When a map is drawn out for you, it’s hard to pave any other path to your destination than the one already so clearly laid out.
A safe and well-lit street will nearly always seem like the better option over a dark abandoned forest, and it would seem foolish to trespass into uncharted territory when a more typical route of direction can take you where you want to go.
Our entire lives, we’re given tried-and-true directions to achieving happiness and success. We’re told a good college will heed impressive career opportunities, and an internship every summer will build up a sufficient resume. If we do W, X, and Y in exactly this order, we’ll achieve Z. And while these norms are not unfounded (a college degree will certainly open doors and gaining experience in a respective field is never a bad idea), it also can’t be healthy to hand out the same set of directions to people with such divergent lived experiences. How can we claim to have the cheat-sheet to reaching happiness and success when happiness and success look so different when worn on different people?
That’s why I reached out to six incredibly brave and fun and spontaneous young students and workers who made the decision to pave their own paths. Some took a year off of college to explore their identities and interests abroad, others never made it onto a college campus. One is building up a successful music career and another is currently studying at a Circus School in Montreal.
While they’re all in different areas of the world experiencing different things, they all made the identical decision to trek into uncharted territory. Even more impressive, they all climbed the fence alone as their friends decided to take the backed-up freeway.
Spoiler Alert: they all survived and are alive to tell their stories. Read the first of the series below:
Bella Stenvall, 20
Went abroad for a year after high school before beginning school at UCLA
(Interview conducted by Genevieve Finn and Anna Tingley)
What was the initial seed that sparked your idea to take a gap year?
It was a combination of things. I had a really hard end of my senior year of high school and I also worked a lot during high school and it just became pretty clear that I needed to take some time. My mom’s from the Philippines, so we grew up traveling a lot – growing up, that was a big economic priority for my family, so by the time I was 16, I was very comfortable being by myself abroad and in very underdeveloped areas, so I think that idea of just leaving and going by myself didn’t really scare me.
As someone who’s very academically involved, what were you most wary of in terms of holding off school?
I think I was worried I would take a gap year and I wouldn’t want to come back to school, which is something my parents and my friends were kind of worried about because normally the narrative is like, ‘Ah, you go, and then you go to Cabo and lay on a beach … ‘ There’s a lot of fun that can happen and people don’t really think of it as intellectually beneficial but I started going to a university, so I was actually in a university for a whole semester, in Spain at the University of Granada from early August to basically the end of December. So I was in school for a bit and I think that was important for me because I wanted to stay in the groove of academics, so I did really know I wanted to go back.
How was the initial transition?
I moved to Spain with some Spanish from high school but couldn’t say a word and I was living in a residencia, which is a Spanish dorm building, with only Spaniards, so I had no friends the first month – it was pretty awful, I was really miserable. I missed all my friends back home and with social media, everyone’s in college so you’re seeing – even if they’re struggling – all you’re seeing is like, ‘Ah, here I am at this frat party, I’m living my best life.’
But then within a month the language really picked up and I was able to communicate and make friends, it was so clear that what I was doing was so much more rewarding and would benefit me.
So you were in school until December … what did your traveling look like afterwards?
So I was based out of Spain because I was going to that university but the nice thing was is that I was taking courses for credit, but because I knew I was gonna head to school in the Fall anyway, I took time off from that too. So I traveled to [around] nine different countries, because flights were [around] $30 to go to Scotland for a weekend, and I was dating a guy from there, so I went there for a bit, or went to Ireland for some time. I just traveled a bit on the weekends or when I wasn’t in class.
And then I took about a month off and went and worked in a refugee camp in Southern Greece, not with a program or anything but just emailed a bunch of nonprofits that were doing work with the Syrian refugee crisis down there and then just flew to Athens, took a few buses, and then just was there for a while, which was another really important experience because it really shaped what I wanted to do.
That’s incredible! Can you expand on your experience helping the refugees?
