I was learning a lot at my Spanish classes at Universidad Nebrija, and having fun playing hockey for S.A.D. Majadahonda, the local club.
Despite this I was feeling lonely, and actually a little bit trapped. I was going to school with juniors in college who traveled every weekend while I stayed in Spain to play hockey, so I was never able to make any close friendships with any of them, and the guys who I was playing hockey with were very nice to me, but it seemed like we were always a bit separated by the knowledge that I would be leaving in April. That meant that none of us ever put a lot of effort into getting that close. I also had a big logistical problem: My classes ended at two, and hockey didn’t start until eight or nine, leaving me with six to seven hours of awkward time, not enough free time to do anything I really wanted to do like travel, and too much time to spend reading at a cafe or watching Netflix every day. Basically I had a lot of free time, but it didn’t ever line up in ways that I could use very well. On top of all this I was not as comfortable living in a city as I thought I was going to be. I have lived in a tiny town in New Hampshire all my life, so Madrid was a big change.
I was completing my goal of becoming fluent in Spanish, but I really didn’t feel like I was enjoying myself as much as I should be on my gap year. So, I started looking into programs in Spanish speaking countries I that I could do. I knew that I was interested in a program because I realized that it was realistically a mistake to try to do everything on my own in Spain. Since I was on my own, I didn’t really share the same experience as anyone else, but on a program everyone is on their own so I figured it would be easier to make strong connections. Pretty soon I was drawn to NOLS Patagonia. They ran a cultural expedition through the Chilean Patagonia that promised 31 days of backpacking and cultural interactions. This sounded perfect, the outdoors, speaking Spanish with locals, getting to meet new people, it checked everything off on the list of things that I wanted. But even then I was not totally sure if I wanted to leave. As the old saying goes, “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.” I started to realize that I actually had grown closer with my Spanish hockey team than I had realized. The idea of telling them I was leaving was daunting. After. Several days of mulling it over I finally decided to sign up for the NOLS course, and to leave Spain in late December. Telling people that I was leaving early was certainly not the most enjoyable experience, but I knew that I wanted to make a change, so I did it anyway.
None of this is to say that I didn’t have an amazing experience in Spain, I would not trade what I learned for anything. Did I make mistakes? Of course, but the ability to speak to people that I never would have been able to before makes every mistake I made worth it 10 times over. I do want to help others learn from the mistakes I made though. If you are reading this blog and trying to plan a gap year the two biggest questions I would ask you are as follows:
What will your day to day life look like? and Who will your friends be?
I would ask you to think about these two questions hard, because these two questions are the root of where I went wrong. As I was planning my gap year I would have said I will spend my days learning Spanish and playing hockey and my friends will be my classmates and hockey teammates. But I didn’t consider how these two things would affect each other. Since I had hockey every nearly every night and every weekend it was difficult to spend time with my classmates outside of class, and since I didn’t go to school with any of my teammates it was difficult to spend time with them outside the rink. Having a game every weekend for hockey was also difficult, because while I love hockey it made traveling, which is pretty much synonymous with being in Europe, pretty difficult to arrange. So, make sure you think about these questions so that you don’t do what I did, make yourself simultaneously too busy and not busy enough.
So, reader who may be considering taking a gap year, should any of this make you reconsider? ABSOLUTELY NOT! I now want to talk about some of the many amazing things times I had living in Spain with some pictures.
Playing hockey in Spain:
Playing hockey for S.A.D. Majadahonda was definitely one of the craziest things I’ve ever done. As anyone who has played a sport knows, communication with your teammates is key, and I had to communicate in Spanish. This forced me to get good at listening to people and being able to respond quickly. It also gave me the opportunity to travel throughout Spain with Spaniards. Every weekend that we had an away game we would leave the night before on a bus, play a game, and then have at least 6 hours to explore the city. Experiencing Spain with Spanish hockey players was probably one of the most unique experiences I had.
My Host Family:
My host family were probably the nicest people I had ever met. They were the real reason that leaving Spain was so difficult. They brought me to their summer home up north, I want to their grandparents 50th wedding anniversary. They treated me like I was their son. I will be forever grateful to them.
Classes at Universidad Nebrija:
I am actually amazed at how much I learned in 4 months. I started off with a pretty solid foundation, but wow, I honestly never imagined that I would understand Spanish as well as I do now. When I started out, speaking was easier than understanding, but now I can understand everything so speaking is definitely the harder part.
I was lucky to have three close friends from home in Europe at the same time I was there. One in Salamanca, Spain, just a few hours north of me in Madrid, one in Switzerland, and one in London. I traveled the most with the one in Salamanca, and the friends that he had made on his first semester at Colby College that he spent in Spain. We went to Barceonla (my friend in England actually came on that trip too) and Milan together. I also went to visit both friends in Switzerland and London.
So, am I glad I spent 4 months in Spain? Yes I am. Am I happy I left when I did to pursue other things? Yes I am. Would I change some things? Yes. Would I trade my experience for anything? Absolutely not!
