Have you ever felt worn out on your journey to reaching your dream? What I’ve discovered over the years is that no matter how much I’m trying to achieve, I can’t reach my goals if I’m not taking care of myself. Sometimes taking care of yourself means stepping away or taking a break! As I wrote in Chapter 7, “Striking a Balance,” of my book, Dream Big! How to Reach for Your Stars, “In the long run, taking a break or slowing down isn’t a bad thing or a shameful thing—it actually shows that you know how to take care of yourself, which will be crucial for your future success!”
If you’re a current student, one way you can change your routine and invest in yourself is by taking a gap year! School is hard work, and after graduating, whether from high school or college, you may find that you need to slow down for a bit — and that’s okay! With the recent global pandemic, around 40% of students are considering taking a gap year. A gap year is an opportunity to explore your passions, improve upon yourself, and take a break from traditional academics. If you’re intentional about your time, you can gain unique and beneficial experiences that’ll last a lifetime. Keep reading to hear my four ideas for a great gap year!
One of the most fulfilling things you can do during your gap year is volunteer! As a volunteer, you’ll get to connect with people from all walks of life and hear their stories. You’ll learn a lot about the world, and through your work, you’ll make a real difference in your community. You’ll be a part of something bigger than yourself, and knowing you’ve made an impact on someone else’s life is an incredibly rewarding experience.
There’s never a shortage of volunteer opportunities! Once you find an organization that fits your interests and values, you’ll also be joining a community that shares your passion. You’ll develop meaningful relationships with the people involved, make a positive change in the world, and have fun while doing so!
How You Can Volunteer
If there’s one thing we learned throughout the pandemic, it’s that volunteering is more important than ever! Many organizations have made volunteering more accessible and are offering programs that are entirely virtual so more people have the chance to get involved. Check them out:
1. United Nations Online Volunteering Program: The United Nations has set up a site with dozens of ways you can volunteer. From writing and editing to translation, and from organizing events to helping with research, you are sure to find something that fits your interests and commitment level.
2. Smithsonian Digital Volunteers: Like to solve mysteries? What about learning about new and interesting species? The Smithsonian Museum program is looking for volunteers to help them do just that! You can collect information for the Encyclopedia for Life, look through images for Archives of American Gardens, and even track invasive species with Invader ID.
3. Translators Without Borders: If you are fluent in at least one language other than your native language, you can become a translator for this program. Common tasks include translating medical texts or helping with responses during crisis situations. Translators Without Borders are also always looking for project managers and graphic designers.
4. Project Gutenberg: Project Gutenberg is a collection of over 60,000 free ebooks, but this library wouldn’t be possible without volunteers. The Distributed Proofreaders program is looking for people to proofread pre-released ebooks, provide new content, manage projects, and more.
5. Zooniverse: Zooniverse is a platform dedicated to people-powered research. You can volunteer on a project, as a beta tester, or even as a project manager. They have dozens of projects about topics like the arts, climate, medicine, and, my personal favorite, space!
Another thing you can do during your gap year is get a job! Spending a year working has a variety of benefits. You’ll advance your skills by gaining experience in a field you’re passionate about, and you’ll learn all about that field before you craft your career path or choose your college major. By working, you’ll also have the chance to save some money and start investing in your future!
While I didn’t take a gap year, the work I did during college gave me the experience I needed for future endeavors. One summer, I conducted astrobiology research at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (you can read all about my experience here). This position really cemented my love for astrobiology, and now I am working towards my Ph.D. in the field! This just all goes to show how beneficial getting a job as a student can be.
Options for Gaining Work Experience
As a student with limited experience, finding a job can be difficult. However, many companies value young people’s unique insight into the world and are always looking to hire! Here are some options to guide your search:
1. Tutor: No matter your level in school, you can tutor students in classes you’ve already taken. Moreover, you can personalize this role and tutor in subjects you enjoy. With many classes still being held virtually, parents are looking for older students to help their younger kids transition to the online platform, and you can help out right from Zoom or Google Meet. Also, if you speak more than one language, there are tons of paid and volunteer positions to teach to language-learners and many don’t need a teaching certification.
2. Entry-level jobs: Is there a dream career path you hope to take? Working in an entry-level position is a great way to get on the right track. You’ll get to experience your dream field and determine if it’s actually something you’d like to spend the rest of doing. Many companies are currently hiring to fill the vacancies left by high-risk staff who were unable to work during the pandemic, and they are putting special protocols in place to keep everyone safe.
3. Internships: Internships are often very student-oriented. As an intern, you’ll gain hands-on experience and make valuable connections with others in your field. These roles can be both paid and unpaid, but either way, the skills you pick up will be invaluable for your future career. You’ll also get to add your very first experiences to your resume!
4. Apprenticeships: As an apprentice, you can shadow people who work in a position you hope to work one day. You can also practice interviews and learn important communication, teamwork, and management skills. You’ll learn all about a field you’re interested in and see firsthand what the work of professionals in that field is like. I have a friend who apprenticed for a glass-blower in Vermont for his gap year! Remember, it’s your gap year. Feel free to go completely out of your comfort zone and try something new!
