Traveling the World on a Gap Year

A gap year can take you far. In fact, it took Haverford students all over the globe – to Spain, Israel, and India, to name just a few places.

For those who chose to live abroad during their gap year, the year had some extra challenges, such as navigating cultural differences and learning a new language, but it also came with its own unique set of adventures.

For Alissa Vandenbark ‘22, the chance to live in Zaragoza, Spain for a year was an opportunity she could not resist. Vandenbark had been studying Spanish in high school, so when a family friend suggested that she take a gap year – and offered to pay for it – she eagerly agreed.

Vandenbark’s gap year was more like a “second senior year,” she said. It was packed with academics – six classes a day ranging from math to art history – all in Spanish. Going to the local public school certainly tested her language skills, and also gave her the chance to make new friends in her classes.

“I would say I’m more confident on my own after doing that in another language,” she said, reflecting on her transition from her gap year to Haverford.

Unlike some other students who deferred their admission to Haverford, Vandenbark did not have that option. Since she wanted to apply through Questbridge, she said, she could not defer her admission, so she had to fill out applications while abroad.

“That was very close to impossible,” Vandenbark said. “I was trying to get better at my Spanish while also trying to use the highest level English skills I had” on the applications.

Thousands of miles away, Emma Regev ‘22 was also embarking on a year abroad. She had been involved in Habonim Dror, her Progressive Labor Zionist Youth movement, for several years and wanted to take another year to continue working with the program in Israel. On top of that, she said she felt tired by the end of high school, sealing the decision to take a gap year.

In Israel, Regev worked as a counselor for eighth and ninth graders as part of her Youth Movement. Every day looked a little different. She would run an English class, then might stay in the city or head back to her home for the year, where she lived with tight-knit group of 27 other people.

The relationships she formed over the course of the year were an essential part of her time abroad, and gave her new perspective upon her arrival at Haverford.

“It was also hard, I was living with these people and literally sharing my life with them and we had a really intense, really powerful relationship, so it was hard that all the conversations I was having on that first week of school were like ‘what’s your major,’ ‘where are you from,’ kind of meaningless things,” Regev said. But over time, she said, she’s been “getting more used” to life at Haverford.

For Riah Newfont ‘22, living in a different country and learning another language also opened her up to new ways of thinking about the world.

Newfont spent the year in India, as part of the State Department-sponsored National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y). Through NSLI-Y, Newfont was able to take Hindi classes, live with a host family, and travel to different parts of the country. That experience also came with some challenges. For example, living with a host family, she said, was a “really really intense experience.”

“There was such a lack of independence and understanding and the cultural boundaries were really real,” Newfont said.

Newfont also noted some of the ways that living abroad shaped her worldview.

“I think I got a lot more of a realistic view of kind of the whole world,” Newfont said. “Like I was saying, I really thought it would be so easy to bond with my host family, and I did make some incredible bonds with Indian people, but also it was really hard and it never stopped.” Newfont also noted that living abroad made her think more about issues like privilege and poverty.

In addition, she said that after returning from her year abroad, she has “less faith in the general classroom model,” and is thinking think more about what the college experience means. Nonetheless, the gap year also made her more appreciative of her independence at Haverford.

“I think I’m more aware of the nice parts of Haverford but also the difficulties,” Newfont said.