Last summer I planned on being a transfer student at Sarah Lawrence College. I was excited and ready to start my junior year, and everything was planned out. However, credits from my last school did not transfer, and I suddenly found myself with no plans and nowhere to go. I was devastated. (Side note: my mom suggested I title this article “How Bureaucracy Unexpectedly Ruined All My Plans.”) What I have found, though, is that life has a way of pointing you in the right direction even when it doesn’t seem like it. This year off has made me stronger, happier, and more grateful than I’ve ever been. It’s hard when life plans fall through, but if you adapt to the change it can lead to new experiences. It’s all about using your time wisely. Here’s what I learned through it all:
1. Be nice to yourself (and make a plan).
Unless you’re hiking through South America or interning at Vogue, you’re probably going to feel sorry for yourself at one point. Your other friends are off at school having a blast, and you’re at home not making enough money to move out of your parents’ house. It’s OK to rely on your parents or friends during this stage, and it’s OK to feel upset you aren’t doing greater things. However, after a certain amount of self-pitying, you’re going to have to get over yourself. You can’t just sit on the couch all day, binge-watching television, justifying it by telling yourself you’ll become a television critic. Let’s be real: idleness is the devil’s playground.
2. Go find an adventure!
Life doesn’t offer many chances to just do whatever you want. All the free choices you have can be kind of overwhelming at first (see part 1), but then you realize you can do anything! You don’t have to worry about deadlines or stress; you get a free chance to focus on your dreams. Some of those dreams might be unexpected. Although my Spanish was rusty at best, I went to Spain and worked as an au pair (free room and board, pocket money, and traveling while you work with adorable kids!) in Valencia. Go find something—anything—that makes you feel a little more alive than you did before.
3. Realize that adventures (and life) are not supposed to be perfect.
We’ve all seen those travel pictures of our friends on Facebook and felt a twinge of jealousy. What you don’t understand on your side of the computer screen is that no adventure is perfect. Life is fun and exciting, but its complexity doesn’t just go away. Be prepared to struggle, to work hard, maybe to be disappointed. That’s what adventures are for. I was lonely in Spain, and even though I met friends and did love it, I was ultimately eager to go home.
I was proud of myself for going beyond what I had ever expected of myself, but that didn’t mean it was all sunshine and rainbows afterwards. I realized how important my family was to me, and how much I loved the country I was born in. Adventures shape us into extraordinary people, but sometimes they highlight just how extraordinary the little, seemingly normal things in our lives are.
4. Discover (and remember) who you are.
Almost all of your life up, until a certain point, is shaped by school, so when it’s suddenly out of the picture you’re left without structure. School dictates when you wake up, where you go, your sleep schedule, your eating habits (sometimes unfortunately so). School also decides what you talk about, and to a certain extent, whom you talk to. Without school or a job, nobody makes decisions for you. You are the one deciding. So make some crazy decisions; make some leaps. Pay attention to the new things that suddenly feel good, and how the regular traditions can feel stale. This year, I decided I actually like mushrooms and olives, that learning Spanish is a passion of mine, and that I am actually an extravert not an introvert. It’s also when I finally decided to get my driver’s license (I know, at 20 I’m a little late to the game), randomly met my boyfriend of nine months, and realized I’m kind of an awesome cook. You will surprise yourself. Lean into the change, it feels good.
5. Be grateful.
I went to college for two years, and I loved it. However, I did a lot of complaining, a lot of procrastination, and I missed too many opportunities because I was tired or didn’t feel like leaving my bed after class. What I have learned from my year off is that I never want to miss those opportunities again. As the year went by, I watched my friends and family talk about school; how sick they were of it, and how jealous they were of me. What I’ve realized, is that the grass always seems greener, but in fact the grass has always been green and it is everywhere. I certainly complained about my situation during my year off, but it was a blessing, and it wasn’t in disguise. It was right under my nose the whole time. I can’t wait to go and finish my last two years of college, especially now that I have the full appreciation and gratitude for my education.
I’m not sure I would have said this a month ago, but if you have the opportunity or desire to take a year off: go do it. You may not do everything you wanted to do (I thought I would read 100 books, and become a runner—that did not happen), but you will discover what really matters to you. You will understand what direction you do want to go in, and from there, I hope you will race toward your dreams. I sure plan to.
Jackie Harris is an undergraduate student majoring in theater and literature. Her greatest passions in life are independent book stores, television, and gourmet comfort food.