“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!