Why I took a gap year (post-freshman year and pre-COVID)

Adam Novak
5 min readJun 21, 2021

About halfway through the 2019 spring semester I had finally completed a long process. All the forms were submitted, the plan was on paper, and I couldn’t wait to get started. I would soon take a leave of absence and embark on a gap year after my freshman year at USC.

The question “Wait, why would you take a gap year after already starting college?” has arisen over and over again, so I’ve decided to explain the story as the first post of my new *English* blog (you can find my Korean blog here).

One of my favorite things about being a student at USC at first was building relationships with the most extraordinary people. Week after week I met students who had done things which I had never even thought possible for someone my age.

Among some of them were freshmen who had taken a gap year before entering college. One friend, Brooke, had gone to Brazil to volunteer at an orphanage while learning Portuguese. Another, Brandon, lived as a high school student in China through a “13th year” gap year program and only had positive things to say about it. And Zoe, motivated by her passion for the environment, traveled around New Zealand while working for non-profit organizations. Each of them radiated with pure positivity and gratitude over their transformative experiences. I couldn’t help but get inspired to do something similar.

Up until college, I had never given much thought to people who weren’t like me. From my personal experience of growing up as a wealthy white american, it was easy to disregard other cultures and consider non-western parts of the world as unimportant. But somehow a mindset shift began to occur. Hearing the stories of people from a variety of income levels, walks of life, and parts of the world at USC made me realize how limited my understanding of other cultures and countries was (and still is). It inspired me to journey into the unknown — to put myself in uncomfortable situations, to be the foreigner in unfamiliar environments where I could be a student of the local way of life.

It just so happened that I also started studying Korean at the time and become engrossed in the language; I fell in love with the writing system, the way it sounds, and the fascinating connections among the Hanjas, or Chinese roots, of each word. I also began to see language learning as far more than an academic past time; it’s the process of opening a door of understanding to different cultures, peoples, and perspectives. Imagine how much my Korean acquisition would be facilitated by living and working in the country itself?

And now that I had the inspiration and motivation, why wait to take the journey? If not now, then when? I do my best to avoid pushing things off until tomorrow, until next year, or until later in life. If you want to do something, then go do it now! Life is too short to keep telling yourself you aren’t prepared or the time isn’t ready. So I started planning right away.

I decided that I wanted to live in South Korea for some time, then afterwards visit other nearby countries like the Philippines and Japan while I had already traveled so far around the world. But when mentioning these plans to others at the time, I met concerns and doubt all over, which I’ll go through now. I could divide them into three main groups:

“Wouldn’t it be scary to go somewhere where you don’t speak the language? How are you going to make friends? What happens if something goes wrong?”

This kind of self-doubt is only going to hold one back in life. Sure, plenty of things went south: I missed one of my flights, I was forced to drink alcohol against my will at a traditional Tambunan wedding in Malaysia, and I accidentally bumped into an elderly Japanese man at a tightly-packed Tokyo café (as you might imagine this was extremely embarrassing).

But mistakes are unavoidable. They are just learning opportunities at the end of the day.

If anything, these questions should serve as a motivation to start. Go out and prove yourself wrong. Do something that genuinely impresses yourself, and you’ll thank yourself for it later.

And in this case, the potential rewards of leaving the US for the first time, seeing new parts of the world and learning about new cultures far outweighed any logistical, safety or emotional concerns.

“How are you going to afford it?”

My parents particularly harped on this one. “You don’t have the money to travel, wait until you’re older.” However, after thinking, I began to notice something. My parents, now older, have plenty of money for any traveling they want, but they have too many responsibilities and not enough time to embark on something like this. It seemed like money wasn’t the real issue; rather, it was time and freedom. I figured that as a 19 year old college student, I had the fewest responsibilities I might ever have in my life again. Now could not be a better time.

So then how was I going to afford it? Well there’s two solutions: One, earn more before you go, and two, spend less once you’re there.

For part one, I reached out to dozens of companies in Nashville and eventually found a sustainability consulting firm who would take me in as an intern. After working there for five months in the fall while living with my family, I managed to save around $3000.

And then the exciting part: how to live like the broke college student I am. Minimizing the trip expenses involved the following:

  • I planned most of my trips with Workaway, a website where you can connect with local hosts around the world to work part-time for them in exchange for food, housing — and best of all — becoming a member of their family.
  • No fancy dinners,
  • No hotels,
  • And no direct flights.
  • Oh, and living out of a single backpack also helped
On a train in Borneo, Malaysia
In Shinghai Intl Airport

All in all, the five months of traveling (cut short by COVID (tear) ) ended up costing me a little over $2000, with the majority of that going towards transportation.

Speaking of COVID, it’s funny how things worked out — while my time abroad was cut in half due to the pandemic, I was still grateful that I had the opportunity to travel before the world was locked down.

What about your USC friends? Aren’t you going to be missing out on the college experience?

The thing is — whether I took the gap year or not, I would still have three years left of college to finish. Plus, modern digital technology makes it incredibly easy to maintain communication with friends I had already made while living away from each other.

And most importantly, I think it’s important to recognize that you don’t get something for nothing. Great experiences and opportunities often require great sacrifices.

The more I thought about it, the easier the decision became — taking a gap year was a no-brainer. And I’m incredibly glad I’m did. Another blog post summarizing my experience is soon to come :P

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Adam Novak

Monastic Living | Language Learning | Responsible Technology