Photo: Courtesy of Joseph Baker
Weeks after graduating from high school in Chapel Hill, NC, when most of his friends were picking freshman classes and buying extra-long twin sheets, Joe Baker found himself bungee jumping outside Cusco, Peru.It was just the beginning of a journey that would take him around the world and inspire a clear course for college and after, one he might not have discovered without taking a “gap year.”
Like a very small—but growing—percentage of high school graduates, Baker decided to take a gap year before starting college. The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA estimates that only around 1.2 per cent of first time college freshmen in the U.S. elect to take a gap year, but the trend is gaining momentum and some colleges are even adopting formal policies to allow accepted students to defer their matriculation, according to ABC News.
The trip was no whim: Baker and Reade Paterno, a high school friend, made the decision to take a gap year trip during their AP History class junior year. They spent more than a year planning, saving money and working out a budget before heading out on their 11 country, nine-month journey, and learned more throughout the process than some students do in their first year of college.
They both took jobs waiting tables at local restaurants, and put away every penny they could. Baker ultimately saved around $9,000 before leaving; his grandfather, who had been a doctor with the foreign service and partially inspired his trip, donated another $8,000.
While they didn’t nail down many specifics beforehand, the pair bought several major flights—Raleigh to Lima, Buenos Aires to Cape Town, and Cape Town to Hanoi—ahead of time. They made a strict budget before leaving, at times eating only bread and eggs to conserve funds. And they did an impressive job of sticking to it: Baker said he ran out of cash just a day or two before his family arrived to meet him in Spain for the last leg of his journey.
At first his parents were pretty apprehensive about letting their son spend a year abroad.
“My mum wanted me to travel for a summer,” Baker said. “But once we came back with thought-out plans and a budget, and showed we weren’t just trying to party for a year, they definitely started to become more comfortable with it.”
His parents insisted, however, that he apply to college before he left. Baker will attend the University of North Carolina at Asheville in the fall, where he plans to major in international economics. He was inspired, in part, by his travels. “I want to find a way to include the entire globe in what I do,” he said. “If that leads to a job at an NGO, it would be a great way to continue travelling while working.”
Baker said that putting his life on hold to travel the world for nine months was one of the best decisions he has ever made, in part because it put him in the right mindset to start college. “I’m a lot more motivated,” he said. “If I had gone to college right after high school, I wouldn’t be as interested or excited to go back to school. I also learned a lot of skills regarding budgeting, living on my own, and dealing with less-than-ideal situations.”
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