How Gap Years Can Prepare You For College: A Semester in Patagonia

Written by Connor Nolan

Above:A NOLS team trekking through the Aysen region of Patagonia. Photos Courtesy of Connor Nolan

In the fall of 2014 I was hit with the college process. There’s a lot of hype about college; it’s a big decision, it is where you will be living and learning for the next four years. During the application process I was excited to prepare for the next chapter of my life, but I felt kind of lost. Then I discovered the concept of a gap year. When I threw the idea out to my family, friends, and mentors, they all gave me the same response: “Looking back, I wish I took a gap year…I didn’t know what I was doing at all my first year of college.” After several months and many reiterations of the Common App passed, I decided to defer from Colorado College and apply for semester in Patagonia, South America with NOLS.

The decision to take a gap year was not an easy one. For the first few weeks while I was still at home, awaiting my many flights to the Southern hemisphere, I couldn’t help but feel a little isolated. Everyone else was off making new friends at school and adjusting to a different phase of life. I was at home, checking my packing list for the 14th time, making sure I was prepared for the next three months.

Eventually, the start of the NOLS semester program came and I boarded my flight. I said goodbye to my family, friends, my phone, and set off into the unknown.

The course was challenging, and there were some days that pushed everyone on the team to their limits—both mentally and physically. Despite the challenges, I can say with 100 percent certainty that I would have never learned what I learned abroad in a traditional classroom. I spent over 80 days in the backcountry, during which I didn’t shower, I dug a hole for a toilet, and I lived out of a backpack. For gap year programs or semester programs like NOLS, I think that learning to live off the basics is an important life skill. Deciding what to pack did not seem daunting until I realized that I had to live out of my backpack, and knew that whatever I needed to survive and thrive would come out of that bag.

A NOLS semester student picks away at the ice on top of the Cordón Soler glacier.  Photos Courtesy of Connor Nolan

One memorable day of my gap year was when our NOLS team hiked about 1,000 meters up from the valley floor to the edge of the snowpack. The terrain was thick bush. If you have never been to Patagonia, let me share a little wisdom with you: it is not harm from animals you need to worry about; it is the bushes that will get you. They are dense and full of sharp thorns, and seem to block your path in the most inconvenient ways. We had a fresh ration in our packs, weighing in at about 70 pounds on each of our backs. Every few feet we would slip and slide in the slushy terrain. It was an uphill battle that, to this day, I am proud of. When we finally made it to camp that night, we realized that everybody in our team had gotten moderate hypothermia from the grueling, snowy day. We were then tent-bound for about two days while it snowed over four feet every 24 hours. The weather had come out of nowhere. None of us knew we were going to be facing such conditions when we woke up.

I did not just learn technical skills on NOLS, I learned how to be a better person, how to be a peer, and how to deal with struggle. Adversity is something you have to put up with in the outdoors. You’re always going to face adversity, whether it’s on a day hike or a three-month long expedition. The only thing you can do is best prepare yourself for it mentally, and embrace it when it happens. I learned how to face adversity, I learned how to deal with humility, and I definitely learned curiosity and optimism.

I didn’t have a plan for the rest of my gap year before going into my fall semester. But thankfully, throughout my time in the outdoors, I got an idea for how I wanted to spend the rest of my year. I found inspiration and purpose. Over the remainder of the year I backpacked in Spain, worked as a lift-operator at Crystal Mountain in Washington, and took a Wilderness EMT course. I got real-world experience working at a ski resort full-time, I got to see the cities and countryside of Spain, and I got to learn applicable emergency medicine for both the outdoors and indoors. In each and every aspect of my gap year, whether on my NOLS course or working a job or learning in a traditional classroom environment, I found new energy and purpose that I do not think I ever would have known was there if I had jumped straight into college.

A pair of kayakers in an inlet off of Isla Magdalena in the South Pacific Ocean.

So what made me decide to do it? Simply put, I wasn’t ready for college—I wasn’t motivated. At the time, I was 18, and I realized I was only going to college once and if I were going to do it, I was going to do it right. I did not want to go into my first year with no motivation to do my work, no stimulating energy from high school. On a more philosophical level, I wanted to expand my horizons. I thought to myself, “I do not know much about this world, and I am young, but I know I want to explore as much of it as I can.” I feel that a gap year is a great tool to not only take time for yourself to mentally adjust, but to expand your knowledge in an untraditional way, a way that can take place in the mountains of Patagonia with no Wi-Fi and no books, just guides and maps and peers.

It is important to ask ourselves why we do what we do. What makes us go to school every day? What makes us go to work every day? There does not have to be an end goal, but along the way there must be some purpose. While I cannot say that I always know what I am doing, my gap year gave me an outlet to learn about myself, my interests, and the world. Most importantly, my gap year prepared me to take on college with a fresh perspective and a sense of purpose that I would not have had otherwise.

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