Photo by Steven Gu, Student.
« Back to Blog

10 Reasons to Take a Gap Year and Travel Abroad between High School and College

Posted on



Dragons HQ

Trying to plan a gap year? Or get your parents on board with your gap year idea? Or need help understanding your gut instinct to take time off and travel? We’ve compiled reasons and rationale and stories from our gap year and student alumni. Read this essay addressing one of the most popular questions we hear from students and parents:  “WHY Gap?” as part of Dragons Travel Guide Series.

You’re reading this because you need to be convinced. Or you need to convince your parents. Or you just need words to explain a gut instinct to take time off and travel. Good news: We have research and experiences to share with you. And most importantly, we have 25-years of student alumni who can put it all into beautiful little summaries of well-earned advice. Let’s get to it.

Here’s 10 good reasons to consider a gap year or study abroad program…

#1: To catch your breath between high school and college.

Out of clutter, find simplicity.  ― Albert Einstein

Burnout from the intense scheduling and competitive pressure of high school is real. Jumping straight into 4+ more years of academic rigor can crumble the best of us. It pays in the longterm to invest in a re-set. A gap year program gives students a break from constantly juggling home lives, work roles, academic responsibilities, and even social media accounts. Time abroad and away from all those socially constructed ideas of who we are can offer just the quality of space to find a fresh perspective, to reassess goals, and to, ultimately, return to an education path more focused and dedicated.

Some supporting research:

Photo by Amanda Lai, China Language Program.

Words of Wisdom from our Student Alumni:

“I no longer get impatient in lines in the grocery stores or complain about the long wait for my coffee. My world is bigger now, and my town feels smaller. I feel a little more caged in — not a great feeling, but I know that it will push me to keep on getting out of my comfort zone and keep traveling.” – Kate Canning, Madagascar Program

“I am still the loud, direct, gregarious, person that I was before my program, but the sheer amount of beauty, difficulty, and happiness that I saw in Guatemala convinced me to look a bit closer. I realized it might be worth it to stop every once in awhile, be quiet, and see what life was trying to show me.” Will Jamieson, Guatemala Program

“My semester with Dragons in​ ​Indonesia ignited a passion for environmental and social justice causing me to choose my specific majors and minors at school. It gave me so much direction for who I want to be. Even three years later, I think about my homestays, instructors, and friends from the trip all the time. ” – Crissy McCarthy, Indonesia Semester


#2: To escape the classroom walls, get out into the world, and access new stories and perspectives.

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page. ― Augustine of Hippo

Our own worldviews can start to feel stifling. We hunger for stories different than the ones we’ve been told over and over and over again. Or we’re just tired of reading about it, and want to hear it in a voice that resonates with personal experience and human emotion. And not everyone’s stories get heard! Sometimes you have to cross a border to hear the story of immigration by a homestay father, the story of the fallout of an earthquake by a local doctor, the story of the destruction of an ecosystem from a glaciologist working high in the Andes, the story of water rights from activist in the Mekong, or the story of an arranged marriage by a Hindi teacher in India. Consider this your opportunity to personally connect with people just like you, yet living on a piece of land on another side of the planet.

Some supporting research:   

  • “More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.” – From, Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?–

Rural Sufi village in Senegal.

Words of Wisdom from our Student Alumni:

“I learned far more on this course than I expected. I knew I would learn about Nepal​ and ​its history, language, people, ​and ​religions​.​ ​B​ut beyond that, I learned what it means to be a global citizen and about the interconnectedness of my actions.” ​– ​Zoe Barr, Nepal Semester

“Spending several weeks living in the country, I quickly realized the problem with labeling countries like Bolivia as, “3rd world” and “developing.” It also forced me to rethink how my culture defines poverty. Now I always look to unpack the ethnocentrism that lies in my country.”Abby Miranker, South America Semester

“The community from which I come has shaped many of my views, mannerisms, and perspectives; while this is generally okay, such a cloistered outlook on the world inevitably leads to a lack of perspective concerning the lives, thoughts, and struggles of people around the world. Exposure to Moroccan people, in all their differences compared to Americans, radically changed my worldview. Meeting Muslims daily and having informative conversations about their faith changed the way in which I view religion.”   – Brett Cohen, Morocco Program


#3: To adventure in the mountains and wilderness of the natural world.

