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.

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