This post was originally published on July 11, 2017, and updated on June 14, 2021.
Unplug. Recalibrate. Make learning real (fun) again. Gain perspective. Do hard stuff. Learn to say yes. Live your values. Increase people skills.
Discover your strength.
Is a Gap Year course a match for you? How do you decide? The bottom line is, Outward Bound wants to make sure that you are correctly matched to these signature courses. We interviewed several Semester alumni to help you get a better snapshot of what 45+ days in the wilderness will do for you. Here is what they said:
1. Take Time to Unplug
It can be very grounding to step away from the constructs of phones, computers, instant communication and social media. It allows space to reconnect with what is important. Why are Snapchat streaks or TikTok trends so important? That’s because it is a super-powerful, yet fleeting, personal affirmation from social media. When on an Outward Bound course, students discover more ways to create and maintain positive and supportive cultures.
How can you have self-affirming thoughts without external motivation? What do you want your social construct to look like? Who are you when no one is watching?
Social media is a powerful relationship, and taking it away beckons some honest soul-searching. The result is often more intentional and deeper connections with others. There is little doubt that the bond shared between four people on a rope-team navigating a crevasse-riddled glacier will outlast this week’s viral meme. The feeling of connection, real responsibility and trust on that rope-team is indelible and will be inscribed deeper on one’s character than the latest social media story.
“In those solo moments, I have never thought more clearly in my life. It is so important to create that time. It is hard to step out of your life for three months, but what is important is to step out for an hour or a day and be totally alone. I think being alone with zero distractions clears your mind to have some really life-changing thoughts.” – Britton O., Texas Big Bend and Boundary Waters Leadership Semester
2. Gain Perspective
Living unplugged also means that time is marked by sunrises and sunsets, summit attempts and intentional conversations, not by a frenetic to-do list and a dizzying rat race. When the pace slows down, and you zoom out from your screen, perspective can creep back in and a newfound equilibrium may emerge.
“A Gap Year expedition is an invitation to unpack life as you have known it and re-pack it with what’s important now.”
Who am I, when I am stripped of my job, my school, my friends, my phone, my family? Who do I want to be in this world? This is the beginning of recalibration.
A Gap Year expedition is an invitation to unpack life as you have known it and re-pack it with what’s important now. Perhaps this means food, water, shelter, community, freedom, fun, learning, laughter and a host of other simple pleasures that come from doing something totally new, totally out of the box in a totally different place. The possibilities, without life’s nagging distractions, are endless.
“I have a renewed sense of perspective. I am more optimistic, connected and more empathetic towards people. I now understand the process I need to go through in order to achieve something, whether it is a small or big goal. I’ve always seen the big goal and haven’t had the ability to break it apart and take it step by step. It’s less overwhelming now. I have the tools to do something successfully and efficiently. I’m trying to take things one small step at a time. It is the best way for me to be successful.“ – James S., Texas Big Bend and Boundary Waters Leadership Semester
3. Expedition Mastery
On a sailboat, river or glacier, students gain solid technical skills. The model of learning, practice, application and repeat affords the time to gain true competency with technical and wilderness skills. Students build the experience base to eventually travel independently from their Instructors, face real consequences and practice leading with logic and judgment. Many students go on to pursue their own expeditions with newfound confidence, while others may choose to apply those skills towards professional pursuits in adventure-experiential education settings. Without a doubt, the expedition accomplishments build confidence and strengthen the bedrock of one’s character.
“When times are hard you can look back at what you’ve done and just laugh, and know that you have been through so much worse. It gives you the courage and confidence to get through. Discomfort is temporary. I think that will be a big part of what the rest of the guys will take forward as well. We were able to do something so extraordinary and be okay, and that will stick with us.“ – Britton O., Texas Big Bend and Boundary Waters Leadership Semester
4. You Are In Charge Of Your Own Destiny
For many seeking a gap year experience, it comes at a time of transition from a very programmed existence to a wide world of unleashed opportunities. The combination of newfound independence and increased responsibility can be riddled with pitfalls and challenges as one finds their feet and forward momentum.
“Students realize they are a change agent in charge of their own lives and they get to decide what life looks like.”
For young adults, or those contemplating a big life change, claiming the agency to define and create the world you want to live in can be huge. The discussions and reflections that occur over a long course are instrumental in planning ‘life after your course.’ Students realize they are a change agent in charge of their own lives and they get to decide what life looks like. This can be both daunting and exciting. Taking a break from the mainstream grind can offer meaningful perspective on how to live life more intentionally. Meanwhile, right on a course, students receive valuable feedback from their peers about their actions and impact. The opportunity to learn and grow within a course is tremendous.
“I learned to navigate, symbolically. There is no right or wrong choice on where to go or who to be. I learned that the decision itself is the most important part. Choosing a path and walking it to the end. I’ve learned about teamwork and leadership. I’ve learned about commitment – to myself and others around me.” – Francesca B., Rockies to Ecuador Leadership Semester
5. Values Matter
Outward Bound operates on the values of compassion, integrity, excellence and inclusion. With that, there is plenty of room for students to explore their own personal values, find clarification and moreover, explore whether those values square with how they are living their own lives. Living consistently with your values can be a challenging discipline. The long expedition offers a supportive mirror to develop this awareness and integrity at a new level.
