A gap year was not quite something I had expected to be in the cards in my future. I come from a small town in Massachusetts where I hadn’t known a single soul who had even considered taking a gap year, so as a result I never did either. When Harvard came back to me while I was on the wait list and said that I could join the class of 2021 (I was class of 2016 in high school) if I were to take a year off beforehand, I did not really know how to react. In high school, I was the oldest person in my grade by about 3 months because I had taken a second year of 7th grade when I switched schools. Why would I want another extra year? All my friends from home were already freshmen in college. I had a great set-up and was committed to going to Notre Dame where they have an excellent undergraduate business program and an outstanding sense of community. At the time, I did not quite understand all of the opportunities that a gap year would present me. I ended up choosing to accept Harvard’s offer more so because of the fact that Harvard was Harvard, not because of the gap year. At first, I almost viewed the gap year as a negative impact. I could not have been further from the truth.
I live my life in a run-and-gun, improvisational type of way. Even though I knew I was going to be taking a gap year in June, I never had a relatively solid plan for any of it until September. I wanted to just live out my summer the way all my friends were and get some work done to earn some money while staying local. In September, I finally started exploring some options for all the time I would have because now all my friends were off to college as either freshmen or sophomores.
I knew for sure that I wanted to explore the United States. Ever since I had gotten my first real taste of any part of the country outside of New England or Florida when my family took a week-long trip out west my sophomore year, I knew I wanted to see more. The book Into the Wild and my advisor, who happened to be the teacher who taught that class senior year, were my biggest inspirations to do so via a cross-country driving trip. When I took off on October 5th of that year, all I knew was that I was going to go up to Acadia National Park in Maine then hike Mt. Washington with my mother and head west. Every other part of the trip (that ended up being two trips due to a car crash in Portland, OR), which spanned about 12 weeks and over 15,000 miles in about 30 different states, was improvised with usually only a few days in advance. I drove about 13/14000 on my own, and it was the best decision I’ve made in my entirely life (maybe second by default to saying yes to Harvard and the gap year in the first place). I did go north to Acadia and then all the way west, a full coast to coast trip, in what would be the first leg. I stopped at essentially every major location along the northern cross-country highway (Route 90), at cities like Chicago and Seattle to national parks like Niagara, Yellowstone, and Glacier. I went all the way down the coast along scenic Route 1. I came all the way back off the coast to Denver after going through countless national parks in California, beautiful southern Utah, and Colorado. I stayed in cheap hotels, with friends, and really anywhere I could find. My second loop took me around the east coast and as far southwest as Memphis. I was averaging 250 miles of driving per day, visiting friends at colleges, and enjoying every second of it. The highlights are fun to mention, but what really set the trip apart was the autonomy of it all. If I wanted to go do something, there was no stopping me. I could do all my own research and set up my own itinerary each day. If I wanted to divert from my original plan to stop at some vintage thrift shop that I saw a sign for 5 miles off course, that didn’t matter. I could do it with no problem. Even the destinations can sometimes serve as a superficial glance of the trip. Some of the drives that I took were just as scenic as the destinations themselves. The aforementioned Route 1 on the west coast is all-time. Montana, a state in which I literally spent more time driving than actually exploring, was my favorite state. Southern Utah sunsets live vividly in my mind and I can recall them no matter what I’m doing. Getting a feel for the United States was my goal, but I ended up getting a feel for myself as well.
Since I still had a lot more time in the year, I decided to also head on over to Europe. I would end up spending another 12 weeks here as I took cheap trains around to about 15 different countries. I did have a small sense of stability here as I started off with a 2-week program at the University of Vienna, but I would soon return to my old ways with a freestyling period of about a 12 days in which I managed to go to Amsterdam, Hallstatt, Venice, Milan, Interlaken, and Scotland in quick succession. I was master of my own schedule, and only I could stop myself from going just about wherever I desired. I travelled for 3 weeks on a shell of a schedule at a very hectic pace with my friend from high school who was also on a gap year, hitting about 9 countries. It was an incredible time and there is a lot to be said about travelling with a friend and how well you get to know someone while also having an incredible time. My time spent travelling with someone, which was a stark contrast from the rest of my travels during the year, was what really motivated me into also trying FOP when time for pre-orientation here came around. As fun as travelling with him was, I was very glad to again be back on my own and explore the rest of Europe for my final two weeks. I managed to get Spain, Bulgaria, Croatia, and more of Italy under my belt in a very short span of time and met some amazing people along the way. It is a very cool scene over there because as long as you are 18, you are considered to fully be an adult. As a result, there are tons of kids (or I suppose adults) right around your age also travelling and staying in the hostels doing the exact same thing as you. It is a very cool scene to say the least, and I can’t wait until I have the opportunity to get back over across the pond.
My gap year was incredible but it was just that: my gap year. Everyone’s will vary not just on the places they go, but in how they approach it and how they execute. You do not need to travel to have a memorable gap year. You should figure out things about which you are passionate and explore them. You could stay home and write poetry or paint for a full year and still develop just as much as if you had explored the world. People underestimate exactly how much you can mature in a year’s worth of experience, and having that much time to explore my interests sped up that growth in maturity even more.
Author: Albert Giandomenico, Class of 2021