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity. ― John Muir

Our students don’t always know how much nature they are missing in their lives until they discover a new level of silence or awe when tucked into a sleeping bag under a blanket of stars in the Himalayas, swinging in a hammock in the shadow of a volcano in Nicaragua, trekking across the Tibetan Plateau in China, or resting on a wooden deck in Indonesia. Are you a little tired of all the digital alarms, reminders, and alerts in your life? Does a dirt road meandering into the horizon seem intriguing? Are you curious what it feels like to have everything you need for a week right on your back? Are you craving some silence, or just the real life white-noise of waves crashing on rocks, wind rushing past trees, or rain pummeling your tent?

Some supporting research:   

Crossing the river before summiting 17,500 Pico Austria. Photo by Ella Williams (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest, 2nd Place), South America Semester.

Words of Wisdom from our Student Alumni:

“I had never felt such a deep sense of connection to nature and understanding myself and how I fit into the world. The stunning views are indescribable, but they awakened in me this sense of possibility and sense of adventure – two things I had lost sight of for a long time.” – Ishanya Anthapur, Nepal Semester

“My time in the more remote areas of Nepal allowed me to experience a new rhythm of life: I learned joy can come from just exchanging songs with my Nepali homestay family.  We sat in a circle one night underneath a candle’s fire. Their rich voices surrounded me in the dark. Although we had a hard time connecting through words, the music provided such warmth.” – Nicole Wong, Nepal Semester


#4: To gain language fluency via immersion.

To have another language is to possess a second soul. – Charlemagne

Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, and French of course. But on Dragons gap year programs students also have opportunities to study such languages as MalagasyQuechuaNepali, Burmese, Wolof, Bahasa Indonesian, Khmer, Arabic, and more.  Many past students have reported acquiring more language skills in a month of immersion than from their years of classes in school. Here’s your opportunity to take your language to the next level. Or pick up a new language right from the beginning! Language Study is one of Dragons core program components because we firmly believe it is the most respectful key to unlocking direct experiences of story and culture. Dragons Instructor Jeff Wagner explains it best: 

“Across the world, we learn language because each one has its unique stories to tell, and we open ourselves to new possibilities. We encounter these stories in newspaper columns, love letters, bed-time stories, idle chatter on the street corner, and philosophy. They’re told around campfires, written in beautiful curly scripts, and carved into ancient stone walls. Stories in English today have become dominated by the pragmatic, blunt language of global business, capitalism, and material success. Spanish stories express a multi-continental history of struggle and complex identity. Most speakers of Spanish are descendants of colonized people, building a resistance against imperialism out of the language of their former colonizers. Tibetan stories seem to be built around knowledge and understanding of the mind and devotion to a greater purpose. Life in Hindi seems to be a poetic unfolding over infinite time; the words for tomorrow and yesterday are the same in Hindi. A language is made from the stories that its people tell and the manner in which its speakers move through the world. […] We don’t learn language to barter in the market for bracelets. We learn language to think and communicate more like the people who have different stories to tell, to understand the world as they perceive it not through their eyes, but through their ears. We learn language to understand other mindsets and ways of being. Anywhere we travel, there are stories waiting to be told; stories that could never exist in an English-speaking world.” (Read the full essay, “Why we Learn Language”)

Some Supporting Research:

Chinese Language Lesson Study Abroad with Where There Be Dragons

A Dragons student has a lesson in calligraphy. Photo by Eric Jenkins-Sahlin, China Language 4-week.

