“Stop washing plates for a second and go outside — quick, before it’s gone!”
So, I did, peeling off my food-safe gloves into the trashcan and dashing outside into a frigid November morning. I stepped out into the courtyard of Pinkham Notch Visitor’s Center, where I worked in the kitchen, and tilted my head up at the looming Mount Washington.
Mount Washington was tinted a brilliant pink this morning, aided by the blanket of snow that perched on the mountain. Through my shivers, I smiled and sipped my coffee.
“It’s called ‘alpenglow,’” my boss informed me.
I’d heard of alpenglow and I had seen pictures, but I had never seen it myself. It’s way better than the pictures, by the way.
This was the essence of my gap year: taking those things I’d only seen in textbooks or heard about in passing and putting them into the context of my own life story. Now, they they really meant something.
This is true learning.
Backing Up A Little
I suck at school. School is both a skill and a talent. You can get good at it, and some kids are already better at it than others. It’s like, say, art.
Nobody is going to convince you that you’ll live on a steam grate if you’re not good at art, though, and I’ve figured out that school is no different. Of course, nobody will tell you that.
When I arrived on campus, I felt immediately like the metaphorical ‘square peg.’ Far from loving football, parties, drinking, and social scenes, I was introverted with a million solitary hobbies.
I hated lecture halls. I spent hours studying and still failed exams. And nobody on the planet wanted to be friends with the grumpy blob I had become.
I felt cheated. Multiple choice exams and textbooks written by old farts failed to teach me anything. I searched desperately for any possible way to leave — study abroad, dropping out — anything.
I hated college.
And it felt like a crime. I should be really thankful for this opportunity, shouldn’t I? Wouldn’t people all over the globe kill to have what I have? Why did everybody else seem to look like the blissfully happy models in the college pamphlets, while I wished I could be anywhere else?
I stepped back and took a gap year on a leave of absence. I lived in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I explored the dead-quiet woods and hills of the New Jersey Appalachians by myself.
I followed coyote tracks in the snow, discovered people who were a lot like me, and learned how to interact with others. I forged a tunnel through anxiety, straight to the other side.
I learned to save my pennies for my dream, ignore the naysayers, and then pursue that dream.
When the time came, I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. I walked from one end of the country to the other in five months exactly. On August 7, 2020, I stood on Mount Katahdin in Maine and celebrated the completion of my lifelong dream.
And, I celebrated it next to some of my closest friends.
The Big Difference
The adults in your life will have a way of insisting that going straight through school and then being gainfully employed is the safest, most stable, most respectable way to go.
Allow me to respectfully, safely, and stably disagree.
Coming back to school was a culture shock in different ways than I imagined. I already knew that school would be hard and boring, so I was relatively prepared to be frustrated and disenchanted.
What I hadn’t thought about prior to my return was the way that my attitude towards life has changed and how it significantly differs from the attitudes of my peers.
My peers are stressed out of their minds about finding a job immediately after college. They fake confidence by talking about their internships, the clubs that they are president of, and the friends they’re going out with because they feel as though they’re competing with other college students.
They are worried about being right and fitting in. The content of the internship doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they have it to polish up their resume. And how could I blame them? That’s what everybody else is doing.
What I Learned
My gap year taught me that there are millions upon millions of fascinating things to do with life. I’m in no rush to bind myself to one thing and call it a career. I also have no inclination to do something simply because “everybody else is doing it.”
That’s called the Hamster Wheel, and I do not intend to be on it.
My peers are also worried about being pretty. No matter how skinny or blond or fit, no matter how big their boobs or butts, how strong their biceps, how fast they can run or generally awesome they might be, they always believe that they are ugly.
No matter how perfect or sculpted, they’re dissatisfied that there’s not a photoshopped magazine model looking back at them in the mirror.
Over the course of my gap year, I spent a lot of time in the mountains, stacking firewood, cutting branches, and lifting 50 pound bags of rock salt.
Instead of a commodity, I gradually came to view my body as a strong, healthy machine. I ate when I was hungry because I needed thousands of calories. There was no room for shaming my body because it had work to do and miles to walk.
There was no “guilty” food for me. There was no “being bad” and eating a slice of cake. In fact, I would have eaten the entire cake if you had offered it. This total acceptance of my body has continued past my gap year. I am not ashamed of it, whether I gain a few pounds or lose a few.
Last, and most importantly, the words “I wish” are a big part of college student vocabulary.
“I wish I could do what you did.”
“I wish, but I don’t have time.”
“I wish I could get a job in my field.”
If there’s one thing that I learned during my gap year, it’s that you can spend your entire life listening to the people that put up barriers, or you can spend your life crashing straight through them.
Anything, and I mean anything is possible. “I wish” is only a productive statement if you follow it with “I will.”
I Still Hate College…
And, now I know why.
Because college encourages you to pursue stability.
