I didn’t go straight to college after I finished high school. Instead, I went to Chick-fil-A. That is, I got a job at Chick-fil-A.
One day, I was working in the drive-through when a complete stranger drove up. As I handed over her food, she noted disapprovingly that I wasn’t in school and asked if I had registered for classes for the upcoming semester.
“No, I’m taking a gap year,” I said with a smile.
The customer squinted at me, as if I’d said something distasteful.
“Just make sure you go back,” she snapped, and drove off without another word.
This was one of the first times I experienced the unfortunate stigma against gap years. I did go off to school after that year, but I didn’t appreciate this woman’s implication that I was doing something wrong by taking some time off.
I learned a lot of valuable lessons during my year off from school, such as how to deal with unpleasant customers. On that particular day, I was reminded of the expectations placed upon recent high-school graduates: They have to go to college, and they have to go right away.
These expectations are not helpful. College is not for everyone, and we shouldn’t act like it’s a necessary step to success. But for those who choose to go, the benefits of taking a year off between high school and college are incredible.
For many, especially for young people in Europe, a gap year is a time to travel and relax. It’s often a good idea to take some time off, especially for students who worked hard in high school and plan to work even harder in college. A gap year can be a great chance to volunteer or embark on a long-term mission trip. No matter what, gap years offer a chance to reflect on the next step in life before jumping into college.
One of the best things someone can do before starting college is get a job. College is expensive, and it helps to earn money first. A gap year could easily prevent carrying the typical $13,000 in post-college debt. The life experience that comes from spending time in the real world before jumping into academia is even more valuable. In fact, students will probably find that college is nothing like the real world.
At the restaurant, I learned how to treat difficult people with patience and respect. I had a customer who attempted to pay for a meal with a baseball cap filled with coins, but not enough to cover the cost of the food, and another who lied about how much he had paid in order to get more change back.
I had customers yell at me for not offering deals they thought we did, for attempting to correct an order after realizing a coworker had given out the wrong to-go bag, and for offering free drinks to seniors instead of lower prices. I had customers who were racist and rude, and who felt entitled to whatever they wanted. But day after day, I learned to remain calm and patient. Helping them was always “my pleasure.”
My gap year also made me more independent, especially because I had been homeschooled for most of my education. Although I lived at home during my gap year, my parents didn’t necessarily know when I was going to work every day or when I would be back. I was in charge of planning my own meals, washing and ironing my uniform, finding someone to cover my shifts at times, and generally acting like an adult.
I had to learn how to show up on time, take responsibility for my actions, work with others, and, most importantly, to put others first. My job prepared me for real life in a way that classroom experiences do not. When I moved from California to Michigan for college, living away from my parents was much easier than it would have been had I gone right away.
I started my freshman year a little older and more mature than many of my classmates were. Since I turned 21 as a sophomore, I didn’t have much time to be tempted to drink before then, especially since most of my friends were underage. And though I never really had to worry about peer pressure, being older than many peers made it easier to resist giving in.
I made the right choice by taking a gap year. I learned about independence and maturity. And as much as I gained from working at Chick-fil-A, I learned that I don’t want to work in fast food ever again.