Words of Wisdom from our Student Alumni

“​I​ am leaving with a foundation on how to​ travel, learn, expand my worldview​,​ and connect with ​people on a deeper level.” ​- ​Grace Powell, South America Semester


#5: To do an internship or work alongside local experts and mentors in a new trade,  craft, art, or skill.

We often miss opportunity because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work.  ― Thomas A. Edison

When the four walls of the classroom start to feel claustrophobic, it’s time to get out and get your hands and creative brain playing. Every Dragons student is paired with a local mentor and invited to study a particular intellectual question or artisanal craft in greater depth. We’ve had students study everything from Bollywood dance, to West African drumming, to Yoga from an Indian Guru, to Chinese calligraphy, to the impacts of mining in Bolivia. It can be a great way to develop place-based expertise and hone ethnographic research skills. Sometimes it’s hard for students to understand what this program component looks like in the field, which is why we created this video (using student voices and music and imagery) describing our Independent Study Project program component.

Some supporting research:   

Senegalese drumming ISP. Photo by Micah LeMasters, Senegal Semester.

Words of Wisdom from our Student Alumni:

“I’ve started meditating daily since I got home, and have been keeping a gratitude journal I write in every few days. When it is so easy to get swept away in the chaos of my senior year of high school, filled with college applications, difficult classes, family responsibilities, friends, and everything else, I have found that my experiences abroad have become a grounding force.” – Silvana Montagu, Sikkim Program


#6: For career direction and exposure to the world’s diversity of work.

Your purpose in life is to find your purpose and give your whole heart and soul to it.  ― Gautama Buddha

You might feel like a gap year is a pause, or be told it’s a step backwards, when in fact, it’s a leap forward! Yes, you’re learning about a new place and global issues, but more significantly, you can gain clarity on who you are and what excites and propels you forward. Students who take the time to purposely discover what makes them passionate tend to hold higher GPAs, are more motivated, involved in campus activities, and are better contributors in college and beyond. 

Some supporting research:   

Rice Fields Thailand: The Spirit of Greng Jai

Working in the rice fields on Where There Be Dragons Thailand: The Spirit of Greng Jai.

Words of Wisdom from our Student Alumni:

“Before my Dragons course, I knew I was passionate about global engagement, but had no idea how to translate that internal drive into action. After my course, I felt as if I gained the confidence, courage and support to get out into the world—whether that meant becoming involved in a club at my school, as a volunteer in my local community, or with the issues of a country far from home.” – Olivia Sotirchos, North India Program


#7: To get offline, slow down, unplug, and spend time reflecting.

In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you. ― Leo Tolstoy

This excerpt from our Travel Guide Essay on, “Finding the Value in Unplugged Travel” sums it all up nicely: “On a Dragons course, we leave phones behind. We encourage students and instructors to simultaneously disconnect from lives back home while deeply engaging with the present moment in a new place. […} Snapping and quickly posting photos would surely yield some likes, but we’d also be abruptly jerked from the “right here” of the human realm to the “over there” of the digital realm, where those little hearts and upward-facing thumbs validate (or not) what we saw, what we did, how we felt, and what it meant. Instead, we deliberately keep open space in our itineraries and invite magic into unscheduled hours. While on course, instructors commonly use the phrase “get comfortable being uncomfortable.” In the moment, this might mean […] sitting with your experiences, and processing their meaning and value and worth before sharing them. It might mean not knowing what your friends are doing or what feels like blindly trusting that your experience, your time, and your days away are valid in and of themselves.”(Read the full essay.)

Some supporting research:   

Photo by Julianne Chandler. South America Semester.

Words of Wisdom from our Student Alumni:

“My biggest goal was to leave the trip more present, curious, and inspired. I came alive on this trip. I am excited to continue to push myself when I return home.” ​- ​El Williams, South America Semester

“The strengths of Dragons’ programs lie in the depth at which instructors go with supporting the students’ own journey, and their ability to guide them and offer them opportunities to learn about themselves in a very conscious way.” ​– ​Parent of Meredith Nass, ​Nepal​ Semester


#8: To learn about service or apprentice with a problem in the world of importance to you.

