Participant Reflection: Tess Johnston

young woman looking over Big Ben whilst on her UK Gap Year

How taking a gap year made me do the growing up I never knew I needed

When you finish your final year of high school, you know absolutely everything. You’ve stayed up memorising chemical formulas until the sun peeks out and the birds outside tell you to get the heck to sleep. You’ve walked out of exams feeling on top of the world only to come clunking back to earth staring at a C-. You’ve sat with your friends commiserating about said C- and how excited you are to get out of there. No matter your high school experience, it’s safe to say that graduating makes you feel like there’s nothing you can’t do and there’s nothing you don’t know. I definitely felt mature, but it’s safe to say I was woefully wrong.  


Leaving on New Year’s Day, pitifully hungover, to start a year abroad working at a boarding school in North London was the most exciting and the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Looking at my parent’s faces in the departure lounge, it felt totally absurd that I wouldn’t be seeing them for a year. But, a part of me also knew I was ready for a change. For more autonomy. For my own laundry responsibilities. It might be the optimistic glow of hindsight, but I’d like to think my sense of adventure and anticipation outweighed my fear that day. I knew I would come back with stories and pictures from all over Europe, new friends and bragging rights, obviously, over my 2 brothers. What I didn’t know was that I was going to come back a different person, as clichéd as that may seem. Maybe not different so much as improved, with more patience and empathy and general life experience.

It took my older cousin telling me an unintentionally poignant truth for me to realise how much I’d changed. I remember his look of confusion as he said: ‘No offence, but I didn’t realise you were funny before you came back. I guess I didn’t see you as a real person, like a grown-up, before then.’

I guess I had liked to think that I’d always been a decent person to be around. With the requisite humour, wit, compassion, understanding or whatever makes someone a ‘good’ human being. But I guess that hadn’t always been the case. Come to think of it, I had been kind of a brat. It’s ironic that I wasn’t able to see how judgmental I’d been until I took the time to judge my former self. I hadn’t fought with my mum or brothers once since I’d come home, and I can barely remember a time during my high school years where a week had gone by without at least a spat. If we weren’t fighting anymore, does that mean I’d always been the common denominator in those unpleasantries? So I had to ask myself, what had changed?

Obviously it was me. But it’s not as if sleeping on a bunk-bed in Barcelona or partying on Paddy wagon had made me some kind of Buddhist monk overnight. It was a gradual process of realisation, growth and repeat. Seeing others in situations of hardship and realising how #blessed I was (jokingly, but also not at all). Being put in difficult situations and choosing to look inward rather than lashing out. Looking out at a sprawling cityscape and understanding how tiny but significant we all are. Getting to know the kids from all over the world I was looking after for the unique, vibrant individuals they were. Understanding that those same great kids could be total brats too but withholding judgment because there was always something deeper going on. I didn’t think 12-year-olds would be capable of teaching me so much about myself and how my mum must have felt when I couldn’t find my school uniform at 7:30am, but there’s true clarity in being able to experience both sides of the argument.

I could go on, but it would feel akin to a string of clichés that couldn’t begin to translate the magnitude of learning a human being can do in 11 months and 3 weeks while they’re flying through 16 countries. I’m grateful every day that I decided to go out on a limb and take a year off, despite the naysayers in my ear saying that I’d just get myself a year behind or, shock horror, never make it back to university. Well I’m sitting here, exactly half-way through my Law/Arts degree and I can safely say that I wouldn’t have the life I do now if I hadn’t taken a year off. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have made the friends I’ve made because they couldn’t have loved someone who didn’t truly like themselves, even though at the time I thought I had it all figured out. I’d read the books, I’d written the essays, I’d walked onto the school stage and received the piece of paper that would summarise my 12 years of education, but I had no idea that I had so much schooling left to do. And I had no idea how much I’d love it.

Tess spent 12 months (well 11 months and 3 weeks) on our UK Gap Year program. She was placed in a all-girls boarding school a short distance from London.

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