Meeting the Unexpected on a NOLS Gap Year Expedition

By Luna Rosal

Jul 6, 2021

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Photo by Delaney Eisen.

NOLS grad Luna Rosal gives insight into the fun, challenges, and stories she learned from a NOLS gap year.

What did you expect of NOLS before your course?

I showed up without knowing anything but the basic gist of what was going to happen through the three months. I did know it was going to be the most difficult thing I had ever done, and that was both exciting and scary.

How did a gap year come to your attention?

I didn’t feel ready to go to college when I graduated. My family was also planning to go to the Philippines for a year, and we kind of all went in on it as a family, together. But when it became evident that COVID was going to be a global thing, and due to a series of other factors including the pandemic, we had to come home. I didn’t have any other friends who took a year off, and so I have to say that it was hard to kind of split paths with them.

Once your expedition started, what was the impact of realizing that this was a semester-long commitment to being away from home?

I definitely cried a lot. (I'm told by trustworthy sources that crying is a leadership skill!)

When I signed up for the course I thought “Oh, 90 days isn’t forever.” Easy to say when you know you’re going to sleep that night in a dry, soft bed after a good shower.

I got used to the hard foam sleeping pads and the adequately-warm-but-frankly-a-little-crusty sleeping bag, and it built a special sense of camaraderie knowing that I wasn’t the only one struggling to adapt.

Photo by Nick Chreky.

What’s the best lesson you learned on your semester?

I feel like I learned how to love life. Experiencing the highs and the lows of an expedition in relationship with other people was so rich, and it felt delicious and nutritious to the soul. Of course, it wasn’t that way 100% of the time, but sometimes you gotta eat things you don’t like to expand your palate. I was living a full life every day. I learned that everything that happens in life is part of the process, and can be beautiful if you let it.

What was it like to be a Person of Color (POC) on your semester? Were you the only POC? 

I learned a lot about myself and how others interact with me. There was one other student who identified as a POC, but it took a lot of work for me to get along with him! Spending time with him taught me that within marginalized identities there is a huge range of thought and experience.

The instructors were the most racially diverse set of mentors I have ever worked with. It was a huge deal for me to see brown people in the outdoors. I was unaware of this before the course, but I actually thought I wouldn’t enjoy sports like rock climbing or canyoneering mainly because I had never seen someone like me enjoy them. Seeing instructors of color really opened up my perception of who can enjoy the outdoors, and allowed me to notice and let go of the white narrative I was applying to outdoor recreation.

What were learnings from your instructors or fellow students?

I remember there were a specific few days on the climbing section of the course that had a lot of tension for me. We were at the City of Rocks in southern Idaho, and that week we learned about the Native people who lived there before white settlers were in the picture. A fellow student said something very disrespectful about the women of a nation we were learning about. Personally, I was very hurt by the comment. I thought if he held those beliefs about the women of this other marginalized group, what beliefs did he have about me and my identity? On top of that, it was difficult to feel like my pain was valid because I’m half white and privileged in many ways. I had to deal with internal gaslighting to properly process my emotions and have compassion for myself.

The instructors did a lot of work with that student and taught a class about privilege and other things, but my relationship with him after that incident was often difficult and it took a lot of energy from me. I had an instructor tell me that it was ok if I didn’t trust him anymore. I think that allowed me to feel like it was a real choice to put energy into our relationship.

I learned that for myself as a biracial woman and as someone who grew up in white culture, thinking about race and the way I process the racism that happens to me has benefited from believing that oppression isn’t a hierarchy. Being under the pressure of the course made me realize I have a habit of pushing down my pain because somehow I don’t think it hurts enough to be real, or that I’m at the top of some oppression pyramid and I should be grateful.

The course gave me an environment that allowed me to see that I cut myself off from holding the pain that I have, but it did take time (and a therapist) for me to even begin to allow myself to feel the pain that is sometimes present for me.

Even though I sometimes disagreed with my coursemates about identity, and even though I felt wronged by them at times, I still have deep gratitude and care for them today. I realized that I can experience injustice, but I don’t have to demonize people who are ignorant or insulate myself from people who make mistakes.

“Forgiveness is a way of life that gradually transforms us from being helpless victims of our circumstances to being powerful and loving ‘co-creators’ of our reality… It is the fading away of the perceptions that cloud our ability to love.” (Robin Carsajian)

What impact did your instructors have on your course experience?

