WHY NOT NOW? 

Aeshna C. | Milton Academy '16 | Columbia U. '21

Overall, I could not have been luckier with my parents’ attitude towards my taking a gap year. They encouraged it and even pushed me to take one when I was unsure whether or not I would. However, their support had one major caveat: I could not travel anywhere or do anything major that did not have their express consent, because of their fears about safety. When I was planning my trip, some options I eliminated myself, because even I recognized the inherent, unpleasant reality that girls face when traveling: as much as part of me may have wished to tell them that I would be fine on my own no matter where I went, I also understood—having grown up going to India every other year—that customs in some places are extremely different to those of the United States. Simply put, I would not be safe in certain parts of the world as an 18-year-old girl, fresh out of high school, traveling alone. Other places that I deemed acceptable, my parents vetoed. We didn’t see eye-to-eye on everything, though they still allowed me to plan my trips myself, even allowing me to travel around India without excess supervision.

As the year went on, I first worked on an organic farm in the north of Norway for more than a month; with Norway being one of the world’s safest countries, they had no concerns for my safety, reacting much more calmly than I expected when I told them that I had even hitchhiked several times during my stay there. I next traveled around India with an American friend, staying with family and friends and also in hotels. A hard truth is that, in India, people with different complexions—be they East Asian, black, white, or anything else—draw attention. As two young girls who dressed and acted differently than the norm, we drew even more. I didn’t agree with how my relatives wanted us to act sometimes, and perhaps I was too headstrong in how I approached the situation. However, ever since I returned from India, I have heard that the arguments I had with them—about topics ranging from my leaving the house when they didn’t want me to do so, to my dressing in certain ways of which they didn’t necessarily approve—made them change their minds about what my female cousins can and should do. Later in my gap year, I traveled with friends in South Korea and Japan, both extremely safe countries, and worked at home. I ended the year backpacking around and working in Europe with another friend (Jiyoung, founder of gapyearly!).

Although Europe is still relatively safe, I did feel that the skills I had developed, such as always being aware of my surroundings, knowing how much to drink in certain company and when I felt certain ways, and more, helped me remain safe the entire time. This was especially true when I was working in Athens, Greece, which is not exactly known for its low crime rate. Overall, I would discourage believing that traveling as a young girl is necessarily dangerous. Of course, precautions should always be taken. Some of the habits that made me feel safe wherever I was were: never being alone at night while walking around a new city; always making sure my phone was charged and accessible; having cash handy; not drinking more than I was comfortable with and NEVER, I repeat NEVER, putting a drink anywhere that I couldn’t see it. I know it can be scary for parents, and teenagers too, to consider that their daughter might be somewhere they can’t reach when something bad happens; but in my own experience, and in the experiences of my friends, being smart goes a long way to ensuring one’s own safety.

The only way you’ll ever be comfortable leaving your own house—whether that means going to college or going on a gap year—is by not doubting yourself and just going for it; it has to happen sometime, so why not now?