“Values out there [on trail] are everything. That’s how we reflected on our past and identified whether we were successful each day. We all had individual values we wanted to incorporate into our lives.” – Britton O., Texas Big Bend and Boundary Waters Leadership Semester
“Outward Bound’s focus on compassion was really refreshing. Learning to keep the goal of compassion in the forefront was inspirational.” –Ethan C., Rockies to Ecuador Outdoor Leadership Semester
6. Hone People Skills
Living in an expedition community where students depend upon one another for everything from upbeat morale to safety on a daily basis, makes honing communication skills paramount. Knowing that the group is in it for the long haul means learning to speak assertively, resolve conflicts and be proactive in shaping the group culture. All are vital skills to a successful expedition. Many social, emotional learning and communication skills are taught and practiced throughout the expedition.
With over six talented Instructors typically involved with Gap Year expeditions, learning can come from many different perspectives. The Instructor diversity is compounded by the composition of each student group, all learning to live in an intentional community, knit together by a common expedition goal and by facing unique challenges in multiple landscapes. Alumni appreciate the communication and collaboration skills that will stay with them for a lifetime.
“My semester course shifted my perspective on life, taught me resilience and gave me life skills. I have no doubt in my mind that I would have had a far different Peace Corps experience and perhaps even quit, if I had not taken my Outward Bound course shortly before heading to Nepal. While I expected only technical and wilderness skills from my Outward Bound course, I gained life skills that I use to this day. Through Outward Bound I learned how to set daily goals, how to manage a day that didn’t turn out like I expected and to work with other team members that I didn’t have a common background with. Those same skills in Nepal helped me to laugh on the hard days in a culture I didn’t always understand, reset my goals and priorities and to live, play and work in a remote village for two years.” – Suellen Sack, Director of OE Programs & Safety, Voyageur Outward Bound School
7. Try New Things. Do Hard Stuff. Build Resiliency.
For some alumni, the place of wild uncertainty is developing an internal trust to rappel off a cliff edge into an abyss, or believe in the sharp front points of crampons to hold onto a vertical column of an icy glacier. For others, its finding courage to have bold conversations, or be willing to trust another to honor a newly spoken truth. At times the challenge is to develop self-trust, to be reliable, honorable, worthy of trust in demanding team-focused situations. This could mean paddling a technical line through whitewater canyons, keeping a night-watch on a sailboat in fog or holding an attentive belay line for a climber pushing the edge of their ability.
“With resiliency, there is a willingness to step out of the box and try new things, and perhaps, for the rest of their lives, be unwilling to settle for less.”
Through all of the challenges, physical, mental, emotional, social–whether met with success or failure in the moment–the ultimate learning is to get up and try again. To move forward. To believe in the possibility, regardless of the outcome. This act is what breeds optimism and ultimately, resiliency. With resiliency, there is a willingness to step out of the box and try new things, and perhaps, for the rest of their lives, be unwilling to settle for less.
“Since my course, I’ve taken on things I never would have thought I’d be capable of doing prior to Outward Bound. In a less literal sense, my course has affected my future in ways I’ve yet to see, through things like long-lasting friendships, available and seized opportunities, and sustainable self-confidence.” – Robin C., Rockies to Ecuador Outdoor Leadership Semester
8. Just Do It
From all of the alumni we spoke with, when asked what advice they would give to those who were contemplating a gap year expedition experience, they offered a wholehearted endorsement. They said it would be hard, challenging and the toughest thing someone might ever do, and they’d do it again in a heartbeat. Perhaps this is a call to action for whatever challenge you are contemplating today, and a larger affirmation that making bold decisions to shake things up can be enormously life-affirming. Whether you’re on the brink of stepping out on your own for the first time, or facing another milestone or crossroads in midlife, the opportunity to embrace a whole new world certainly promises untold adventure, learning and self-discovery.
”I would tell someone debating whether or not to do a semester/gap year program that there is a lot to be learned about ourselves outside of our comfort zones, and Outward Bound does a pretty good job of pushing people to that place. I would suggest they be intentional about setting goals for personal growth but cautious when it comes to measuring their success in meeting them. Programs like Outward Bound’s semester courses will often give you what you need as opposed to what you ask for.” – Rockies to Ecuador Outdoor Leadership Semester
Interested in a Semester expedition with Outward Bound? Check out these upcoming Semester and Gap Year expeditions:
72-Day Colorado Rockies to Southwest Rivers Leadership Semester
65-Day Oregon Cascades & Idaho Salmon River Fall Leadership Semester
65-Day Boundary Waters Canoeing & Texas Big Bend Fall Leadership Semester
30-Day Pathfinder High Sierra Alpine Backpacking & Rock Climbing
30-Day Pathfinder Blue Ridge Mountains Backpacking, Whitewater Canoeing & Rock Climbing
About The Author
Theo is a long-time outdoor educator who has been involved with Outward Bound for over fifteen years. She serves as a course director and hiring manager at the Voyageur Outward Bound School. She has led outdoor trips throughout the US and Canada for the past 25 years. Previously, she directed outdoor programs for Cornell University, focused on developing undergraduate outdoor skills and leadership experience. Theo balances a penchant for planting ambitious gardens and growing local food with winters as a dog sledding guide. She holds a degree in Landscape Architecture from Cornell University and writes from the edge of the Boundary Waters wilderness in Minnesota.