Madeline Olmsted was what you might consider a typical high school senior
– exhausted from years of a full class schedule, nervous about her future, and uncertain as to where she should head after graduation. Seeking a much-needed break, Madeline considered the options for her future: enter the workforce, or apply to college and continue the routine which had already exhausted her. Fortunately for Madeline, her grandmother suggested an alternative – take a Gap Year!
As you’ll learn in the interview below, Madeline took her Grandmother’s advice and spent a year exploring the options outside of entering college directly after high school. During her year abroad, Madeline traveled, explored career options, and even spent a semester aboard S/Y Argo. Continue reading to hear how deciding to take a Gap Year turned out to be one of the best decisions of her life.
To start things off, tell us a little about how you first entertained the idea of a Gap Year. What led you to the idea of a gap year?
I decided to take a Gap Year because I was, plainly put, not ready for college. I suffered from severe anxiety, depression, and ADHD in high school, which caused me to barely graduate. I was burnt out- I couldn’t even fathom going to college right away. The thought of being in a new environment, unsure of my surroundings, let alone even applying to and attending any college, freaked me out. My grandma has always been a huge advocate for travel (she and my grandpa, who was a mapmaker and travel guide author, traveled constantly) and when she learned of my situation, proposed that I do a gap year. That year for Christmas, I received an envelope full of printouts of different gap year programs, and the ball was rolling.
Did you ever encounter any criticism or feedback about your decision to study abroad and take a gap year? If so, how did you respond to that, and what ultimately led you to take the chance on doing a gap year?
Most of the criticism I received for doing a gap year was surrounding the fact that I didn’t have a college set to attend afterward. My entire senior year was brutal- people constantly asking me how the applications were going, what schools I was applying to, and later what schools I had gotten acceptance letters from. Before I decided on a gap year, these questions were the bane of my existence, but once I had a plan it was much easier to handle.
What did you do and where did you go during your Gap Year? Did you know what you wanted to do during your gap year, or was it an exploratory-style Gap Year?
When deciding what I wanted to do for my gap year, many thoughts came to mind. I knew that I wanted to experience as much of the world as I possibly could while still getting a full and enriching taste of each place. Some programs I looked at were an extended stay in one or two places, others were focused on fitting in as many places as possible. One that caught my eye was a full year, spending a long time in each place, and covered every continent. As I thought of that one, another thought came to mind. I thought about how much flying there would be and how much more I would love it if I could be on a boat! In high school, I had gone on a GoBeyond trip to the British Virgin Islands, and loved the sailing aspect. That reminded me that Sea|mester existed! I started looking into the voyages, and ultimately decided to board S/Y Argo for the FOM15 trip, an ocean crossing starting in France and ending in the Caribbean. It was the perfect amount of time spent in each place and combined my longing to be at sea with my longing to see as much of the world as I possibly could.
What was the greatest challenge you faced during your gap year and how did you overcome it?
The greatest challenge I faced was a social one- many times during the trip I worried that I didn’t have any friends on the trip, or that I was getting in the way of people’s happiness by tagging along. I ultimately ended up hanging out with every single person at least once. It really opened my eyes to independently decide who I wanted to spend the day with, and I often decided that based on what I wanted to do, rather than who I wanted to do it with. This led to a lot of days where I would do various activities with different people, all just from seeing them around whichever town or city we were in. It was so refreshing and made me a much more independent person. I now pride myself on the fact that I don’t need people around me to make me happy; instead, they enhance the experience I’m already having.
Do you have a highlight or series of highlights from your trip? Maybe like a favorite street market somewhere or an experience where you felt that your decisions had come full circle and that you had made the right decision to take a gap year?