Even if you’re taking time away from the traditional classroom, you can still learn more about something you love. Your gap year is all about exploring your passions, after all! You can take up a new skill, practice a talent, or expand your knowledge in a field. You’ll find that when you’re studying something you really enjoy, learning becomes less of a chore and more something you look forward to!
Learning new skills and developing your talents will also help you improve your resume! When you apply to schools and jobs in the future, you are sure to stand out with your unique skill set. More opportunities will open up for you, and each will be a stepping stone on your journey towards your dream!
Opportunities for Online Learning
There are many free online resources you can use to teach yourself different things, from how to code to how to juggle! Accumulating knowledge from these sites, you’ll learn things that are not necessarily taught in schools. Here are a few of my favorite platforms:
1. Learn to code with Codeacademy: Codeacademy is an amazing resource that teaches you how to code right from your laptop. You’ll be able to run code yourself, not just watch a how-to lecture. Knowing different coding languages is a great skill to add to your resume and is beneficial in numerous jobs. Tip: if you’re feeling intimidated, we recommend trying out HTML and CSS, which are two front-end web development languages! These languages are a bit easier to pick up for beginners and will help make for a smooth transition into more advanced coding languages!
2. Study a subject with Khan Academy: Khan Academy is a platform where you can learn about numerous different subjects through interactive lessons and videos. It also offers test preparation courses for the SAT, so if you’re looking to spend your gap year studying for standardized tests or improving your score, definitely check out this resource!
3. Learn a language with Duolingo: Ever want to learn a language? Duolingo is a free app that lets you do just that! By setting aside just a couple of minutes a day, you can take quick lessons right from your phone. For me, learning a new language (Russian!) was essential for my journey to becoming an astronaut, and it is a valuable skill to bring to any job you have. There’s also Rosetta Stone and other more comprehensive courses if you’re more serious about picking up a language and are willing to invest in it.
4. Take classes at a local community college: By enrolling in courses at a community college, you can earn credits, pass out of prerequisites, and explore your intended field of study. You can also take courses online through sites like EdX, and gain certificates from Harvard, MIT, and more.
5. Make use of YouTube videos: There are YouTube videos about just about everything! Whatever you are interested in learning, search for a YouTube video on it, and you can pick up knowledge on basic life skills like cooking or more career-oriented skills like leadership. Moreso, you can learn at your own speed and incorporate these lessons into your daily schedule.
Lastly, spend your gap year creating something amazing! Everyone has something to share with the world, and everyone has something to learn. What are you good at? What did you learn in quarantine? By sharing your passion and talents with others, you can teach people about a topic you feel strongly about and connect with others who have similar interests. And as a bonus, no matter what you create, you are adding a unique experience to your resume that’ll make you stand out on future applications!
Remember: you are never too young to start something! When I was 18, I founded my non-profit, The Mars Generation, and right after graduating from Wellesley College, I wrote my book, Dream Big! How to Reach for Your Stars. Since then, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to create fun space content and share my passion and story with others. It’s been such a rewarding experience, and I highly recommend others to start or create something as well!
Ways to Create in Your Gap Year
There are countless ways you can turn your passions and talents into something meaningful. Your voice matters, and you have a lot to contribute to the fields that interest you. Here are my ideas of ways you can get started:
1. Start a blog: On your blog, you can talk about anything! Whatever you enjoy, whatever you love talking about, share that in an online project. Programs like Wix and Weebly allow you to create a free, personalized website. You could also start a blog on social media, with an Instagram or Facebook page. Whichever platform you choose, your blog will be your space to share what you love with others. Take this blog for instance! I’m able to take my passion for helping young people and publish content on it for all of you! It’s incredibly rewarding to me and I would highly recommend it to anyone with a passion they want to share.
2. Write a book: Have a creative story in mind? What about a unique experience you want to tell others about? Self-publishing is an awesome way to get your story out to the world, and you’ll be able to call yourself a published author (how cool is that?). You can also make some extra money when people purchase your book. Check out Amazon Direct Publishing to learn more! They’ll even print and ship your book for you!
3. Begin a small business: If you prefer hands-on work, start a small business! Platforms like Etsy allow you to post your handmade items online for others to purchase. From woodwork to clothing, whatever you like to make, share it with others and earn some extra income. You’ll also learn valuable business and marketing skills that are important no matter your future career.
4. Make a YouTube channel: This is my personal favorite! Make fun videos about whatever you’re passionate about. That’s what I did with my YouTube channel and video series #AskAbby. YouTube videos are so creative, and you don’t have to do anything more than talk about something you love. You might just become someone else’s favorite YouTuber too!
What Will You Do?
There you have it! These ideas are sure to make your gap year both fulfilling and memorable. No matter how you spend your time, you are sure to learn more about the world and gain valuable experience that will help you accomplish your dreams.
If you want to learn more about chasing after your dreams and achieving your goals, check out my new book, Dream Big!: How to Reach for Your Stars, now! Inside, I talk more about why taking a break and finding a balance is a good thing. I also share my advice and tips on how to make and follow your plan for success while avoiding burnout!