Dr. Seuss once said, “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” As a freshman entering Goshen College, I had an endless list of questions. What major will be life-giving to study? Do I have the mental and emotional stamina to withstand four years of liberal arts education? What could I learn from life outside of a college environment? As I made my way through that first year, these questions didn’t go away. They only increased in number and complexity. Taking a gap year after my first year of college helped to awaken me to many of these answers. I was energized by exploring areas of interest, relieved to have a mental/emotional break, shocked by the social systems I encountered and grateful for the diverse relationships I built.
Taking a gap year allowed me to invest time in my broad areas of interest. During my first six months away from college, I volunteered for The Jubilee Partners, a Christian service community, located in Comer, Georgia. I was drawn to this community because of its mission to host refugees, live sustainably and work for peace. While at Jubilee, I underwent training to Teach English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), worked in an organic garden and assisted an elderly woman with daily activities. Although each of these tasks presented areas of growth, I found that the highlight of many of my days was spending time with a 96-year-old woman named Coffee. Several days a week I helped her to get ready for the day and make breakfast. During this time, I learned from Coffee what it was like to grow up in a racially segregated state, become a missionary in South Korea and protest the death penalty along with many other stories from her years of experience. This mutually rewarding experience between Coffee and I influenced how I approached the second part of my gap year.
When arriving home in Indiana, I began taking a course to obtain my Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) licensure. This gave me the opportunity to work third shift in a local nursing home. I quickly learned that I am not a night person, but I do have the caring nature and detail orientation to help provide holistic care for elderly residents. I would have never jumped into this position had I not been exposed to caring for Coffee. During this time, I also began working as an intern in a local law office. This internship exposed me to family law, business law, medical law, estate planning and mediation. It allowed me to observe cases, learn the order of legal proceedings and assist with office management. These experiences gave me the direction to purse a degree in nursing.
My first year of college was mentally and emotionally taxing, which contributed to my decision to take a gap year. Anxiety and depression were recurring trends within my time at college. I felt dead on the inside, with no sign of relief ahead. By taking a gap year, I was able learn how to cope with these new parts of myself. It allowed me to take time daily for self-care and to be kind to my body. I also learned how to ask for help. I began to meet with a counselor weekly who helped me to process the feelings and experiences I had encountered at college. This time to process these parts of my life reminded me of my inner strength and my ability to thrive even among adverse circumstances.
Throughout my gap year, my eyes were opened to social systems around me. Growing up in a rural town in Indiana, it is easy to be blinded by the white, middle class majority around me. Moving to Georgia reminded me of the many divisions in our society. My encounter with racial division began while I was attending church. It didn’t take long to notice that churches in rural Comer were segregated between white Baptist churches and African American Baptist churches. My second experience was attending a local parade celebrating cultures from around the world. Several white supremacists were arrested for disrupting this event. Not only did I see racial tensions at play, but I also encountered economic inequality. Clarkston, Georgia has been referred to as a modern day Ellis Island. It is a city outside of Atlanta that resettles one of the highest numbers of refugees in the United States. The mass of low income housing, highly overpopulated public school system and plethora of minimum wage jobs screamed of the economic need that existed here. These stories were so prevalent and unsettling that it forced me to look for the racial and economic injustices within my hometown and begin volunteering for organizations that work for change.
Building relationships were by far the most rewarding part of my gap year. I developed friendships with individuals who were not in my age, racial or socio economic categories. I made friends from Burma, Burundi, Congo, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Canada and many other places. I gained words of wisdom, cultural experience, language immersion and lifetime friends.
It wasn’t an easy choice to take a gap year, but it is a decision I would make again in a heartbeat. The complicated questions that occupied my mind during freshman year are now at peace. I have direction in my area of study, skills to cope with mental illness, new sight for the social systems around me and friends that have impacted how I see the world. Dr. Seuss was right. Your questions may be difficult, but I have found by allowing yourself time, space and grace, you can begin to answer them.