There were a few amazing highlights from the trip. The first was in Granada when I went exploring alone for the first time. Previously, I had been going with groups of people, which was great, but often led to arguments about what to do together and usually ended up in major compromises where none of us got to do anything we wanted. In Granada, after the morning trip to the Alhambra, I decided to do my own thing- I ducked into the church to attend a mass (I’m not religious, nor do I speak Spanish, but it was so fun!). Then, I wandered the city going through different alleys, ducking into shops, and occasionally stopping to either sketch or photograph my surroundings.
The next highlight was on our overnight trip to Marrakech, and the Atlas mountains. At the resort where we stayed the night, they had endless outdoor activities, but it poured rain the day we were there! While some people braved the rain to do the ropes courses and zip lines, many of us stayed behind to have a rainy day in, having a pillow fight and playing like children on a snow day.
Finally, one of the biggest highlights of the trip was the first day after the ocean crossing. It finally dawned on all of us what we had just experienced, which was mind-blowing, but the day was spent going on a hike on Dominica (the boiling lake hike) which was the most brutal, amazing hike I’ve ever done. After being on a boat for 19 days, it felt so good to stretch our legs and the scenery was unimaginably beautiful!
Once you had decided to make Sea|mester part of your Gap Year, what was the dynamic like aboard Argo given that you were a gap year student onboard with students who were already in college?
The dynamic aboard Argo was amazing- I always found myself to be someone who got along with people much older than myself, so as the second youngest person aboard I felt right at home. It was intimidating to think about, but once aboard, it felt like we were all completely equal. Granted, many of the people on my voyage specifically were gap year students, but even the people who were older felt exactly the same as the rest of us, which I think is very different from a typical college experience. I find that many of the first years at my university feel that they are intimidated by third and fourth years, and after being on Argo, I felt like I was much less intimidated by older people. After my gap year, most of my friends at the college I attended were in their late twenties and early thirties, and they all originally thought I was the same age as them, likely due to the fact that I had done so many things (travel, sailing, and working) since high school, rather than straight away attending college.
Where did you go after your gap year, and do you feel that your gap year prepared you for the “real-world”?
After my gap year, I had no idea what I was going to do. The next semester of my gap year was spent working as a receptionist and taking art classes, and though I still couldn’t get myself to apply to colleges, I ended up being an art student at a local community college, and then transferring into their Associate’s degree program for Psychology. After I got my AA, I transferred to the University of Victoria in Canada, which would have never been something I would think to do- or could even reasonable obtain with the grades I had- before my gap year. One of the main benefits of my gap year was that it reignited my love of learning and education that I had completely lost in high school. My grades in the courses on Sea|mester were higher than I had ever achieved, and I ended up graduating from my AA program with a 3.8, without special education accommodations that I needed just to graduate high school. Before my gap year, this would have seemed impossible- I never thought I could be someone who could go through school regularly, without serious accommodations, and actually achieve anything, but that has been proven wrong time and time again since then.
So now that it’s all said-and-done, do you feel like you have a more clear picture of what you want to pursue in life, and what advice would you offer to prospective students?
I have thought about doing another gap year multiple times, though at this point I should really finish my degree. However, taking a gap year truly taught me that the social clock that imposes so much pressure on high school and college students, is nothing but fiction. Nobody I talk to thinks I am a failure because I am three semesters behind, after all I’m still only 21! It can feel so real that you have to be through college immediately, then grad school or straight into a career. This just isn’t true though. There are plenty of people who break that mould, and I’ve never regretted doing it myself. If you have any fears about wasting time or falling behind, set those aside and enjoy your life as it happens. Not just because you need to ‘appreciate your youth’, but because a life spent worrying about checking boxes limits your experiences.
I know plenty of people who started their first year of college feeling that they must be ready (because everybody else is) who ended up dropping out or hating their major. If you feel doubt about college, that’s completely normal! There’s nothing wrong with experimenting- whether it’s taking a gap year, going to community college, or taking up a trade. As long as you feel that by the end of it you will have a better understanding of what you want to do next, just trust yourself to make decisions for yourself, rather than letting the social clock rule your life.