When I was finishing my last term at the private boarding school I attended in Milan, Italy something began to dawn on me. I was nearly an adult and had no life experience. I had never had a job outside of the family furniture business. I had never managed money or paid my own bills. I’d never even driven a car. I’d also never spent much time with people who weren’t, for the most part, exactly like me. I was also due to begin studies at a prestigious university in Rome where none of those things were likely to change. This was when I decided that I needed to take a gap year to work, travel, volunteer, and ultimately find myself. Here is what happened and what I learned.


I Discovered That I Could Make Myself Heard

The first thing that I had to do was to tell my parents and grandparents that my plans (there plans too) had changed. It was a difficult conversation. They couldn’t understand why I wanted to do this. I explained to them that I wanted to have some important life experiences before jobs and education would make that difficult for me. At first, they offered to send me to Paris for a summer to study under a fashion designer that my mother knew. Finally, though, I was willing to get them to understand why I needed to establish independence. As someone who usually went along with whatever plans were laid out for me, this was a big deal.


I Learned to Solve my Own Problems

When I started my gap year journey, I guess you could say that I was book smart but not street smart. I was an honors student. I had travelled to major cities all over the world to showcase my artwork. Because of my family’s connections, I was surrounded by artists, designers, and intellectuals my entire life. But, I had never filled out an application for a job, gotten a car repaired, or dealt with a missed flight or train when I didn’t have the money to simply purchase a replacement. My gap year experience changed this quite quickly. I landed in North Carolina to begin my gap year volunteering with a group that brought music and art programs to schools and community centers in impoverished rural areas. Unfortunately, I didn’t land soon enough to catch the train that was supposed to take me two hours away to begin volunteering.

Calling home wasn’t an option for me. So, I found a payphone and called ahead to the volunteer organization to let them know that I would be a few days late. Then, I went to a tiny Italian restaurant and asked if they needed a server for a few days. They didn’t, but they did need a dishwasher. Three days later, I had the cash I needed to catch the same train I had missed and I made it to my destination.


I Spent Months Helping People But Always Walked Away Inspired By Them

The majority of my gap year was spent volunteering and travelling from one volunteer experience to another. I started my experience thinking that I would be paying back my blessed and privileged existence by giving service to others. In the end, though, I felt even more indebted by the experiences that I had. In addition to teaching music and art to children in North Carolina, I also helped families in Kansas whose town had been decimated by a tornado, spent a week holding babies at an orphanage in Cambodia, and served food to homeless people out of a church kitchen in London among other experiences.

Here’s what is truly humbling. No matter how dire people’s circumstances were, they were always hospitable and just as willing to help themselves as we were to help them. In Kansas, the families we helped held a cookout for us using grills and bbq pits that they assembled using scrap wood and metal barrels. In London, the lads that I served dinner to all got together and replaced the radiator hose on the car I had rented to travel to the next city. In Cambodia, we were sung to and also blessed by young men who had decided to become monks.

I Fell in Love Not For The First Time But in The Most Genuine Way Ever

The last leg of my trip landed me back in the United States. I had earned enough money to pay for a hotel room in Chicago for a week before heading back to Italy. Within two days, I had fallen in love with the city. By the end of the week, I had also met and fallen in love with the man who is now my husband. In fact, he and the new self-confidence that I had developed during my gap year were the reasons I made the decision to attend university in Chicago instead of Rome.