by Ben Welbourn

Gap and study abroad experiences provide students with an opportunity to discover new cultures, try new things, explore their passions, and learn about themselves. And these benefits can give students who participate in a gap or study abroad experience a serious advantage – below are 5 ways they can move you forward in your career exploration!

1. Get to Work.

You have a high school degree. Congratulations! You’ve worked and studied for most of your life, so your degree really is a huge accomplishment. A college degree may be your next goal, but do you know what that degree is worth? Not how much it costs, but rather what its value is.

Spend part of your gap experience or time abroad working at a job, and you will quickly discover the value of your high school degree. Most likely, you will only be able to get entry-level jobs that require little skill. You may get a job in customer service, data entry, or manual labor; but it is extremely difficult to get a job in your field of interest right out of high school.

I spent part of my gap year doing data entry in a factory that makes fluorescent light fixtures, I worked as a telemarketer, and I worked in customer service. Working during your time abroad will quickly show you the kinds of jobs you can get with your new high school diploma, and will be a huge motivator to return to your college campus and get a higher level degree.

2. Travel the world - immerse yourself, be open to discovery

This may seem obvious, but there are countless benefits to traveling that go beyond seeing beautiful places and doing new and exciting things.

As the world becomes more interconnected and the economy continues to globalize, job-seekers who have experience living and interacting in different places, with different people of different cultures, can have a major leg up. A demonstrated understanding of specific cultural nuances makes you more desirable for jobs that require international, cross-cultural travel or communication – you’re significantly less likely to accidentally offend a potential Japanese business partner if you spent several months interacting with people in Tokyo. Additionally, immersive time spent speaking a foreign language will help you develop fluency, which is an extremely valuable skill, especially for very difficult-to-learn and “in-demand” languages such as Chinese or Arabic. And if you’re thinking of attending certain graduate schools, demonstrating some sort of “global citizenship” may make you a more compelling applicant.

And, of course, there are unquantifiable benefits to traveling that extend well beyond the scope of the job market. Whether it’s trying exotic foods, or learning about how your government interacts with the rest of the world, traveling will introduce you to totally different experiences and perspectives – some that you have never considered. In some cases, traveling may help you appreciate the way things are at home. Traveling creates well-rounded global citizens, and fosters empathy. Everyone should try it.

3. Consider potential careers.

One reason many people study abroad or take gap semesters or years is because they don’t know exactly what they want to study, or pursue as a career. This doesn’t mean they don’t have interests, but they may not be able to decide on just one major.

If you are considering a few different areas of study, and different associated career paths, try them all during your time away. You may find you hate engineering and are bad at coding, but really enjoy marine biology.

Pursuing your fields of interest may help focus you for college, so be sure to structure your study abroad or gap experience in a way that you can try multiple things, check some off your list, and return to campus with a good idea of what you want to study. And even have career options.

4. Pursue Interesting Internships

Gap semesters and study abroad experiences are also wonderful opportunities to secure internships in one or more fields you may be interested in. Whether at home or abroad, internships help students explore the industries they may want to pursue, while learning crucial employable skills and making valuable connections.

It is very difficult to know whether you will like a certain line of work until you try it, and securing an internship during your gap or study abroad experience is a great way to explore different fields. An internship also has the added benefit of providing structure to your gap or abroad experience, and will make you a more desirable candidate should you pursue other internships in future summers.

5. Confront your discomforts and deficiencies

This one’s exciting. There is way too much pressure placed on your late teens and early twenties. Certainly, be hard-working and thoughtful in decisions, but you will be ok! This is a time in your life when you should acknowledge your weaknesses, and confront them head-on. Figure out what you are afraid of, and do specifically that – face your fears.

Despite what many people say, your late teens and early twenties are a relatively risk-free time. You likely don’t have a mortgage, kids, or years sunk into a career path. This is a rare chance to take some growth risks - jump into the deep end and do what makes you nervous, without any serious repercussions or lost opportunities; your career will still be ahead of you.

Are you bad at speaking French? Go to France. Have you always wanted to get SCUBA certified, but are nervous about deep water? Go to Cambodia and jump in the water with a dive instructor. You can also use this time to address certain potential career weaknesses. Are you interested in business management, but nervous about public speaking? Join a business program and enter a public speaking boot camp.

If there are real risks to any of your interests, just be sure to pursue them through a reputable program. Other than that, your study abroad or gap experience will be the perfect time to overcome some fears you have about pursuing your interests. You will become a stronger, more confident, more interesting person – and a more interesting college and career applicant, too.

Ben Welbourn is the Associate Vice President of New Business Development at Winterline. Ben is an alum of a self-designed gap year during which he hiked the Appalachian Train from Maine to Georgia, worked in a variety of industries, taught English in rural Peru, and led outdoor education programs in New Hampshire and Maine.