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A view from the top of a Mountain in Mandalay, Myanmar

High school juniors and seniors, as college application season approaches, you probably will have a lot of things on your mind.

Scheduling dates for your standardized tests.

Asking for recommendations.

Mapping out essays.

Making a list of potential universities.

Occupied with all this, you might overlook the option of a gap year. This is where you take a year — or more, depending on what you choose to do — to pursue an interest or a curiosity before you enroll in college.

Quite daunting, isn't it? 

A high school graduation before the start of university
My high school graduation in May of 2018 in Yangon, Myanmar!

At least that was how I found it when I chose to take one after graduation. No one I knew had taken a gap year before. And especially back home in Myanmar, there was some sort of stigma around gap years. 

"It's a year wasted." 

Not if you're focusing on your mental growth and taking up an interest. 

"It's for people who're not ready for college." 

You're only 17, 18 years old; it's only natural to feel this way.

I, for one, needed to take a step back and take a good look at what I wanted to do before college. Some family health concerns also surfaced. But for once, there were no rules or restrictions from high school. No due dates, stress over examinations, all-nighters. The whole world seemed to lie in front of me, ready for my taking. 

A sea of students in Myanmar
A sea of students gather around to end the day in Kachin State, Myanmar
I've always been interested in global health so I started by searching up some local organizations, asking for an opportunity to volunteer or intern. I was just a high school graduate but I learned that an honest voice and enthusiasm gets you a long way! I was able to join a short-term project at Helen Keller International, an organization working to prevent blindness and malnutrition. I started volunteering at a monastic school, two cities away from the one I called home, to help students prepare for university examinations. 

Being the youngest and least-experienced on the team, I was full of jitters. This was the actual real world now! But then, I had to remind myself that I just can't expect myself to avoid making mistakes. Even if I do, I had to learn to take it with a grain of salt and get back up on my feet. This is the kind of realization that really impresses on you beyond the walls of a classroom. 

A group of adorable 2nd graders
My adorable-but immensely playful-group of 2nd graders whom I miss!

With my team — who became great mentors for me — I travelled around Myanmar to several villages and worked at schools to provide health services for students. Even as a proud Burmese, these were places which I have never heard of and people from ethnicities which I've never known. It was sincerely eye-opening. Living at the monastic school for 2 months, I was inspired by how so many youth in under-developed nations like my own have so much thirst and passion for change. 

The lessons I will take away from my gap year extend far beyond learning what 6/18 vision means or how to deal with a classroom of forty 6th graders. Meeting true professionals and working with actual people and problems, I was once again brought out of my own little bubble that I knew was "high school." I questioned who I thought I was and how I worked best outside school. Simply put, I learned to define my value, not just as a student, a health worker or a teacher, but as a human being.

Dartmouth students gather for Homecoming
The people I have met at Dartmouth who have become my dearest of friends :)
The people I have met, each with a unique story and purpose, helped me rekindle a natural intellectual curiosity which I felt like I lost in the thick of senior year. Thinking back, I would have gotten lost in college, unsatisfied at what the world had to offer and constantly asking myself: then what? After late-night projects and coffee, then what? After success stories and a degree, then what?  Now that I'm in my college dorm, typing away these letters with a much more sound understanding of who I am, I'm actually excited for the many more 'then whats' that await for me. 

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Thinking about taking a gap or service year before coming to Dartmouth? Click here to learn more. 

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