How a ‘gap year’ can be valuable AND affordable

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A gap year before college can be a good option for students
Image Credit: Brandon Stubbs
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When I was first introduced to the idea of a gap year in my junior year of high school, I was skeptical. What would I do with an entire year off after high school graduation? Was interrupting my education a good idea? And, of course, how could I afford it?

How gap years can be valuable and affordable

In my head, I imagined some wealthy and privileged student taking a year-long vacation before college. But after some research, I realized how valuable a gap year could be. Many students will spend sixteen years or more learning in a classroom before entering the real world. A gap year not only breaks this time up, but it also gives you the time and freedom to explore your passions and interests. Done right, it’s a year of self-discovery, hands-on learning and personal growth. Many “gappers” go to college after the time off with a new appreciation for their education and a better idea of what the future holds.

I was determined to take a gap year before attending Brown University, but I still faced one huge complication: How would I afford a whole year off? Some gap year programs – like the Global Gap Year offered by Thinking Beyond Borders – are tens of thousands of dollars, well beyond the financial reach of most students.

Read more: The #1 rule of cheap travel

Creativity is often the key to affordability

I decided I needed to program my own gap year. The summer after I graduated from high school, I got a local job and saved up until the fall. I used the time to research opportunities in Asia. I’m planning to study archaeology at Brown, so I wanted to travel somewhere with a deep history.

I discovered that a paid job abroad requires a lot of paperwork – more than an employer would be willing to do for a foreign, untrained employee – so I turned to volunteer jobs. After a number of emails and phone calls, I secured a position as a volunteer at the Second Home Hostel in Malaysia, a country where English is widely spoken, there is little social turmoil, and the cost of living is low, due to a favorable exchange rate.

Plus, I had free room and board in exchange for my work at the hostel, covering one of the largest expenses of my trip.

After doing my homework on the country (necessary shots, visa requirements, cultural practices, safety tips), I booked a cheap flight through StudentUniverse and arrived in the country in late September. I stayed a few days in the capital city, Kuala Lumpur, to explore iconic landmarks like the Hindu monuments at Batu Caves. The food was cheap and delicious (if a tad spicy), and the accommodations were inexpensive at the hostels. At the end of the week, I took a train to the Second Home Hostel in Johor Bahru.

The work at the hostel was fairly light, so I had time in the evenings to play my trumpet at the local street market to earn extra cash. This turned out to be a rather lucrative endeavor, covering all of my daily living expenses and most of my travel expenses. On my days off, I typically went into the jungle or hiked the mountains. This balance between work and travel helped me make the most of my trip, and an approach I would recommend to anyone taking a gap year.

Read more: 26 ways to make extra cash

Being in a foreign country, I found almost every task a little more challenging. Navigating the city, shopping for food, traveling, going to events and socializing all honed my real world problem-solving skills and led me to many new, exciting experiences. For my last week in Asia, I had saved up enough money from playing my trumpet to backpack around the country. During this time, I visited some of the most famous destinations in Malaysia, including the largest cave system in the country, the Cameron Highlands, and the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary, moving from one cheap hostel to another. By the end of my trip, I still had more than a hundred dollars left. Busking, my volunteer job at the hostel, and frugal spending had kept my budget under $800 for my entire two-month stay in Asia.

Before your next trip, check out these 15 tips and tricks that can make your travels a lot cheaper and easier.

I returned home invigorated by the adventure. The exposure to diverse cultures, the country’s nature and wildlife, the experience of budgeting, and my visits to temples, museums, and dig sites influenced my perspectives on the world, as well as my plan for the future. As an archaeology major, I was grateful to learn about the history of Asia in person before I learned it from a textbook.

The gap year gave me the time and independence to finally accomplish a huge goal: publishing my book, The King of Kamaahr. Whatever profits I earn will alleviate the expenses of the next and final segment of my gap year: At the end of the month, I will be going to Australia (where I have dual citizenship) to try to earn a living playing my trumpet. This is another risk with uncertain prospects, but because of the gap year, I can pursue my passions without pressure.

My experience has been overwhelmingly positive, and I encourage other high school students to consider the same opportunity. It is a chance to push the limits of your comfort zone, grow and develop as an individual, and learn by doing. Part-time and volunteer jobs – as well as frugal spending – made the experience possible for me on a very tight budget. You can find an internship or a job, volunteer at a hostel, in agriculture, or on a cruise ship, start a career as an artist or performer – the possibilities are almost too many to list.

I can say this: I am so grateful to be a gapper.

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Author placeholder image About the author: Brandon Stubbs
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