So basically, I was living in Europe and realized that I was studying Arabic, Islam Studies, and Middle Eastern politics and they were all in Spanish but I was focusing on that region, because Granada itself has a big Arab influence because it was the last Moorish empire in that part of Spain. But I just was reading a lot – it was kinda when [the refugee crisis] was mainly in the media. All the boats that come from Turkey to that southernmost tip of Greece were really in the media and I was like, ‘I’m a plane flight away, I don’t really know what I want to do with my life but I’m studying Arabic and I know I’m interested in this part of the world and its religion and its culture,’ so I emailed 14 nonprofits and got responses from two of them and was like, ‘Hi, I can work for free, I’ll be there in the next week if you want me’ and they were like ‘Please!’ So I went to this camp that was in the middle of nowhere in this town called Sounio which is at the bottom of Greece, but there were 450 refugees, and 11 rotating young backpacker volunteers that just kind of rotated in and out.
And the refugees were just living there, figuring out what they were gonna do?
Yeah, they were just living – it was all people seeking asylum, so applying for asylum or not getting it. But I just lived in a cabin with a bunch of them for that time I was there. It was really important now that I’m at school because I think if I hadn’t have had that experience, I wouldn’t have known that that is somewhere that I really need to go. Because I went there and I got a lot out of it and I’m still in really close contact with most of the families that I worked with, but unless I get an education and have some sort of actual legitimacy as a scholar and as a person and am in a position where I can shape policy, I can’t help those demographics.
I was up from three in the morning to midnight every single day doing labor, organizing resources, working with the women, trying to create some sort of life there, which is great for me, because I’m like, ‘Ah, I’m getting so much out of this,’ but anyone can do that, like, any body can do that. So I think when I was there, when I got back to Spain, I was like, ‘Okay, so you’ve heard all these terrifying stories and you’ve developed these really close connections, but I can’t help people like that unless I get an education and I actually am doing something to shape their situation rather than just being a robot.
You can’t fix their situation by just going and volunteering. It’s good and you can learn a lot, but you can’t save, you can’t fix, you’re not really contributing. They’re still refugees and they can’t get out of their situation, so unless you’re in a position of power, you can’t really affect the situation. So that was really important now that I’m at school, to look at that and be like, ‘Wow, this is why I go to class, this is why I’m killing myself with all these classes and learning Arabic and everything I’m doing,’ because I hopefully can eventually go back to a situation like that and have skills necessary to actually be valuable in those spaces.
Was there any aspect of starting a year later that made this year harder? Any regrets that you have?
Well I got really lucky in the fact that I was working in D.C. for five months and interning for my Congressman when Trump got elected and was in the middle of that, and then was backpacking around South America for four months and just had so much fun. So I think that with that comes a lot of confidence and self awareness, so when you’re moving into the dorms with a bunch of kids that have never done their own laundry or been more than five miles from their parents, I had to remind myself to be patient and just like, ‘Okay, don’t get all uppity, not everyone is lucky enough to go and just, like, have an amazing year and come to college.’
But yeah, I think initially it was sort of a culture shock coming back to where everything was given to me and facilitated to me, rather than when I was by myself in South America …
There’s so many people that might be thinking about taking a gap year because they might not be enjoying their time in college and/or don’t know what they’re doing and want to go away. What would you say to people that are hesitant or wary about doing that?
I think if you have any inkling of wanting to do something untraditional like that, you will only benefit from it because the reality is, is school will always be there, it’s not going anywhere. But when else are you going to be young, uncommitted, with no responsibilities? My gap year set up was just like, ‘What am I interested in?’ What can I afford and how can I do this in a way that will actually benefit me so I’m not just lazing around for a whole year?’
If you’re in an institution your whole life – which, honestly if you think about it, academically, you are – there isn’t a lot of room to kind of figure out what you enjoy or what kind of risks you need to take. I was pretty uncomfortable for most of my gap year especially at the beginning, and the ability to be uncomfortable is super important because you’re not able to grow or expand as a person unless you are incredibly uncomfortable. So I think, yeah, do it. Just, like, send it.
Anna Tingley is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Tough to Tame, and an advocate for all things feminist, politics, or ramen-related. Her writing can be found at Teen Vogue, Billboard Magazine, Her Agenda, The Daily Bruin, and The Richmond Pulse. But for all the dirt, check her out on Instagram @annatationz and Twitter @annatingley.