If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.  ― Barack Obama

At Dragons, instead of focusing on “service learning”—on the idea that short-term volunteers can contribute to communities abroad—we advocate a paradigm shift and choose, instead, to focus on “learning service.”  Learning Service is a holistic experience that combines an intimate and authentic engagement with a local community, the study of effective development, and the contribution to established community-driven projects. It is the process of living, working alongside, and respecting the culture of those communities that so kindly host us.  We acknowledge that Service Learning projects often benefit the volunteer and his/her understanding of a social problem in the world, just as much as they might add value to a hands-on community project. This essay by Dragons Alumni instructor Daniela Papi explains the essential need to, “…create solutions to global challenges that are grounded in a deep understanding of those problems and primed to fuel collaboration and collective impact.”

Some supporting research:   

To heal a land scorched by 36 years of civil war, this man planted 20,000 trees by hand. Meet Armando Lopez, founder of the Chico Mendes Reforestation Project in Pachaj, Guatemala. Photo by Cate Brown, Guatemala Summer Program.

Words of Wisdom from our Student Alumni:

“I learned about resource extraction, the lives of indigenous tribes in the Amazon, Andean spirituality and music, and about my fellow Dragons who made my experience truly unforgettable.  But the greatest effect that my experience had on me was my perspective on myself. Through reflection, Peru taught me more about my role in the world as a global citizen, my role with my peers, and about who I want to be.”  – Will LeVan, Peru Program

My time in Indonesia has allowed me to act, advocate, and lead by example for friends and family about world issues I really care about. Even three years later, I think about my homestays, instructors, and friends from the trip all the time. It ignited a passion for global environmental and social justice causing me to choose my specific majors and minors at school (Environmental Studies, Sociology, and International Development). My semester in Indonesia gave me so much direction for who I want to be.” – Crissy McCarthy, Indonesia Semester


#9: To build meaningful relationships.

Nothing builds meaningful relationships more quickly that a carefully crafted group culture with a small group of engaged students who are willing to face challenges and grow together. We’re not saying it’s easy. Groups, like all relationships, have dynamics and life cycles that often involve as many lows as highs. But what we do know is that this is the type of experience that bonds people that bonds people authentically and builds alumni and in-country relationships that last a lifetime. When students come home they are often surprised by the resiliency of these new, yet profound, friendships.

Some supporting research:  

  • “The interactions we have with other people affect the way we feel about life. Our close relationships keep us grounded and influence both happiness and the sense that we are part of a larger community. Interestingly, even our interactions with people we do not know that well give us a sense that we are part of that larger community. “ From, “Why Other People Are the Key to Our Happiness”

Photo by Hannah Elbaum, Guatemala Program.

Words of Wisdom from our Student Alumni:

“The Ladakhi guides, the Buddhist monks and nuns, my language teacher, my host family​ –​ all these friendships opened my eyes to how diverse the world can be and how many lifestyles one might find to suit them.” ​– ​Charlie Santos, India Semester

“I was challenged. I became more confident. I became more inspired. We had incredible discussions. I learned about a new culture which in turn made me think critically about myself and my own life. I reevaluated my values and I think I am now a more loving, compassionate, understanding, curious, and inspired person.” – El Williams, South America Semester

“My trip showed me a whole new way of life, of not complaining, but of acting, of researching, of making friends and forming communities.” Maggie Needham, Guatemala Program


#10: To try something new, daring, and challenging.

All happiness depends on courage and work.  ― Honoré de Balzac

Sometimes we just need to break out of our routines in order to find the space to try something new: be that sitting in meditation at a Buddhist retreat, hiking over an 18,000 foot pass in the Andes, listening to a guest speaker in Mandarin, learning to play a Djembe drum in Senegal, navigating the train station in New Delhi, or being taught how to spearfish by your host father on an island in Indonesia. It takes guts to leave everything you are familiar with at home in favor of the completely unknown. Just getting on the plane is worthy of recognition. But the opportunities that follow are countless in number and value.

