CollegeFit member Matthew Yam shares his experience traveling, working, and volunteering during his year-long Gap Year.
With Covid-19 running rampant, many universities are shutting down entirely for the fall semester or offering some type of hybrid class. I’m a rising sophomore at Tulane University. I had ¾ of my freshman year in person before going virtual for the second half of my Spring semester. In my personal experience, I absolutely loved everything about in-person college. Virtual school sucked.
If you are thinking about taking a gap year before college, now may be the best time to do it. It’s an opportunity to learn much about the world and yourself rather than paying for a diluted college experience. If everything goes well, you’ll be super prepared for college and then return when things are back to normal.
My Gap Year Experience
During my gap year, I first spent 3 months in the fall traveling through the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica on a program focused on public health and sustainability. We lived in home-stays, worked on local service projects, got on a lot of outdoor adventures, practiced a new language and experienced new cultures. In the Spring, I was in New Zealand for four months. The first three months I interned for a startup incubator in Wellington, and the last month I spent traveling around the country staying with friends I’d made out there.
While I was working on the Venture Up accelerator program in Queenstown, me and some of my Kiwi friends took a weekend trip to the beautiful Milford Sound.
I like to say that I learned about myself during the first part of my gap year and about people during the second part.
Central America was a scary place for me at first. I went from living in the concrete jungle of Los Angeles to living in mountains, rainforests, and developing cities. I still recall the fear I had when I lived in my first homestay in a tiny Dominican village called Angostura. I stayed in a little wooden hut at night and while working on building aqueducts with the team during the day.
I had never done the time of manual labor that we were doing and being so far away from anything remotely familiar scared me. However, within a week, I’d gotten used to the scenery and started to notice the beauty of simple living, food made with love, and the kind demeanor of the locals.
After the homestay, we continued on the new cities ranging from the busy capital to other rural areas where we hiked mountains and snorkeled in clear water. We worked to build latrines in the Bateyes, which are some of the most impoverished places in the world.
While there, I became really in tune with my mind and body. I recognized the food, exercise, and rest that my body needed to fend off foreign bacteria and sickness. I was able to determine the personal emotional connections that I needed to be my best self, and all of this really helped me to know what I needed.
Hanging out with some school children in the Dominican Bateyes. Here we worked on building latrines to help address the health concerns of public defecation. It was really heartwarming to be around these people. Their warmth and positive energy in the face of intense poverty is inspiring and up-lifting.
After a month of a half in the Dominican Republic, we flew to Costa Rica. The Dominican Republic is rowdy, in your face, eclectic, and musical. Costa Rica is laid back, relaxed and clean. The national mantra is “Pura Vida”, which roughly translates to pure life.
The main thing I learned from Costa Rica was the beauty of the natural world and living sustainably. The main highlights here would have to be living with the Bribri indigenous cacao farmer community.
Some incredible white-water rafting in the Pacuare River in Costa Rica
Living with the Bribri was a surreal experience. It took a 30-minute canoe ride down a river into the rainforest to get to the village. The Bribri lived without electricity or wifi. They lived off the land and harvested the cacao they grew to turn in to chocolate. They would take this into a nearby city to sell for anything else we need. Here we got a chance to live the rainforest life for two weeks. We slept under mosquito nets in wooden huts. Those sleeps there were some of the most refreshing I’ve ever gotten. Without artificial light deep in the rainforest, it is pitch black around 8:00pm and by 8:30pm my body felt like it was completely shut down, relaxed. We woke up to the sunrise with the sounds of birds singing and monkeys hollering. There’s a refreshing mist leaving as the sun rises over the trees. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more refreshed waking up in the rainforest.
Living with the Bribri made me think a lot about what it means to be “developed”. These people lived with far less than any Americans I know, but they are happier and healthier than most people I know. Happy because they spend all their time focused on what they love: their family and the nature they live on. Healthy because they grow all of the food they eat. I certainly felt their joy and fulfillment staying with them, and it helped me to see beauty in simplicity.
Hard morning work helping out at a local aqueduct building project in the Dominican Republic. It was remarkable seeing how much more effective the locals were at building than we were. Also, nothing feels better than an ice-cold cold shower and eating 'habichuelas' (rice and beans) after service work.
For the second part of my gap year, I knew I wanted to be in the “South Pacific” region, and that I wanted to get some entrepreneurial experience of some sort. Long story short, I found an amazing startup incubator called Creative HQ based in Wellington, New Zealand. Here, as part of the marketing team, I got to work with startup founders from different amazing companies and saw what it’s like to start one’s own business. The companies ranged from a sustainable pineapple leather bag company to a blockchain payment system that redirects merchant fees to a charity of your choice. Most of the companies in the incubator were social enterprises that made purpose and benefit their mission.
My biggest takeaway from my time working here was starting to understand how people think and why they act the way they do. I was the youngest person in the whole office, and everyone knew more than I did so it was up to me to learn as much as I could as quickly as possible.
It was a strange position to be in at first, but I can now appreciate learning on the fly and how willing people were to talk to someone who would listen.
I also had an opportunity to participate in a youth accelerator program that the company ran during the time I was interning, and here I got to meet and become close to 16 Kiwis (New Zealanders). After my three-month internship ended, I spent the last month traveling around the country staying with friends up there. Kiwis pride themselves on being nice people, and they blessed me with some unmatched hospitality. I got to explore all the major cities and some of the most beautiful beaches and mountains in the world.
Some friends playing soccer with the local kids at our homestay in the Dominican Republic
By the time I came back home, I had improved my Spanish skills, explored new cultures, lived with people completely different from myself, had a great professional experience, and got up to all kinds of crazy adventures.
I felt very comfortable and confident heading into college, and my experience made the transition seamless. I was extra motivated to do well in my classes and had a new zeal for trying things that would get me out of my comfort zone. It’s made college a blast so far.
Overall, deciding to take a gap year was easily the best decision I’ve ever made for myself. I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s a special time in your life where your only commitment is to learn about yourself and the world around you. I think fear of uncertainty was a major block I was able to get around. I get that during these crazy times, feelings of fearfulness can be greater than ever. That may also mean the learning opportunities for a gap year are greater than ever.
Sweaty me midway through a mountain backpacking trip in the Dominican Republic countryside near Jarabacoa