We had the chance to interview Ella MacVeagh, a gap year participant, about her experiences abroad. Ella is currently a Senior at Hamilton College where she is a Studio Art and Neuroscience double major.
What inspired you to take a gap year?
I’ve had the good fortune of getting to grow up with an international educator as my mother, so I think part of me always knew I was going to take a gap year. Mostly because I had known it was an option for so long. However, I do think I decided officially my sophomore year of high school to take a gap year. I was already so sick of school and essay writing and being stuck in a classroom. I knew I wanted to go to college but if I was sick of school only two years into high school I knew I would need a break and some adventure before starting college.
What was your biggest personal challenge you experienced abroad and how did you overcome it?
I think the biggest personal challenge for me while abroad was the sexism that I experienced. I was in Spain, Costa Rica, and Panama where machismo is still very present in their cultures. I was working on farms where I would be told something was “too heavy for a girl” or some task was “not a girl’s job”. I was also playing a lot of soccer with only men since not many women play soccer in those three countries. I found it frustrating to not be taken seriously in some situations simply because of my gender. However, I would get fed up and point out the injustice and they would laugh and say “Oh right you’re an American girl”.
After taking a gap year before attending Hamilton College, what do you think is the value of delaying your start to college?
I think there is so much value in taking a gap year before college. Personally, I was so excited to get back into the classroom and start doing homework again! Which I never thought would be possible. I was just excited to be taking notes and going to lectures again. I think I was really there for the school, not just the parties. I think my gap year gave me so much self-confidence and self-assurance that I was able to be in college and the new social situations without conforming to something that I was not, which was something I saw happening to my peers.
Did you experience reverse culture shock? If so, how did you transition back to life stateside? Did you learn something new about your time abroad by sharing it with others?
I think the reverse culture shock I experienced didn’t hit me till I was first starting college. I also don’t think it was the culture from the countries I had been to but the culture of taking a gap year. I had had so many solo adventures away from home, I had lived with so many new and different people already. So when I first started college I felt just a whole lot older than my new classmates. I felt like the kids around me were trying to “college” really hard. They were showing off their drinking skills and some were nervous wrecks about being away from home for the first time where as I felt pretty secure and confident being away and no need to show off my partying prowess. This feeling soon went away however, I was still just as much a freshman as anyone else when it came to the Hamilton culture, and quickly I felt like we were part of the same group.
How did a gap year influence your college plans (academic path, extracurricular activity involvement, etc.), if at all, and impact your decision to study abroad in college?
I went into college after my gap year with a more specific idea of what I wanted to study, but as is the way of life, things changed and by sophomore year, I had found a subject I never even considered before being on a college campus. But maybe because of my gap year, I was more open to the change in plans? After my gap year, I knew I had to study abroad again, I had the traveling bug. However, because of my gap year, I think I was able to pick a program totally out of the ordinary. I was in a tiny town in Ireland with a class of 5 students in an art school and I loved it. I think if I hadn’t had my gap year I would have been more likely to pick a more typical study abroad location so I could go galavanting around Europe.
What advice would you give to a high school student considering a gap year?
I have never once met someone who has taken a gap year and regretted it. I think whether you travel or work it is an excellent way for growth and independence and some real-world learning experience you won’t be able to find in a classroom. In all of the adventures that I have had, no matter how daunting or scary they always turned out okay. But really, you just need to listen to yourself and you know what you need best. That being said, I think my gap year was the best decision I have ever made and I highly recommend one if you are tempted!