When I say “gap year,” you automatically think about British public-school kids private-jetting around Peru taking obnoxious selfies with llamas and champagne – right?
However many things that are wrong with this ongoing stereotype, there is a lot to be said for the general intention of taking a year off.
While my CV is significantly more robust following my year in New York, I reckon the life experience has been substantially more valuable. It has also meant returning to Dublin with a renewed love for the city and an urge to rediscover all of its hidden treasures.
The year-long J-1 graduate visa I traveled to New York on is advertised as a means of picking up a new skill set abroad, and coming home to apply said skill set to furthering your career and the Irish economy.
I’m not sure what they intend for you to learn in 12 months when you’re restricted to an internship that you can then bring home and immediately benefit from (given the fact that you would probably have starved to death trying to live off that internship in the most expensive city on earth), but there would be more truth in advertising the program as a year of “personal growth,” if you can forgive the washy terminology.
Most of us who have returned from the J-1 program are now beginning to re-assimilate ourselves into our old lives – with a new lease on life. Spending a prolonged period of time in New York has its obvious advantages, namely its industrious skin-thickening agents that leave you feeling significantly more capable, and more adult.
I feel like there are very few situations that could shock or shake me in the working world, and even fewer crazy people whose company I couldn’t at least temporarily enjoy.
As they saying goes, “Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard.” I think I still retain some of my European softness, but with a shiny new shell that makes me feel like a bit like an Avenger.
Living abroad, and especially in a city like New York, does make you feel like you have an extra edge. Even in job interviews, even though it feels like a pretty common thing to have done, employers are curious, impressed and occasionally (by their own admission) a tad jealous. It’s the kind of thing that people say you can only do when you’re young – and perhaps they’re right.
As the British tradition is to go traveling for a year between school and college, the Irish one seems to be directly after college or between a bachelor’s and a master’s. This gap year doesn’t necessarily consist entirely of travel which is funded by some mysterious older relative, which is obviously not on an option for most normal human beings.
My brother graduated about two months before he turned 21, so he took a year to work, travel occasionally and think about what his next move would be, rather than rushing into something that he might regret.
I often find that there’s a sense of panic once you finish school or college to be one step ahead of the game and have plans set in order at least a year in advance. Next thing you know, you’re 23 years of age and you’ve signed a three year contract at entry-level salary in a company you potentially hate.
You’ve spent the last 19 years of your life in education and you’re about to spend the next 40 aboard the 9-to-5-train. The jump from second to third level education is pretty enormous, and then to leap from there straight into the rest of your life seems rather hasty.
To me, this is the strongest merit of the J-1 graduate visa. It’s especially ideal for people who want or need the experience in an industry that doesn’t exist in Ireland, but for people like me who still aren’t sure what they want to do long-term, it’s the dream.
I was waitressing in Dublin for a year and a half after finishing college. I was dabbling in playwriting and had a long list of unrealistic aspirations, but I suspect that if I hadn’t gone to New York, there’s a possibility I would still be serving breakfast in that hotel.
Not that I’m a super-famous superstar after my little excursion – far from it – but my mind has definitely been opened to more possibilities, challenges, adventures and to how hard I am able and willing to work.
The thing is that the people who were most successful at their internships are the ones who got sponsored and are still over in New York on long-term visas – not that I’m bitter, at all… So 90 percent of us are going to have to come back, but chances are we’re the 90 percent who didn’t exactly nail the program, and are probably suffering from a slight rejection complex.
It has been between five and six months since most of my J-1 contingent returned, and it seems that things are starting to turn around – decisions are being made, blazers are being bought, and some seriously grown-up job interviews are going down.
Maybe it was New York, or maybe it was just the year abroad that we needed. Irish people do tend to have an overwhelming desire to get out, if only for a week or two at a time, but definitely wanting to escape for a holiday or break or some description. Perhaps it’s a symptom of living on an island and a need to double check that there are other things out there before we return to our safe, green and friendly shores.
This weekend, I had friends visiting from Australia, Paris, London and Brussels. All of them said that they had full intentions of returning to Ireland – even the ones who are from London, but who went to college here.
Ireland is like a kind and patient bird, waiting for all of her chicks to return to the nest. We just need to take a quick holiday, do a few laps of the world, taste some new and exciting cultures and then come home for tea.
As much as I loved going away, and will continue to enjoy the occasional escape, there is nothing quite like the feeling of coming home. Now that we’ve done that part, now that we’ve taken our gap year per se, we just have to learn how to enjoy being home.