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Why You Should Take a Gap Year: A Profile on Aniko Springsteel

I met Aniko when we were in elementary school, and she has been my good friend ever since. While the rest of our friend group was deciding where we wanted to attend college, she was deciding which region of the world she wanted to travel to. We were all so excited for her, and in awe of her bravery in deciding to travel for a year before her freshman year of college. When the rest of us were stressing about our first year of college exams, we lived vicariously through Aniko’s Instagram posts from all of the countries she was traveling to. I asked Aniko some questions about her experiences taking a gap year, and this is what she had to say. 

Q: Introduce yourself! How old are you, where are you from? 

A: My name is Aniko, I’m 19 years old and from Sudbury, MA

Q: Where do you go to college, and what are you studying? 

A: I’m studying International Affairs in the Elliott School at George Washington University.

Q: What made you decide to take a gap year?

A: I rowed in high school which was a huge commitment. I loved it, but I couldn’t do the French language exchange or travel as much as I’d wanted to. When I decided against recruiting and I was choosing schools, part of what drew me to GW was that I could defer a year of admission. So I did it! I had traveled some with my family to Canada and Europe before my gap year and did a trip to Tanzania through my high school. What I really wanted to do was more service-learning, explore tons of new cultures, learn more about countries’ histories and religions, and also do French language immersion!

Q: Did you know you wanted to travel during your gap year?

A: Yes, I definitely knew I wanted to travel because I’d loved doing it so much before. Because of what I was planning on studying, it also seemed like it’d be really useful to gain a more global perspective and learn as much about the world as I could the year before going back to school— so I took full advantage. I also hoped language immersion would really help my French which it definitely did!

Q: What programs did you do?

A: Pacific Discovery Southeast Asia semester in the fall and the EF Gap Semester during the spring. Both were 10 weeks long.

Q: Where did you travel?

A: The Pacific Discovery Southeast Asia program was mostly in Thailand (31 days total), Laos (less time), Cambodia and Vietnam. The EF Gap was 3 weeks around Europe with a larger group to London, Amsterdam, Paris and Barcelona, then 4 weeks Language module with classes and a home-stay in Paris. Then, there was a 3 week Service Learning module in Peru (Lima, Cusco, and Sacred Valley) until the world shut down.

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 Q: What was your favorite part of each trip?

A: Thailand was my favorite country [that] I visited during my SE Asia trip. The best parts were the Elephant Nature Park; volunteering with elephants who have been saved from the abusive tourism, logging, labor, or circus act industries. They had other animals too, so I volunteered with the dogs in my free time with some of my group members. PSA: DON’T RIDE ELEPHANTS!

Scuba diving in Thailand was also amazing! We were in the south of the country near Krabi, where I did a dive lesson and tried to dive. I went down about 30 feet by the end and it was amazing to swim with all the fish and sea creatures. 

Macchu Picchu in Peru was absolutely amazing. It is so remote you have to wake up at 4 AM even if you are pretty close by because you drive to a town, get on a long train ride up a mountain, take 2 long terrifying bus rides up a bigger mountain and then walk half a mile to even begin to see it. The temples were so cool. All the buildings were so well-preserved because it was only discovered about 100 years ago and wasn’t open to tourism for a while. You can see all the rooms the Inca used, and walk along the Inca Trails which the messengers would sprint on to carry messages through mountains to other villages. They were maybe 2 feet wide with few railings and there was at least a thousand-foot drop below! 

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Q: What was your least favorite part of the trip?

A. In Thailand, the meditation retreat! We wore all-white outfits for a few days (they let us change once!), our phones were taken away and we had 3 hours of meditation a day: early morning, afternoon, and evening when dark. The days started at 5:30 AM! There was nothing to do but sleep, reflect and journal, or read. We did a few “activities” like listening to monks talk (although Buddhism is sexist which I didn’t like, we couldn’t touch them or be close by), or meditating at a river. I am pretty impatient and get bored easily so it was definitely my least favorite part, although I understood the goals of it.

Also, the bugs and climate in Southeast Asia: the bugs are huge, and there’s a lot of them— a few times I went to bed with 4 inch wide spiders in my room hiding because I had no other options! Gross, I know. There’s a ton of mosquitos too so bug spray or lotion is a must. I also got bitten by a leech while hiking in Laos one time—hated that. The climate’s also extremely hot, so it took a week or two to adjust to it.

Q: How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect your trip?

A: During my third week in Peru, they told us we were leaving in 4 days. We kept doing the activities, calling our EF advisors and trying to tell them it’d be okay and we could stay, but none of us really understood the virus or any of its implications yet. We were especially sad to miss our Macchu Picchu visit, but our tour guide miraculously scheduled one in a couple of hours, which we would do and then fly back to Lima, and then home as soon as possible. 

Q: What was your biggest takeaway or thing you learned from your travels?

A: Every one of my best life decisions have occurred outside of my comfort zone: from choosing to do a gap year, to going to countries I wasn’t that familiar with and adjusting to all these new cultures in each one. Rock climbing, rappelling, speaking foreign languages, scuba diving, meeting tons of new people and friends were all things I was afraid or anxious about doing but I’m so glad I did. I also learned a lot of independence, because I was out on my own for the first time, and I did some solo travel and trip planning along the way which was new for me. Finally, and one of the most important for life, was that I learned how to live with, or even get along with, all different types of people, both Americans from different places and backgrounds than me and the people I met in all these countries such as classmates, tour guides, or strangers.

Q: What do you want to tell others about taking a gap year?

A: Do it! There may never be another time in your life where you can take the pressure off of your schoolwork and career for a year or even just a semester, and truly live, discover yourself, and see the world. So many programs offer scholarships and aid to be able to do them, and college credit too, but I think gap years can be even more than just traveling. You can use the time to learn a new language, start a small business or non-profit, volunteer at organizations, or get a job if you want! The possibilities are endless, and it is so helpful to guiding you and giving you the space to discover what you truly want to do: college or no college, what major, what job or program. I had an idea going in, but my year really cemented the idea that I want to spend my life traveling, learning about other countries, and solving problems in the world. Take a gap year, it’s the best decision you’ll ever make!

I hope that Aniko's inspiring gap year story encourages you to think about doing a gap year, or even traveling more in the future! Her experiences have really inspired me to think more about my global impact, and how exploring more areas of the world can widen my mindset.

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Jenny is a sophmore at Boston University. She is studying psychology with a minor in special education. She is from Massachusetts, and loves all things MA! Her hobbies include listening to music, watching hockey games, and drinking coffee!
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