“I, like many other millennial children, dreamed of travelling the world at an early age. We so often studied different cultures, histories, and languages; however, they remained distant and almost imaginary within our myopic American setting.
Over the course of my adolescence, I accrued numerous stamps within my passport thanks to parents and educators who held international travel in high regard. Although I imagined a future abroad (eventually), I never considered relocating before I became a “grown up.” This time-sensitive outlook clearly reflects an arbitrary designation of “oh, I’ll get to that eventually!” Or, more appropriately, “That seems really scary and too different.”
In January 2009 I received an unexpected e-mail: a family friend contacted my parents to offer me a homestay in Dresden, Germany for one year. The news took me entirely by surprise, but left a strange feeling of curiosity. What if I did go? What would it be like? I would have to delay beginning college; would I be behind? What would my friends think? These questions, all seemingly illogical in retrospect, plagued me for almost three months.
Soon enough, acceptance (and rejection) letters poured into my mailbox. I found myself disappointed after rejection from my top-choice university and thought, “Maybe leaving for the year is the change I need to start over.”
The first three months in Dresden left me in flux between elation and frustration. By September, I felt adjusted. By October, I was conversational in German. By November, my mind finally settled on my experience. I’m here… I’m here for a while. The moment in which I finally realized that this “trip” was not a vacation, rather a life transition, changed me to the core.
I struggled for many weeks afterwards that determining what my purpose would be while abroad. Given my professional work environment at my government internship, as well as the age of my host-siblings, I failed to establish a social network with strong friendships. Socializing remained even more limited by the fact that, although I was proficient in German, it remained a foreign language, with certain cultural and linguistic nuances that only ease with time.
Sometime in January, I recall a conversation with my parents in which they said something along the lines of, “You need to get through whatever it is holding you back; otherwise, this experience will never be what you need it to be.” At the time, those words stung. I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of failure—I had limited myself for so long because I let outside influences control and determine my experience.
From that point on, I promised to start living for myself. I made a point to spend more time alone, consciously crafting the experience I sought to have over the remaining seven months. Instead of sitting at home wondering how I could do things alone, I simply went out and did things. Suddenly my cautious and over-analytical approach to living vanished. More importantly, the concern of whether or not I was alone seemed inconsequential. Me, myself, and I made the best company for any endeavor. It sounds selfish, and somewhat confusing at first; but I quickly learned that this time alone would strengthen the foundation of my person more than any other experience could.
I discovered that the uniqueness of my favorite activities heightened when I did them alone. Concerts became more intimate, like a private performance for only me. Food became more intricate; I could pay closer attention to taste without the distraction of mealtime conversation. Most importantly, travel became more introspective and adventurous; uninhibited by the needs and wants of anyone else, I drifted from place to place having only the experience that I wanted.
Within seven months, I discovered more about myself than I did in almost 19 years of life. While wading through challenges, and encouraging myself to break free of expectations, I gained a sense of self. Moreover, for the first time in my life, I understood, and embodied, what it meant to feel confident. I trusted in my ability to live happily and create unique experiences for myself. I understood to a greater degree what aspects of life drove my passions, or “raison d’être” as the French would say. All skepticism in my abilities or aspirations vanished; I was certain that my drive and tenacity would see me to any goal.
Most importantly, I learned how to fail. As an often high-strung and driven high school student, I feared not succeeding at (or perfecting) every activity I undertook. Living alone forces you into a constant state of vulnerability, which, albeit terrifying, heightens your fortitude and encourages risk-taking. I realized over time that making mistakes is not wrong, but important and healthy for personal growth. It is through these risks and failures that we learn our abilities, and discover ways to improve ourselves.
I returned from my gap year fully recharged and prepared for another momentous life change: starting college. The first few weeks of transition—a large campus, 20,000 undergraduates, ostensibly never ending free time—left many of peers bewildered. However, I embraced the change and viewed it as a chance for discovery. Much like my arrival in Germany, college marked an opportunity to start anew. My newfound independence and confidence left me feeling prepared and excited for the newest phase of life.
In that year abroad, I learned the true meaning of happiness. Of course there were moments of frustration, loneliness, or anger; but are those not simply a ubiquitous element of life? The distinction lies in learning to transform those moments of futility into moments of growth and introspection. By learning from mistakes and struggles, we come to fully understand the lifestyles changes necessary to live happily. I recall having dinner with a friend who had not seen me since the previous summer. He paused mid-conversation and said, “I dont know what it is, but something has changed. You have a glow and inner-strength that I have never seen before.” His comments took me by surprise; but I knew that for him to say that, I had done something right.
I affectionately refer to my year in Germany as “my year alone.” For some reason, that seems more foreign than living abroad.”
Jasmine currently studies Political Science and German Language & Literature at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (Class of 2014). At UNC, she is a member of Gappl: UNC’s Gap Year People, and works extensively with the Global Gap Year Fellowship. http://campus-y.unc.edu/get-involved/global-programs/gap-year. Her non-academic interests include music (listening and creating), travel (nearby and far away), adventurous eating (more often successfully than not), and being outside (preferably on a beach or in the mountains, but nowhere in between.)