How to prepare for a gap year abroad
As high school seniors and their families consider their options for their plans post-graduation--such as going away for college, staying local, attending community college or applying for a degree in another country--I wanted to highlight an alternative option that is now becoming more mainstream than ever--a gap year program abroad.
Gap years abroad can be formal or informal, in a group or solo, work or volunteer, credit-bearing or not, but they are a great way to take a breather after the stresses and pressures of high school while seeing the world, learning about other cultures, making connections and discovering what your true passions are before committing to a full degree.
This week, we're fortunate to have a guest blog post from Samantha Tetrault of Samanthability, who shares some really important tips she learned during her gap year study abroad experience through Semester at Sea and how you can prepare for your own.
Written by guest blogger Samantha Tetrault
I went away to boarding school for high school, so I was shocked by just how nervous I was at the prospect of studying abroad in a gap year program. I’d completed all the paperwork, applied for my visas, and planned everything in extreme detail, yet I still was on the cusp of a breakdown at the Heathrow Airport in London right before my 4-month excursion around the world on the Semester at Sea ship.
I had nothing to worry about though. My gap year study abroad experience was more amazing than I could have imagined, and it shaped me into the person I am today. Now, years later, I’ve been to more than 30 countries and I’ve traveled solo. I incorporate the travel mindset into everything I do, and I attribute this to my gap year study abroad experience in 2013.
If you’re about to embark on a new adventure yourself, congratulations. I know it’s scary and exciting and so many other feelings all at once. It’s hard to leave your home and your school behind for something completely new, but it’s also super worth it.
Because there are some things I wish I knew before that first trip, I’ve decided to share a list of the best ways to prepare for your gap year abroad. There is no one-size-fits-all here, so consider how each of these ideas fit your own situation.
Pay close attention to classes
I studied abroad during my gap year program between high school and college, and I was hyper-focused on the classes I would take. I know a lot of students like to take things outside their comfort zones, and there are definitely merits to that.
As a scholarship student, time (and money) really was of the essence though. Getting as many gen-ed classes out of the way as possible was a must, so I needed to be sure my gap year credits transferred easily.
If you’re about to undertake a gap year abroad, check to be sure your classes will transfer, preferably to your major. If you do decide to wait to study abroad until after starting college, it's helpful to study abroad early in your college career. This gives you more chances to take gen-ed courses that easily transfer.
In my gap year studies abroad, I took a science course, an art course, a literature course, and history. Each one of these fulfilled a gen-ed requirement, and this meant I was able to stay on track to graduate early. Talking to an academic advisor at your school before you leave is a great idea.
Sara's Note: I also help students work this out before they go.
Be honest about your lifestyle
When I was planning my gap year abroad, I imagined myself living the life of glamour. I was going to take advantage of overnight trips, travel solo, and live it up. In reality, the constant go-go-go of travel is exhausting, and I didn’t find myself doing all of these things—which is totally okay.
I was much happier exploring for the day with a friend and then resting at night. For me, partying in each destination wasn’t a sustainable option, and that’s also okay.
Be honest about your lifestyle and what matters most to you. There’s no right or wrong answer. If I had been more realistic about the things I liked to do, I wouldn’t have felt so guilty about “missing out” on things that weren’t a good fit for me.
Sort out your banking
This is a more technical planning tip for preparing for your gap year abroad. Make sure you have a bank account that’s easy to access and that you have a backup plan in case you’re unable to access it.
During my gap year program through Semester at Sea, we were never in a single location very long. I was able to use my home bank pretty easily, but I did have two separate accounts just in case I ran into an issue with one.
If you’re staying in a new destination for more than a month, it’s a good idea to open a local bank account. If you are keeping your home bank, be sure to let them know you’ll be traveling and for how long. Take note of any international bank numbers, and give a trusted family member access to your account just in case.
Again, this goes along with your expectations. It’s easy to imagine yourself on your gap year abroad as a different person. This new person is cultured, sophisticated, and doesn’t act the same as “home” you. For example, I saw myself sipping red wine in Paris and wearing the most luxurious fashion.
In reality, I wore sneakers 99 percent of the time and the same two pairs of jeans. Know yourself, and realize that you’re not likely going to dress all that differently from home even when you’re traveling. While you might want a few nicer things to wear on occasion, most of your days will be spent in class, exploring, or hanging out. Dress accordingly.
Bonus: Things I'm glad I brought
Lastly, I’ll share some of the things I’m so glad I brought when I traveled as well as some things I wish I brought later. While many of these are specific to hostel life, they’re also great for studying abroad in general:
Small flashlight: If you have to get up early or in the middle of the night, it’s nice not to have to turn on any large lights, especially if you’re sharing a room.
Small lock: A lock is a must when you’re traveling on planes, trains, or buses. It’s also good for hostels where you need to lock your things for the night. A padlock is better than a lock with a key. For extra security, add the combination to your phone’s contacts.
Money belt: It might not be the height of fashion, but it’s a real lifesaver in places where pickpocketing is common. A money belt is a small belt with a pocket (like a flat fanny pack) that goes under your clothes. I would wear this when I was in some less safe places, and it was nice to know my money, passport, and cards were secure.
Small towel: Another hostel must have is a small travel towel. I went without this for my first trip, and boy, did I regret it! These fold up small and they’re always handy.
Travel organizer: I was traveling to many countries at once, so a travel organizer kept all of my documents secure in my bag.
Feminine products: Sorry if this is TMI, but many countries around the globe don’t have the same feminine products you might be used to. Bringing a collection of your favorites is a must if you’re not interested in being adventurous during your time of the month.
Over the counter medications: While you should check the allowed drug list for the country you’re traveling, having a small pack of OTC medicines and first aid is such a relief. Trying to navigate the pharmacy of a foreign country, especially if you don’t speak the language, is really challenging!
Travel adapter: A lot of people don’t realize that the plugs in different parts of the world are different. Look up the adapter needed for your location and buy more than one!
Earplugs: Self-explanatory, but always a must when traveling. I’d also recommend a sleep mask to cover your eyes.
External hard-drive: While not necessary, having a computer fail overseas is a bummer. If you’re taking a lot of photos and videos, a hard-drive can keep all of these secure and safe even if you lose or break your computer.
Copies of documents: Always bring photocopies of your important documents like your passport and visas. Upload backups online to a secure cloud, like Google Drive. While you hopefully will never need it, it will make all the difference if you have them ready.
It turns out there are a lot of things you might need to prepare for a gap year abroad. After traveling for months at a time, I’ve got a must-have list of things I’m never caught without! Being prepared makes the experience so much easier.
Are you ready for a gap year abroad?
Doing a gap year abroad is such an amazing experience. If you’ve read through the things above, you’re ready to go. However, in reality, there’s no such thing as being fully prepared. It’s very much a learning experience, so the best thing you can do is be ready with your open mind.
The world is a big, wide place. Now it’s up to you to start exploring, no matter how small you start. I guarantee you won’t want to stop! Happy travels!
Samantha is a full-time freelancer and blogger at Samanthability. She recently moved across the country to Seattle, WA, and she’s looking forward to exploring the Pacific Northwest. She’s traveled her way through college and beyond, and she loves sharing her experience with fellow travelers.