Why Take A Gap Year: 8 Gap Year Life Lessons


Jul 6, 2023

Are you considering taking a gap year? At NOLS, our gap year programs offer you unparalleled experiences that have the power to change your life.

From thrilling international travel adventures to personal growth, and from acquiring valuable skills to making lifelong connections, a gap year can be a transformative journey that helps young adults like you develop as an individual.
Gap years tend to be looked back on by NOLS alumni as an incredible experience that fundamentally altered the rest of their lives, both personally and in their future careers.

First, we'll outline the 4 types of Gap Year Programs to help you choose the most productive gap year path for you.

Then we'll discuss 8 life-changing lessons you can expect from a NOLS gap year program.

Mauricio-Clauzet-pat-7 (1)Photo by Mauricio Clauzet

4 Types of Gap Year Programs

Immersive Gap Year

You'll embark on a journey of cultural exploration, embracing an unfamiliar world. This experience entails dwelling abroad with a host family, delving into language classes, and participating in diverse cultural activities. You'll gain profound insights into the lives of others and learn how to connect with your cultural similarities while also respecting differences.

Volunteer Gap Year

Making a meaningful difference becomes your way of life. As you explore the world, you'll be granted with myriad volunteer opportunities—economic, agricultural, creative, and more. As you contribute your skills, you'll develop new talents while integrating with and supporting the local community.

Personal Gap Year

A personal gap year gives you the freedom to shape your own unique journey. You can still collaborate with organizations that resonate with your hobbies and interests, but you'll ultimately be in charge of sculpting a meaningful project in tune with your aspirations.

Academic Gap Year

Imagine gaining college credit for exploring the world. It's a fusion of rigorous learning and well-deserved time off. Whether you seek to expand your knowledge or dive deeper into your academic passions, these programs provide the ideal platform to pursue your intellectual curiosity without the weight of choosing a college major. Even before starting college, you're already a step ahead of others in university life skills.

Karthik_Maddineni_IND-29-1Photo by Karthik Maddineni

The Transformative Power of a Gap Year

1. Personal Growth and Self-Discovery

One of the most profound lessons for gap year students is the opportunity for personal growth and self-discovery, and what better time to do it than right after high school graduation?

By stepping out of your daily routine and embracing new experiences, you'll embark on a journey of self-exploration.

During your gap year, you'll not only explore your interests and curiosities, but also discover your strengths and weaknesses, learn how to overcome challenges, and develop essential life skills.

Imagine during a gap year that Patagonia's vast wilderness becomes your classroom, where you'll learn the art of adaptability and develop a profound connection with nature. Through overcoming physical and mental obstacles, you'll discover hidden strengths and push the boundaries of your comfort zone.

Through a NOLS program, you'll acquire tools to cope with stress, improve your communication, and foster empathy and compassion.

These skills and qualities will shape you into a better individual and a more responsible member of society.

2. Developing a Global Perspective

NOLS believes that developing a global perspective is a crucial aspect of any gap year experience.

By living among communities in another country, listening to their stories, and sharing in their daily activities, you'll develop a profound understanding of the world's interconnectedness and the importance of cultural exchange.

During a gap year in East Africa, the Maasai people will inspire you with their deep connection to the land and their traditional pastoral lifestyle. The Bushmen will teach you the wisdom of their ancient hunting and gathering practices. The Chaga will open your eyes to the beauty of coffee farming and the importance of sustainable agriculture. And the Meru will share their knowledge of medicinal plants and spiritual rituals.

Through these interactions, you'll cultivate empathy, respect, and a genuine appreciation for the diverse perspectives that make our world so extraordinary.

This exposure will provide you with insights into the challenges global communities face, the innovative solutions they've implemented, and the impact of their actions on their communities and the world as a whole.

This knowledge will broaden your perspective, making you a more informed and responsible global citizen.

3. Gaining Independence and Responsibility

A NOLS gap year program encourages you to embrace independence and take responsibility for yourself, especially for those entering a program immediately after graduating high school.

Whether you're traveling solo or working abroad, you'll develop skills to manage finances, navigate new environments, and make decisions autonomously.

These experiences foster independence, self-reliance, and adaptability, which will empower you to thrive in your future career and personal life.

For example, as you navigate the rugged trails, summit towering peaks, and camp under the starlit sky during a gap year in the Rocky Mountains, you'll learn to rely on yourself and make crucial decisions in a dynamic environment. From managing limited resources to navigating unpredictable weather, you'll learn preparedness, problem-solving, and taking ownership of your actions.

Gap years can also help you gain a sense of direction and purpose.

It allows you to explore different career paths, volunteer in various fields, and even start your own venture.

By seizing these opportunities, you'll develop the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed in your chosen path and make a positive impact on the world.