Some supporting research:

  • Research shows that students who take a Gap Year graduate with higher GPAs than their peers and are more satisfied with their careers. Clagett, 2011.    

Students hiking through rice paddies in Tona Toraja, Indonesia.

Words of Wisdom from our Student Alumni:

“I often catch myself thinking and speaking in Spanish, or wanting foods that I know don’t exist in American culture. My craving for Peru feels like a secret that I don’t have the authority to share. People ask if Peru changed me, I mostly just nod and smile, because sometimes talking about my experience feels like trying to explain color to the blind.” – Emma Bailey, Peru Program

“I have learned to let go of the things that scare me and jump directly into the things that I find most important. I have learned that it is vital to savor life and the world. This came from wandering around an unfathomably different country and embracing the wonderful feeling that comes from learning and understanding. Without my time with Dragons, I can truly say that I would go back to being the timid, sheltered girl that I was before embarking on this incredible adventure.”  – Halina Bennet, Nicaragua Program

“This will be the most profound experience of your life. It will be educational, exciting, beautiful, challenging, deep​,​ and raw. The hardest moments will teach you just as much as, if not more than, the magical ones.” ​- ​Claire Lindsay, Africa Semester

Want to hear more stories directly from our students?  Dragons Yak Board is full of participant reflections. Here are some excerpts; Just follow the links to read the full essays…

Dragons Yak Board

“About 20 minutes before the top of the pass, Fabian stopped the ground and reached for a rock. He held it in his left hand and told us that this rock symbolizes the weight that each of us carries. I picked up my rock, a black heart shaped rock with white stripes, and thought about the weight that I carry. Is it the worry over registering for classes and rooming next semester? The distress of my friend group at school growing further apart? The uncertainty and sadness of my parents moving away from the community I grew up in? These thoughts and more moved up with me as I walked to the top of the pass. We circled up around a large rock pile on top of the pass and Fabian took off his hat and lifted his rock into the air. We all followed suit. Quecha words to thank the Pacha-Mama and Inti-Tayta (Mother and Father of the world) for all their gifts were repeated by us all. One by one we tossed the rocks onto the pile, Apu would now take these worries for us and give us strength to continue on.” – Emily Smith, South America Semester. Read the full student essay.

“That struggle, one with vague political origins, has morphed into an undeniably human one, one in which the good side is determined not by unspeakable acts of evil but by where on a moral Venn Diagram some far-off policy maker sits as he asks himself if ensuring the health of the Indonesian republic by keeping Sampela a permanent Bajau community regardless of the toll it places on nearby reefs and its human inhabitants is worthwhile. Should the strictly protected reefs of this island chain be enlarged, risking a war but preserving an ecosystem that was here long before there were people in it? Should the elite few who may make those decisions be more concerned with a fisherman and his kin going hungry or with the loss of life from the most diverse ecosystem on the planet or, on a larger scale, does the wellness of a nation of over two hundred and fifty million people or uncountable oceanic animals matter more than the wellness of thousands of laughing, crying, feeling humans?” – Owen Yager, Indonesia Semester. Read full essay.

“I know I have grown and changed in the past three months, and I’m proud of all that I have learned on this course. I have learned to lean in to uncomfortable situations and I have embraced a completely different way of life. I have learned so much about Nepali culture and as a result I have examined my own culture in a different light and really reflected on how I live my life. I have become so much more aware of my immense privilege and learned how I can better use what I have been given to create positive change. I have grown so much in my gratitude, especially for things I usually take for granted like clean air, a constant supply or filtered water, and a bathroom inside my house instead of across the street. I have seen and experienced so much in a short period of time and will forever be influenced by my time in Nepal.” – Austin Schmidt, Nepal Semester. Read Full Essay.

No Comments Yet

Be the first to start a conversation

Leave a Comment

Fields marked with * are required