I feel like the instructors were everything. I know that NOLS has specific curriculum and expectations for us as a group, but it’s the instructors who held us to those and brought their own life experiences into the mix as well.

In our daily life, it didn’t even feel like they were “NOLS instructors,” they were just fellow adventure buddies who were there to help us along when we had trouble or needed advice. (There was probably a lot of work they were doing behind the scenes that we as students didn’t see, too.) It seemed like they were learning just as much from us as students as we were from them as instructors, like we were all a team together.

Tell us a story from your favorite day on the course.

There were so many favorite days, but one in particular was the last night of the course. We were camped on the plateau above Slickrock Canyon in southern Utah, and we decided to sleep all together in a 9 person cuddle pile. The sky was so big and dark, and there weren’t any clouds. Lying down and looking up, it just felt like you were hanging off of the earth and into the universe. It was breathtaking, and also normal somehow, like I belonged out there.

We all had just completed this major accomplishment together, and it felt so gratifying to just be close and think about everything we had done as a team.

What were some of the challenges you experienced on your course?

I got homesick a lot. I’ve always turned to my family and friends to process my emotions, and so leaving that was a big change. Leading up to the course, one of my biggest fears was that people would look down on me for crying or missing my parents. The instructors and the other students were really helpful and compassionate, though! I felt that there was a lot of space for me to just be sad and uncomfortable that I was far away from my home.

What would you add to the course to make it better?

I would have loved to have curriculum specifically for folks like me to help frame some of the hard and confusing things that were happening to me. It would be so cool to have a class on intersectionality, or about what it can look like to be on the other end of a microaggression.

There were days when I had real trouble feeling like I wasn’t good enough at leading the group, or where I felt that my opinion didn’t matter because my perspective was different from everyone else’s. This is kind of blunt, but it kind of felt like the guys and the white people got all of the classes about their whiteness and their sexism. Where are the classes about marginalized identities? Where is the structural support for someone like me? The work isn’t just stopping oppression, it’s also about resourcing and caring for the folks who have sustained trauma. I feel like there is a real opportunity for NOLS to nourish its diversity.

Back home, what are some of the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected your life?

I’ve been really fortunate—none of my family has gotten sick and I have been financially taken care of as COVID continues to impact so many people. But it’s still impactful. There were huge changes to my family’s plans for the year. And just the day-to-day things that are normal now, like not being able to see my friends or go to the movies. Writing that feels small, but I feel like the pandemic in all of its enormity is another subtle layer of stress that I’m dragging around with me every day.

Why should someone take a gap year? And specifically, why should a Person of Color take a gap year?

Really taking a breath and understanding myself and how I work has been so helpful. I’m still on break from school, but I feel like I will appreciate taking this time off so I can make decisions on my path with more experience.

Also, I never knew this while I was in school, but I kind of had my own box that I was expected to fit in to. There were so many stereotypes that I was playing in to, and I never knew that (a) they existed and (b) how liberating it could be to step back and be real with myself.

What’s been the impact of your gap year?

Something I experienced right away was the feeling that I could literally do anything. College was always something I wanted to do, and I never felt pressured into it. After graduating I really felt like it was possible to go against the grain and go to trade school, become a mechanic, or go WWOOFing for years on end.

Now there’s not so much judgment in me about folks who didn’t go to college, which in turn made me stop judging myself for thinking about not going to college. It feels like I’m actively choosing college for myself now.

What advice do you have for students considering a gap year?

Do it!!!! If you decide to take one, figure out some sort of structure. Maybe it’s seasonal work or volunteer work, or maybe there’s a specific country you want to visit. After being in school for so long and having someone else plan your days, it was hard for me to plan big chunks of time for myself. There are so many amazing gap year programs out there too, and tons of people offer scholarship money specifically for gap years. Some colleges even include gap year programs that offer funding.

In my opinion it’s definitely worth it, and it has given me time to separate from my family a little bit and become more of myself before making big life decisions about what’s next for me.

Learn More About Gap Year Programs with NOLS

Written By

Luna Rosal

Luna took her semester in the fall of 2019, and has since started working for NOLS in a variety of roles. She is a sister, daughter, and an aspiring relationship fairy and transformation doula.

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