Justin_Forrest-Parks_Red_Rock_Rendezvous_POC-5Photo by Justin Forrest

Building Lifelong Skills and Experiences

A NOLS gap year program offers a unique opportunity to acquire skills and experiences that will stay with you for a lifetime.

It's a chance to explore the world, meet incredible people, and step out of your comfort zone.

4. Enhancing Your Communication Skills

One of the most significant benefits of a NOLS gap year is the opportunity to enhance your language learning and communication skills.

By immersing yourself in a new language and culture, you'll develop effective strategies to overcome language barriers and communicate proficiently.

This experience will improve your ability to negotiate, persuade, and actively listen, which will be highly valuable in your future personal and professional pursuits.

When you find yourself in a country where you're just beginning to speak the language, you'll learn creative methods to communicate with locals.

You might rely on using simple phrases and sentences in conjunction with pointing at your surroundings or drawing a quick sketch on paper.

This experience will highlight the importance of clear verbal communication and help you become more proficient at utilizing language effectively, even in your own community.

5. Developing Problem-Solving Abilities

NOLS courses provide daily opportunities for problem-solving, where you'll encounter unique challenges that require adaptability and quick decision-making.

In the Baja semester, you might face the dilemma of changing weather conditions. You'll need to assess whether it's safer to remain at your current location or paddle to the next campsite.

In Patagonia, you could encounter unexpected obstacles like discovering that the route you planned is impassable due to a dense bamboo forest. This situation will require you to find an alternative path quickly.

NOLS courses are designed to expose you to the unknown and foster your ability to adapt, endure adversity, and problem-solve efficiently. These experiences will help you develop resilience and the skills necessary to confront unforeseen circumstances.

6. Cultivating Resilience and Adaptability

During your NOLS gap year, you'll encounter situations that require resilience and adaptability.

You'll immerse yourself in new cultures and work environments, and interact with diverse individuals.

Another challenge that could arise in Patagonia is if the group's ration resupply is inaccessible because of a high river. You'll need to devise a solution to sustain the group until the river is passable.

These experiences will foster emotional resilience, build self-confidence, and teach you to adapt to different circumstances, ensuring your future success and personal satisfaction.

Matt_Hage_Backpacking-47Photo by Matt Hage

Making Meaningful Connections

Embarking on a NOLS gap year can be a life-changing experience. It allows you to step out of your comfort zone, explore new places, and meet extraordinary individuals.

The connections you form during this time are invaluable, offering you a network of friends, mentors, and professionals who can guide you in your future endeavors.

7. Forming Lasting Friendships

One of the most rewarding aspects of a NOLS gap year is the chance to form lasting friendships with fellow participants.

Whether you're backpacking through Patagonia, teaching leadership skills in the Rocky Mountains, or gaining cultural perspective in India, engaging in transformative activities with your peers will create meaningful, lasting relationships.

These connections provide opportunities to share experiences, learn from one another, and forge bonds that can last a lifetime.

With NOLS, you can experience an unforgettable gap year in the stunning Teton Valley. Immerse yourself in the world's best classroom—the outdoors—and form lifelong friendships with like-minded peers. 

Through shared experiences like giving and receiving feedback after teaching a class, navigating off-trail, and developing problem-solving skills, you'll forge deep connections and create a tight-knit network of friends who will support and inspire you throughout your journey.

8. Engaging with Local Communities

Engaging with local communities will expose you to unique experiences and perspectives.

These activities will deepen your understanding of local customs, cultures, and the challenges faced by these communities.

They offer an immersive experience that broadens your appreciation for different ways of life.

A gap year in India could lead you deep into the Himalayas, where animal-powered farming is a way of life. You'll gain a profound appreciation for sustainable practices passed down through generations—plowing fields, herding livestock, and other traditional techniques, Through these experiences, you'll develop a deep connection with the local communities, discovering the resilience, resourcefulness, and profound respect they hold for their natural surroundings.

A NOLS gap year will not only provide breathtaking backdrops but also serve as a classroom where you'll learn the importance of ecological balance, community cooperation, and the preservation of traditional knowledge.

Are You Ready For A Life-Changing Experience?

We hope you're no longer asking yourself why take a gap year? and are instead asking which gap year program do I want to take?

A well-planned NOLS gap year program offers a journey of self-discovery, growth, learning, and personal development.

The lessons you learn during this transformative experience—developing a global perspective, enhancing communication and problem-solving abilities, and making meaningful connections—will have a lasting impact on your future personal and professional life.

Embrace the opportunity to embark on your NOLS gap year adventure and prepare for a life-changing journey!


Written By


NOLS is a nonprofit global wilderness school that seeks to help you step forward boldly as a leader.

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