This post is written by Global Citizen Year Brazil Fellow Elise Steenburgh.
I never had plans to take a gap year. Ever since the age of 5, I planned on attending the most prestigious college immediately after high school. Through French Immersion, Gifted and Talented Enriched Studies, Middle Years Program, and finally International Baccalaureate, I maintained an impeccable transcript with high grades in hard courses. Topping all that off with solid SAT and ACT scores and a strong report card at the end of junior year, I was certain to get into my dream school. The dream school that could be any of the eight I would apply to.
Global Citizen Year appeared on my radar at the end of August, the very beginning of senior year. I remember sitting at my computer, allowing the Common App website to slowly burn into my retinas, when suddenly my dad barged into my room and broke my trance. He told me to go to globalcitizenyear.org and apply for the gap year program. I was taken aback; dad always encouraged me to set my sights on the Ivy Leagues, but now he was telling me to forget all that? Before I could express my incredulity, dad shocked me with, “Oh and do it quickly. The deadline is in 3 days.“
I had no time to lose. I logged onto the website and began skimming through the program overview and country descriptions. It looked interesting enough, and then the apprenticeship options popped up. “Wildlife Preservation & Environmental Sustainability” in Brazil? Sign me up! It wasn’t until a few months later, when I asked my dad why he told me to apply to Global Citizen Year, that I found out the apprenticeship opportunities were also the reason he thought I would thrive. I always dream of traveling to different countries and saving the environment, and dad said this was exactly that. Thanks, dad.
The application process was very straightforward and I finished it with barely any time to spare. It was much easier and shorter than the Common App, that’s for sure. What shocked me most about the process was how quickly I learned of my acceptance. A week after I submitted my application, I was invited to interview. Less than a month after that, I received a packet in the mail saying I was accepted.
It was only early October and I already knew what I was going to do next year. I cried, I was so overwhelmed. I called my friends, ecstatic and sobbing, I couldn’t even form sentences. I didn’t even know which country I was going to, but I had my sights on Brazil.
And I still had my sights on college.
For the rest of fall, I focused on my college applications. I had visited most of the schools over the summer, so I figured I might as well apply. I also thought I knew what I wanted, so I went through the process with the goal of deferring my attendance.
After a long and arduous wait, the acceptance letters that I hoped for manifested into a long list of rejection emails. And it felt… good.
Of course, immediately after opening the emails, my cheeks burned as if slapped in the face. My grades and scores should have cut it, but no one wanted me. I guess I just didn’t look good on paper. Soon after, however, I realized that maybe this was a good thing, like a sign or something. By the end of March and early April, the student checking for college admissions notifications was completely different from the one who had sent in the applications. I don’t understand why so much pressure is put on students during junior year, because senior year is way more important than junior year.
When I apply to colleges this time around, I will have so much more to write about and show for myself. In senior year, International Baccalaureate hit me like a train. While most of my friends were cruising through senior year (with *cough* senioritis), it seemed like IB had a never ending supply of IAs and EEs and SLs and HLs to throw at me. Looking back on it, thank goodness for that. I fully realized my academic potential, having stayed afloat even when things were looking grim, and that helped me learn what I was really capable of.
Not only did the purpose of academia make much more sense to me after senior year, but life made more sense too, simply because I got older. There is so much to learn between the ages of 16 or 17, when we start the college process, and 18, when we are expected to lock in our life for the next 4 years. As my friends and I would say, “We gained so much life XP”. There were boyfriends and girlfriends cried over, fights resolved, moves made, and new experiences had that changed our worldview, all in the span of senior year. 5% of our lives.
I think that’s what’s often glossed over. At this young an age, all we know is school. By the time we graduate, at least 65% of our days are spent in school, or doing school work over the weekend, or doing summer work for school. 20% of it we can’t remember because we were too young, and the slim rest is (hopefully) fun summer breaks. We haven’t had time to experience the world yet. When we decide where to go to college for the next for years, we’re deciding what we’re going to do for the next 20% of our lives.
So that’s why I’m applying to colleges again. I did get accepted to a couple of great schools; I could have deferred if I wanted to. But I didn’t want to. I am going to take this second opportunity to apply to new colleges, write new essays, show that I have changed and will continue to change and grow.
If I already realized the huge impact senior year had on me after I already submitted my applications, then I know that Global Citizen Year will give me so many more opportunities to grow. I’m not taking a gap year because I don’t know what I want to do. I know that I’m going to dedicate my life to preserving and protecting the environment for all its inhabitants for generations to come. I’m doing GCY because I need a boost of life XP so I can level up. I’ll learn Portuguese, follow my dream in an apprenticeship, love new people, experience a new culture, and make memories I wouldn’t be able to anywhere else.
It will be a lot of work, both taking a bridge year and applying to colleges again. I know that from experiencing last years Common App process (don’t forget FAFSA, and ACT, and SAT, and all the other acronyms and financial aid forms), and conversely from not really knowing what’s ahead during my year in Brazil. But I know that I’m more prepared for it all now than I was last year. I know I can do it, so I know it will be worth it.