I was fifteen and my mind was made up. I was about to finish secondary school (high school) in England and I was anxious to get out and experience more of life than I got within the confines of British boarding school restrictions. The plan was that almost immediately after school let out, I would move to the Philippines (where I had spent five years as a child) for a year of volunteer work. I was excited.
And finally the day came. Soon after turning 16 I found myself saying goodbye to my parents and sister at London’s Heathrow airport and jumping on a plane bound for the Middle East (for a stop over) and then Manila. I was so excited I could barely contain myself. Finally, I was living life on my own terms. “This is what freedom feels like,” I told myself.
After a fairly uneventful layover in Abu Dhabi and several more hours of inpatient waiting, I finally got to Manila and was whisked into a van by representatives from the volunteer organization.
The drama started just outside the airport where there had been a shooting and the victim was bleeding in a car nearby. I remember getting really nervous because I was afraid that the gunman was still close by. Nothing happened. Traffic finally thinned and we were able to make our escape from the area. Kind of an interesting re-introduction to Manila.
The year of volunteer service turned out to have its triumphs and disappointments – I ended up spending half of my time in the Philippines and the other half (mostly) in northern Sweden. I taught English, organized activities for children and assisted clergy with some local projects. Some of my greatest experiences of excitement, fear, loneliness, elation and confusion stem from that year. Its been 12 years since my experience and a lot of the specific memories are fading from my memory but if there is one thing that is sure, it is that I was changed to the core by the experience. I came back to England having experienced more accelerated personal growth than I have ever experienced since. Looking back I am glad I did what I did.
Here are the key advantages of the year abroad that have sold me on the concept of service years or gap years as near essential life experiments in personal growth:
We all need to experience raw freedom
The sense of near total freedom that I experienced while setting my own rules as a teenager was dramatic. My experiment with being deliberately counter cultural seemed to pay off. There was something brilliant about doing something entirely different from what others were doing. While I could have been home investing in gaming consoles and Brit pop, I was learning languages, living two minutes walk from a beach with the warmest water conceivable and learning the ins and outs of rice harvesting.
More than enough time for serious soul searching
Being away from the usual comfort zone of friends and family that understood me meant that I had a lot of time for introspection. It led to a great deal of growth. Some of it was really tough… especially when it came to considering the idea that I may have been completely wrong about opinions and forgone conclusions in the past.
As I mentioned, I came back from my year abroad a VERY different person from the person I was at the outset. The year was transformational and I very intentionally planned the future and the person I wanted to be upon my return. I never stopped being me but I was able to basically direct my own growth and development.
Heightened Love/Hate Relationship with “Home”
Being away for a year increased my appreciation for the advantages of life at home and heightened my awareness of the weaknesses of societal norms at home. Coming back to England was amazing on the one hand. I loved my family, London, old school red telephone booths, etc. but more than ever, I had experienced a different way of being human and saw more clearly the flaws of the consumer-driven, blinkered European approach to life.
Learning to see the options others ignore
More than anything, the year abroad mean that I got to experience the fact that I really had options in life. I could craft my own experience. That is a truth I hope to never forget. Life is so much more than ridiculous office cubicles, boring corporate nonsense and two weeks vacation a year. Life can be radically different and better. It really is as simple as making the right decisions. We can all decide to navigate our own destiny.