Often, it’s assumed that a gap year must be done internationally—the farther and more exotic the place, the better, right? While I personally believe there are strong benefits to international travel, it’s not true that a good gap experience needs to be done overseas. A domestic gap year in the US can be incredibly effective for the right student.
The thing to keep in mind is that gap years are highly individualized experiences and should be planned as such. What’s right for you could be completely wrong for your best friend. This means that going international—or staying domestic—isn’t right for everyone.
For example, if you are shy or anxious, a fast-paced trip to India might not be the smartest move. Instead, you might choose to volunteer at a neighboring hospital while working at a cafe to save money for school. Or, if you’d prefer to join a domestic program, the ones offered by companies like City Year, AmeriCorps or Dynamy could be a better fit.
With City Year and AmeriCorps, you stay in the country and your fees are covered in exchange for your time and service. During Dynamy’s Internship Year, students live in monitored apartments in Worchester, Massachusetts, and intern at a number of different businesses in the area.
“We get some students who may be a little more introverted—they may feel like jumping on a plane to go change the world is daunting,” says Fred Kaelin, Dynamy’s director. “Our students get guidance in addition to interning, volunteering, and doing a bit of adventure. That combination is interesting to them because they get to be part of a community of about fifty students and have quality one-on-one time with our advisors.”
Aligning Your Gap Year With Your Goals
Even if you're a confident traveler, you may find that staying stateside is a wiser choice, depending on the goal of your time off. For example, if you’re interested in learning a new language, it would definitely make sense to explore international options. But if you’re more intrigued by trying on a few careers for size before choosing your college major, internship opportunities and programs like Dynamy make that dream a reality.
A domestic gap year program can also help illuminate that there’s plenty of volunteer work to be done on American soil. When I was in high school, I remember being rocked with culture shock during a volunteer assignment in West Virginia. I lived only a few hours away in Akron, Ohio, but before the trip I had no idea how differently people lived in the poorer neighborhoods of Appalachia. It felt a million miles away, and I’d barely traveled at all. For students who crave to make a difference, it’s powerful to remember that help may be even more needed at home than it is abroad.
If you’re after adventure rather than service, you'll be happy to hear that it’s possible to stay local and still feed your inner adrenaline junkie. At Outward Bound, another program that offers both domestic and international placements, students can go backpacking in the Rockies, sailing in Washington State’s San Juan Islands, or kayaking in Florida. Outward Bound was started in 1941, and every year nearly two hundred thousand students participate in its programs.
Custom Plan Your Gap Year
You should also keep in mind that no gap year follows a set path, so you can structure yours according to a personalized plan. Maybe you stay domestic for the first part of the year and choose to go international during the second part. It’s very common for a student to do sections of their gap year in different places.
Christopher Spach pieced together an impressive gap year in 2014. For the first few months, he worked at a local health store (which inspired him to go vegan!), volunteered for the middle part of the year in Nicaragua and rounded out the last few months at the Iona Community in Scotland. Many programs—like Rustic Pathways—offer shorter one to two week domestic excursions where you can get your feet wet before committing to something more intense.
To help with the overwhelm you’re inevitably feeling right now, keep in mind that you don’t have to have your whole gap year planned at once. When Betsy Morgan was deciding what her gap year would look like, she met with her mom to talk about progress and options every Sunday night. As the year unfolded, they planned the next portion of the year in monthly chunks based on Betsy’s experience. Typically when students go this route, it’s helpful to reflect on what’s gone well during the gap year so far, and then use what they’ve learned to plan the next block of time.
Have questions about international versus domestic gap years? Tweet at us @GapToGreat.