THE ITCH

I don’t know about you, but by my senior year of high school, I was burnt out – like, serious, sat-on-a-Charmaster-grill-for-365-days-too-long burnt out. While I wasn’t gripped by the distressingly viral phenomenon known as senioritis so many of my peers were suffering from (symptoms include free-falling school attendance, a distressingly laissez faire attitude toward homework, and a generally vacant expression with a little (lot) of drool), I was definitely feeling something that set my teeth on edge.

Me. All of senior year. Picture taken from theodysseyonline.com

Me. All of senior year. Picture taken from theodysseyonline.com

I pushed through it, and after graduation, was lucky enough to embark upon a two-and-a-half-week European jaunt with my three best friends as an exceedingly generous celebratory gift on behalf of our parents.

However, on our way back, my friends all expressed the same sentiment: Europe was fun, but whew is it good to be going home. I was floored. Stunned, I kept my opinions to myself, but one thought kept recurring through my head: I miss my parents, but why am I not ready to go home?

After an entire summer of entirely too much Netflix, avoiding freshman placement exams like the bubonic plague, and recuperating from the detritus left over by 13 years in the public school system, I hauled off to my freshman year of college – something I had been anticipating as the cure for the curiously restless sensation I couldn’t seem to shake.

Despite the new environment and the hectic blur of fast-forming friendships, harder classes, and some truly awful dining hall food, the darn restlessness still wouldn’t go away.

It wasn’t until I talked to – and later became close friends with (due to our mutual bonding of hailing from Seattle) – one of my suitemates, Anna, that I was able to pinpoint the exact reason behind why my itch couldn’t be scratched.

The conversation went something like this:

Anna: “Happy Birthday, Erika!”

Me (blushing while taking a sip of my celebratory Starbucks): “Why thank you, Anna.”

Anna: “Wait, wait – like, how old are you now?”

Me (blushing out of embarrassment now, mumbling): “Um, eighteen.”

Anna: “WHAT?! You’re a BABY! Oh my god – like – wait, did you skip a grade?!”

Me (resigned): “Sigh, uh, yep. Totally.” (sips coffee).

Anna (undergoing existential crisis): “Damn – I can’t believe we’re both freshmen – I’m, like, twenty.”

Me (spits out my celebratory Starbucks, grossing both myself and Anna out): “WHAT?! You’re so OLD! Did you start school late?!”

Anna (exasperated): “No, silly, I took a gap year!”

THE DIAGNOSIS

During the ensuing conversation, I expressed envy over Anna’s boldness for braving a gap year abroad, away from familiarity and the English language. I mentioned how burnt out I still felt, the lethargy and ennui with which I regarded school and class work, and how frustrated I was that I just couldn’t seem to find the motivation to kick it to the curb.

Anna looked at me askance. “Why do you think I took a gap year, dude? 13 years straight of school was more than enough for me. I had to get away or I’d have gone insane.”

What followed remains one of the most fascinating conversations I’ve held to date with another student (approximately) my age.

Hiking into the sunrise is always a good way to go. Picture taken from time.com.

Hiking into the sunrise is always a good way to go. Picture taken from time.com.

ANNA’S JOURNEY

Anna told me that for as long as she can remember, she has had a passion for theater and the performing arts. A gifted actress and director, Anna knew she wanted to be a theater major at Northwestern University (which has one of the best theater programs in the country) from 8th grade onwards.

After living, breathing, and sleeping this dream for years, an unfortunate set of circumstances occurred. Her senior year of high school, Anna didn’t get into her dream school.

“Wait – what?” I interrupted, shocked. How was she sitting in front of me, living next to me, if she hadn’t gotten in? Moreover, what moronic admissions officer had turned down someone as gifted and intelligent as Anna?

“Yeah, I know,” she sighed. “That was probably the hardest moment of my life up to that point.”

She went on to explain that they usually only admitted one student from her school, and someone else decided to apply last-minute, securing a spot that would have otherwise been hers.

Bummed out, burnt out, and disillusioned, Anna decided that she’d had enough of school for the time being. And thus, she made a decision that many – myself included – would never even have considered due to how radical it seemed. She took a break.

She took a Gap Year.

Taking a gap year after college (and before graduate school) is becoming an almost commonplace occurrence. Taking a gap year before college is as of yet still almost unheard of.

I asked the question at the forefront of my mind. “Wait, that’s so cool – but what did you do?”

“I went to France, India, New Zealand, and Japan,” she promptly replied.

“Wait, but that’s so expensive.” I was aghast – I couldn’t even fathom how much money that would cost.

“Nope! It was with a program, and I worked and interned in every single country.”

“Did you like it? Was it worth it – like, would you do it again?”

“I would 100% take another gap year. After high school I was so exhausted and burnt out I needed a perspective on life that didn’t include grades and tests.

“I came into college with a much clearer idea of what I wanted from an education and what was important to me – to be well rounded and focus on not just grades. I didn’t feel so caught up in the college bubble at NU because I had seen so much of the world.

“I would definitely recommend everyone take one. I think it’s crazy for so many high school students to go straight back into school after they graduate. Taking a gap year forces you to reevaluate and grow up much more than being coddled in a college bubble does.”

My mind was blown. “What would you have done differently, if you could have done it over again?

“Well, I think I would have gone exploring more and tried to make relationships with more locals in the countries I was in instead of hanging out with mostly Americans and getting stuck into routines,” Anna said thoughtfully.

Listen to this guy. Be like this guy. Literally, who doesn't want to be like this guy? Picture taken from abroadstudy.net.

Listen to this guy. Be like this guy. Literally, who doesn’t want to be like this guy? Picture taken from abroadstudy.net.

THE CURE: THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX

The world is a big, big place, and life is pretty short. After talking with Anna, I can definitely say that one of my greatest regrets is not taking a gap year to sort out my priorities, take a breather, and grow in character rather than book knowledge.

I won’t miss my chance to take one (or several) after college to do the same.

If you’re reading this article, and still in high school – carpe diem! There are some pretty cool things you can do before settling your nose down back into school books. Sometimes, the most educational experiences occur far, far away from any classroom.

Erika Sun

Erika Sun is a member of Northwestern University's class of 2018 enrolled in the Honors Program in Medical Education. She is currently double majoring in Psychology and Biology, although she's seriously considering throwing in the towel and living in a van by the river. She grew up in Seattle, Washington, and consequently feels bereft without mountains, the ocean, skiing, hiking, and surfing – none of which are viable options in Chicago. Thus, she instead makes it her mission to eat her way through the Chi-town foodie scene and pack on the Freshman 50...as a junior. Each admissions season brings with it fresh waves of cold sweat, and memories of the many tubs of Ben & Jerry's ice cream consumed while crafting the perfect personal statement.