The Truth About Taking a Gap Year (in Ethiopia)
Occidental student Laura Koeller (middle) took a year off before going to college.
(Credit: Courtesy of Laura Koeller.)

I am one of those Gap Year kids. Yes, I have seen the "Gap Yah" video and no, I did not “chunder everywhere” (at least not that often). The decision to take a year off is one I get asked about a lot and for good reason.

Though taking a year off is relatively standard practice in places that aren’t the U.S., it’s not exactly the norm over here. I’ve talked to a lot of people who have expressed jealousy, of both what I did and the fact that I took time off at all.

And I’m not gonna lie; it was probably the best decision I’ve ever made and not just for the fact that my passport looks a lot more impressive now than it did before.

Before my gap year, college was just “The Next Step.” Both my parents have multiple degrees. I went to a competitive high school where the question wasn’t “Am I going to college?” but “Where am I going to college?” The decision of whether or not to pursue a college education was a decision that had been seemingly made for me. I had my next step all laid out for me, and I was totally okay with that…until the answer to the question of “where?” became one I didn’t like.

Not getting into my first choice school (or second or third) certainly made me re-evaluate that neat little plan I had for myself. So, I decided to defer my enrollment from one of the schools that did accept me and just reapply so I could go where I wanted. In the meantime, I figured I could do some of that cool, life-changing travel stuff. But the more I thought about the places I’d go with all this free time, the more I found my priorities shifting.

I made up my mind that while my friends would be going to Ikea with their parents to find things to decorate their dorm rooms with, I would be getting on a plane to Ethiopia. I became so entranced with this idea that I was a lot less eager to think about finding a different school. Stressing about the college admissions process yet again seemed almost foolish. Thus, I decided not to. If I could defy my high school’s convention of going to school right after graduation, then I could defy the convention of going to the Ivy League as well.

So I left. And, like any period in one’s life, it was a mixed bag. There were low points, such as bursting into tears when I heard “Party in the USA” while walking by a café on a particularly homesick day, but there were high points as well. I doubt any wedding I ever go to will ever compare with the Ethiopian weddings I attended (the idea of my WASP-y family doing the Ethiopian shoulder dance known as eskesta is laughable).

I taught a room full of 13-year-olds how to sing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Even the potentially depressing Thanksgiving without my family turned into an amusing feast with my friends, as I was accused of “destroying” food when I introduced them to mashed potatoes. There were moments I felt the most acute feelings of isolation I’ve ever felt, but these moments helped me learn how to accept being alone, a skill I’m sure will serve me well later on.

We live in a fast-paced country, where we are all expected to do everything at once, but having enough time to eat lunch is a point of pride. Ethiopians consider an adequate lunch break one that includes going home, cooking, roasting and brewing one’s own coffee beans and finishing it off with popcorn.

While I was gone, immersed in this slower-paced world, I was removed from the trajectory I had been on. Instead of barreling through the motions without really knowing why I was doing them, I had time to think about direction. Sometimes what we really need is to slow down a bit, to mull over what we’re doing before we do it rather than just doing what seems the easiest or most logical step.

I found myself missing academia and intellectual conversations with people my own age. Experiencing life in Ethiopia allowed me to think of college as a different experience in and of itself, one that I truly wanted to have. College is a world of obligations, and I went into it accepting them and taking them on with intention. It’s hard to resent obligations you create for yourself.

A gap year is not necessarily a step back; it’s more of a step to the side to survey the path, look where it’s going and decide if that’s a road you want to go down.