As my first month in Granada draws to a close, I am so grateful for all of the amazing places I’ve visited and excited for what’s to come. Yesterday, I visited the Alhambra for the first time and can now safely say that photos do not do it justice. I have never seen such a beautiful collection of incredible palaces, historic ruins, and picture-perfect gardens.
Over the last month, I have run into the typical obstacles expected of studying abroad. I still get hungry in the afternoon and then quickly remember dinner is not until 9:30. I’ve had days where I can hold a conversation with a native speaker without missing a beat. I’ve also experienced times where I can’t recall a word in Spanish or in English.
I am so glad I chose to live with a host family, instead of in a dorm or apartment. In my host home, I get to see the day to day experiences of a typical Spanish citizen. Additionally, I get to constantly practice speaking Spanish. After only a month, my host mom says my Spanish has drastically improved. Initially, it was definitely very strange to be living with a family that was not my own. However, as the weeks pass by, I find myself participating more in conversations and joining the fun whenever a soccer game is on. As a huge soccer fan, I was lucky to see Granada, the clear underdog, defeat Barcelona. The four of us in the living room could have been mistaken for an entire stadium as we yelled at the TV whenever something exciting happened.
So far, I have had no doubts about my decision to take a gap year. I can’t imagine another time in my life when I could study and intern abroad for an entire year and I’m glad I took advantage of the opportunity.
At my high school graduation, my philosophy teacher Mr. Concilio gave a piece of life advice that has really stuck with me through my first week in Spain. The simple version of the advice that he gave is that when you have two different life choices, make the decision that allows you to tell the better story later in life. I think about this advice because this August I had the choice of either matriculating at the university that’s been my dream since I first set foot on campus, or I could live in Spain for seven months. I chose the latter, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this blog post. Every day I think about if I had chosen to begin my freshman year at Duke and how much easier it would have been logistically. I wouldn’t have to open a Spanish bank account, change my phone plan to a Spanish one, or fight for an appointment with the police to get my application for residence officially approved.
Of course, if I had chosen to begin my freshman year, then I wouldn’t have gotten to see a castle built on top of a boulder (a scene of Game of Thrones was filmed there!). I also probably would never have known about the region that it’s located in, Alto Tajo, which combines the classic plains of Southern France and Spain with the wind beaten rocks of Arizona. Nor would I have gotten to know my incredible host family, and had the privilege of meeting their incredible friends, who so far include a talented Spanish chef, and a man who raises most of the bulls that are fought in Spain. I also, most obviously, wouldn’t have the incredible opportunity to become fluent in Spanish, which would let me talk to 450 million more people than I already can in English.
Day to day I am having an incredible time. But the fact that I am going to be in Spain for the next seven months constantly looms over me; it’s scary. Whenever I start having doubts and thinking that I just want to go home I try to remember what Mr. Concilio said. Next summer, when I am getting ready to start my freshman year at Duke, I am going to be so happy that I took a gap year. I will have incredible stories to tell and I am going to be much more prepared for life as a college student. After all, if I can live a year in Madrid, Durham should be a piece of cake!
I’m one month out from my departure — a one-way ticket to Paris. I’ve never been to France, yet here I go alone with nothing but a backpack and camera. I’ve arranged to stay in a hostel in the Montmartre neighborhood for three nights. I had to call the hostel and ask how to book my room, which has probably been the most nerve racking thing so far. Nerve racking because it revealed just how much I didn’t know how to say in French. I know how to debrouiller (a french word that is always hard to translate but basically means to get around), but I’m not going to just be debrouiller-ing. I’m going to be hiking nearly 1,000 miles across the French and Spanish countryside, following an ancient pilgrimage route known as the Camino de Santiago. And so what happens if the roof is leaking in a hostel and I need to ask for a bucket? I don’t know the word for bucket in either French or Spanish — okay now I do because I just looked them up in google translate. But still, I don’t know how to say chapstick, or room-service, or blister, or walking stick, or quantitative biostatistics. Anyway, I suppose that’s a large part of why I’m going: to learn all those words.
Another thing that worries me is the physical difficulty of this journey. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t hiked 1,000 miles before, and my feet don’t seem that excited about the prospect. I know I can do it — I am just trying to not think of the blisters (apparently cloque in French, God knows how I’m going to remember that). I’ve been going hiking about three times a week, and I am starting to understand how to pace myself and such, but closer to my departure I should be hiking every morning to prepare. We’ll see if that actually happens. Anyway, I’ve spent way too much time at REI and online researching the best gear, so hopefully I am as comfortable as I can be on the trail. I’m trying not to think of this as a get-fit-quick scheme, but hopefully I at least come out with some really nice calves when I return.
I think more importantly too, I have to consider the mental challenges of this journey. For most people my age there is college to buffer a transition into adulthood. And while I will still have four years at Duke, I will have to embark on this year independently. I’ll have to navigate living in a foreign country, speaking a new language, and taking responsibility over myself. I am ready, but I am not going to have the same support system that exists at a university, nor is there going to be the camaraderie that exists between freshman students as they figure out this new chapter in life. I am going to be in charge of myself — that’s both exciting and daunting. Anyway, see you in a year, Duke!