How My Gap Year Transformed Me From Lost High School Kid to Prepared Young Adult

To anyone contemplating taking a gap year: I cannot urge strongly enough that there is no better way to transform yourself from a lost high school kid who thinks they've got a clue, to a young adult who's starting to get the idea that cluelessness is a necessary part of life.
05/25/2016 10:42 am ET Updated May 26, 2017

When I made the decision to take a gap year, it wasn't a big deal. I supposed I would find a job and earn some money, then travel somewhere far away and have an incredible adventure, all while embarking on an insightful path of self discovery to meet the end goal of "finding myself." I was nonchalant. What my cocky self failed to realize is that adventures and excitement don't just waltz up out of nowhere; if it's an adventure you want, actively seeking one out is the best way to begin.

Since neither my parents nor I had any idea where to start when it came to planning, we enlisted the help of EnRoute Consulting. Julia is a gap year consultant, and she was immensely helpful; with her knowledge and expertise I planned a five month trip to Southeast Asia, where I would volunteer at a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center in Thailand for three months, then solo travel for two. I was finally making headway! Now all I needed was money. I had recently re-taken up knitting, and in a miserably failed attempt to make a hat, I accidentally created a cowl scarf that didn't actually look bad. I began wearing it around, and when someone asked where could they get one, I realized I had a fundraising prospect.

Two months, 200 Kneckies, and $2000 later, I was on a plane for Thailand. Upon arrival at Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand (WFFT), I was in love. The animals, the atmosphere, the community, all of it surpassed any expectation I'd ever had. WFFT is an organization that takes in any and all animals, wild or domestic, and cares for them until they can be released back into the wilderness. If they are unable to be rehabilitated, they live at the sanctuary indefinitely where they are treated with understanding compassion. I immediately felt at home, and wondered if three months was going to be enough time for me. For the first couple weeks, I struggled with some loneliness, homesickness, and anxiety, but before I knew it I was making friends from all over the globe. Everyone I met was inspiring, strong, compassionate, friendly, funny, and altogether unexpectedly amazing. I had come from such a small world with such little diversity, I didn't even know such people existed, and they are what made my travels so incredible.

One of the most important things I've learned this year is to just keep putting one foot in front of the other; whether it's a challenge or change, the best way to get through it is one step at a time. While in Thailand, my grandfather passed away, my boyfriend and I broke up, I injured myself on multiple occasions, my gluten intolerance wreaked physical and mental havoc, and I ended up in a hospital more than once. At the end of my three months at WFFT, I was very sick and scared, so I changed travel plans and left Asia early. It wasn't a decision I made lightly. It was necessary, and I'm proud of myself for making the choice to take care of myself and not feel like a failure. I don't feel like my adventure had been cut short; it was simply a change of plans. Instead of going home, I flew to Tacoma, WA to visit family, then traveled North to ski with my parents and sister at Whistler, BC. After going home for a bit, I realized wasn't ready to be done exploring, so I am now staying with my cousin in Arizona. Going with the flow has been an essential survival skill this year, one that I know will be useful for the rest of my life.

One of the most important things I've learned this year is to just keep putting one foot in front of the other; whether it's a challenge or change, the best way to get through it is one step at a time.

Now I've had time to reflect on my year so far, and I was surprised to find that I've changed immensely and learned more than I previously realized. I've broadened my perspective of the world and come back more understanding and compassionate towards people, animals, and the environment. I'm eternally grateful for my good fortune in life. I've cultivated a growing sense of wonder in myself, and an insatiable appetite for more of what life has to offer. I've learned that traveling doesn't lead to finding, but instead creating yourself, and that the creation never stops.

Now I feel excited and prepared for college, and I know I will get more out of these next four years than I would have if I hadn't taken a year off. To anyone contemplating taking a gap year: I cannot urge strongly enough that there is no better way to transform yourself from a lost high school kid who thinks they've got a clue, to a young adult who's starting to get the idea that cluelessness is a necessary part of life.

Graduating from high school and taking the next big step toward college can be daunting, so a growing number of students are choosing to take a gap year to focus on personal growth. Whether you spend a year traveling, volunteering or working, we'd love to share your story. If you'd like to contribute a text or video piece, please email gapyear@huffingtonpost.com and tell us all about your experience.