Because college is not for introverts.
Because college discourages questioning authority.
Because college only celebrates the best, the brightest, and those that succeed the very first time.
Because college encourages complete perfection and chips away at self confidence.
I am not advocating for dropping out of college. A degree opens doors to conversations that you might not be able to have without it. It’s a backup plan, and a credential. It’s an enormous opportunity. It’s a privilege.
What it is not is the end-all-be-all. It is not your identity, a predictor for the rest of your life, or a cap on what you can do. It is not your career and it is not a measure of your intelligence.
I will finish my degree. I probably won’t enjoy it. My gap year taught me that it’s okay not to like college. I no longer feel the pressure to make sure it is the best four years of my life. Why? Because, life starts after college.
The good news? You get to do whatever you want with it.
Renée is a current college student just trying to survive like everyone else. She writes for her own outdoors blog, The Dirt. In 2020, she thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and is always seeking more adventures to balance out the mundane Zoom classes. She can always be found covered in dirt, flour, or ink.
College Mate Notes
At College Mate, we strongly recommend gap-years, whether you take it before college, during college, or after. Our founder, Alexis Chateau, took her gap year two years after graduation and is now RVing across the desert Southwest with her cat. If you have a college story or opinion to share, pitch us!
10 Comments Add yours
When I taught, I also shared the myriad of job/career paths available, having worked in many. I also explained better to find out what you enjoy earlier in life, for then, the choices become easier, though you’ll still work hard, but enjoy the work. And if you enjoy the work, it’s like having a hobby for decades. Here’s the thing. College isn’t the only way. While I went to college, I realized about 90% of my learning came outside those buildings in the form of hobbies, jobs, and research.
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This is excellent advice. College certainly isn’t the only option, but most high-paying professions require a degree, such as law and medicine. Even as a writer, clients ask for associate’s or bachelor’s degrees in relevant fields. That said, I’m sure once someone has the right experience, a college degree becomes a lot less important!
— Alexis Chateau
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As with my friends, we also completed our education to get that piece of paper, though we also took additional classes of interest. But I did this after working in different fields, trying this and that, even management in sales. However, I would never encourage to believe any document means anything of real. It’s what you do and learn of real value that stands the test of time. I became a teacher for many years, but was already able to teach well long before. The best teachers aren’t over educated.
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I don’t think there’s such a thing as an over-educated teacher. If someone is teaching me, they must also sell me on the value of education. So, if I can be over-educated, who is to say I shouldn’t draw the line right there in their class? Education is a lifelong process that happens inside and outside of the classroom. I don’t believe anyone can learn too much, though people can certainly become too obsessed with specific topics at the expense of sanity and the rest of their lives.
All the best with your career and teaching!
— Alexis Chateau
As someone that loves college, I found this post very enlightening! I find myself often feeling anxious about what the future holds and what I will do after I graduate, but this post made me feel excited to see what’s out there. So excited for you and your journey!
It’s good that you’re thinking beyond just working for corporate after college. There are so many other options available. All the best!
— Alexis Chateau (College Mate)
I was 20 years old once too, and I do remember the way I felt in those days. Now looking back over a decade I do need to say this. you will have to settle down unfortunately sooner rather than later, and money will become something in that you are either winning or losing and there is no in between. It will affect so many aspects of your life that you wouldn’t think as a normal 20 year old that money would. I have seen many people myself included having to struggle on a daily basis, just because we decided to follow our dreams or wasted time trying to find ourselves. Now here I am with a job I don’t hate but a salary that doesn’t let me do much and some medicals problems i’d had to postpone because I just don’t have the money to solve them. If you think that college has something to do with purpose, goals and meaning, you are looking at it from the wrong aspect, college has everything to do with your livelihood. and most likely if you are entering college it is because you don’t come from a family that could offer other opportunities, you will not inherit a business, or a trade. so you are pretty much on your own out there and it is a jungle.
Hi there! We didn’t write this post, but as supporters of taking gap years and following dreams, we will respond on her behalf. We understand where you’re coming from, but risks don’t become useless and bad ideas because they didn’t work out for you.
I completed college and then decided corporate was not for me. After two years in finance, I quit. That was 2015. Since then, I have lived in two other countries, including Mexico, which is where I am now.
I grew my content creation side gig into a business and it pays my bills and funds my full-time travel. I still own a home in Georgia with my mom that I can return to at any time and I just bought land in New Mexico to build my tiny home on a permanent foundation. It will complement my tiny home on wheels (a travel trailer).
It is possible for someone to follow their dreams, still account for the future, and have exit strategies in place. I am 32 years old and would not give this up for anything.
I am sorry the risks you took ended in failure and wish you better health and prosperity. But, please do not turn that bitterness into discouragement for other people who might have much better luck than you did — or a better plan.
This was so encouraging. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I hope you start up your blog again.
We’re really glad you enjoyed her story!