Occasionally, I’m a little surprised, deeply saddened, and finally exasperated by the amount of cultural ignorance that pervades the United States. We always boast our status as a melting pot of culture, yet we have to be one of the most xenophobic countries out there. We fear, and react with hostility, to what we don’t understand. If everyone can hold off on their weekly Koran burnings for a moment, I think I might have found a solution!
The “gap year” is a rite of passage undertaken by students just about everywhere but here. The general concept is to take a year off after secondary school to travel and see the world before beginning university. After having your eyes opened to other cultures, you are now prepared to gain an education applicable to our increasingly globalized world.
Why is this not prevalent in the US? I think we have become too good at establishing a yardstick (or meter-stick) for success. So good, in fact, that it is almost sacrilege to deviate from this scale.
Anyone who wanders from the high school -> 4-year university -> career/grad school path is considered a lesser individual by our society. The view is generally the same if you don’t hit these milestones in a timely manner. To take time off to travel gives you vagrant status. As if that’s a bad thing.
Unfortunately, society cannot look past this scale and see the potential benefits that one could receive should they choose to deviate from it. To follow this path, hitting all the markers along the way - boom, boom, and boom - without traveling, leaves one culturally deficient. That is dangerous, and leaves my generation terribly unprepared for the world to come, a world that will be globalized on a level we’ve never seen before.
I want to appeal to my fellow Americans, especially you Generation Y’s out there, to take a gap year. It’s not too late if you’re in school. Study abroad! Here are a few reasons why I think you should, all based on the benefits that I personally gained from my study abroad experience in Sweden.
1. Cultural Exchange - I’m all about this. I write about it all the time. To experience someone’s culture while they observe your thoughts and reactions based on your own roots promotes a great level of understanding. Mutual understanding could go a long way towards curing xenophobia in our country.
2. Independence - Navigating city streets, surrounded by a different language, different social norms, and a different currency all on your own is the pinnacle of own-your-ownness. Mommy and daddy can’t hold your hand there. If you can figure all that stuff out and adapt comfortably, well, I can’t think of a better test of your level of independence.
3. Multicultural Experience - Not only does study abroad experience look great on a resume, but it will prepare you for our globalized future. By 2020, Generation Y will make up 47% of the workforce in the United States. International experience will almost be necessary at this point. I think we will definitely fall behind in the world economy if such a large portion of our workforce can’t cope with multiculturalism.
4. Evolution - Taking a gap year or participating in study abroad could very well prevent a new generation of “America is #1, Love it or Leave it” types. Instead of labeling it almost traitorous to recognize that some countries are doing some things better than us, we can start learning and improving. We can see how a nation has approached a problem, and bring that solution back to the table in our own country.
What I want to get across is that the way we scrutinize other cultures without really learning from them is an outdated way of thinking. The world is evolving and we will be left behind if we continue to focus only on our little chunk of the world.
Take a gap year, study abroad, find an NGO, and just get out there somehow! If someone doubts your plan, just tell them you’re getting a practical education. It’s getting more valuable than the one we pay thousands of dollars for.