BEYOND GO-ON: How my gap year changed my life — and prepared me for college

Many of the high school graduates I’ve spoken with over the past two months have said they aren’t going to college, at least not right away.

And as they’ve described their post-high school plans, I’ve heard hesitation — even shame — in their voices.

Their responses transported me back into my own senior year at Middleton High School, when I expected adults to respond with disappointment or doubt when I answered the dreaded question: “Where are you going to college?”

Because despite the countless hours I spent sitting in a high school classroom filling out mandatory college and scholarship applications, and the barrage of university pamphlets and swag my family received in the mail, I knew I wasn’t going to college — at least not right away. 

I was going on a foreign exchange.

It had been my plan for two years, when I first learned about Rotary Youth Exchange — a one-year immersion program that sends teens to another country to learn a different language, new customs, and become a world citizen and ambassador for the Rotary Club. 

It was the only option for life after high school that sparked my interest and got me excited about my future. 

My high school graduation

Part of the appeal was obvious — I’d be living in another country, learning a new language and traveling across Europe. It seemed like something out of a movie.

But beyond the reverie, going on exchange was uniquely practical.

I didn’t know what I wanted to study, where I wanted to go or who I wanted to be. Plus, I had always been a year younger than my classmates. The thought of heading to college at barely 17 years old and spending thousands of dollars on an education I might regret was terrifying.

Going on a foreign exchange was not only a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it was a buffer period where I could grow and learn to be on my own with support from a host family, a community of fellow exchange students and a trusted international service club.

It was my version of college prep.

But when I told friends, family and teachers about my plans, I was often met with confusion — even concern. 

I was a dedicated student with good grades and I loved school. Not going to college was a divergence from the path that others imagined for me. Taking a gap year — no matter how fruitful it would eventually turn out to be — caused people in my life to worry that I would flounder in the real world, never make it to college and never reach my “full potential.”

But by senior year, my mind was made.

And in July 2017, just two months after graduating from Middleton High, I hopped on a plane to Borås, Sweden.

All my foundations were broken when I left. Between learning a new language, adapting to a new family dynamic and handling life for the first time without my parents or friends, it was a tough process for a 17-year-old.

But the experience I gained was the perfect springboard into my freshman year of college.

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My gap year gave me perspective on my future and my education. Although I still didn’t know what I wanted to study, I knew I didn’t want to limit my education. I wanted learning experiences that were immersive and comprehensive.

That new perspective led me to The College of Idaho — a Caldwell-based private liberal arts college where I could graduate with one major and three minors. Before leaving Idaho, I had discounted the C of I simply because it was five minutes away from home. But after a year abroad, I realized that being close to home might not be so bad.

And when I arrived at the college, I realized just how prepared I was for the turbulence of freshman year. I knew I could get through the hard times because I had handled tougher situations on exchange. Rolling with the punches was my specialty.

My college graduation

Without knowing Swedish, I traveled across every region of the country by train. I navigated large, foreign cities alone, and built my own patchwork family of exchange students. I witnessed fights, got lost in the forest, missed planes and trains, and attended school entirely in Swedish.

But exchange taught me how to thrive in independence, how to persevere and how to enjoy life despite the struggles — all lessons I would use during my freshman year as I went through some of the same experiences: navigating a new campus, adapting to a new living situation, and pushing through hours worth of homework, often working into the early hours of the morning.

During my freshman year, I often reflected on exchange and how it benefited me.

Going to college right out of high school would have been a mistake, but it was the option that most people were pushing me toward. It was the expectation.

But by ignoring others’ doubts and following my own desires, I gained something irreplaceable. To this day, I look back on exchange as one of the most challenging, yet beneficial years of my life.

For me, taking a gap year was absolutely the right choice — and I still find ways to incorporate my experiences from exchange into my daily life.

I made it off my mom’s couch, into college and I’m leading a successful career in journalism. I am proof that broadening the expectations for students graduating high school, and letting young adults make their own decisions, can result in unexpected, yet extremely rewarding, outcomes.

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber

Reporter Sadie Dittenber focuses on K-12 policy and politics. She is a College of Idaho graduate, born and raised in the Treasure Valley. You can follow Sadie on Twitter @sadiedittenber and send her news tips at [email protected].

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