While Sarah Gledhill’s peers at Charlotte Country Day School made plans to attend college after graduation last summer, she was preparing to live out of her backpack for 10 months in South America.
“I wanted to improve my Spanish, play guitar and learn new styles,” she said. “But I mostly wanted to lose myself and see the world and open my perspectives.”
And now that she has returned to Charlotte, she has learned lessons in Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil that she says she could not have been learned in a classroom.
“The one most important thing I’ve learned is to keep the idea with me always that you don’t need to live life in the path that everybody else does,” she said. “You make your own life, and you don’t need to do what everyone else does.”
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About 7,000 American students took gap years last this year, according to the American Gap Association. The organization says that gap years make students more self-aware, which can improve their performance at college, and gives students appreciation and understanding of other cultures.
Gledhill, who lives in Matthews, said she decided to do a gap year when, as her graduation loomed closer, she became less and less enthusiastic about immediately attending college.
“I was thinking about going to college and the rest of my life, and just thought when else is there an opportunity to do this?” she said. She was also inspired by her brother Doug, who took a gap year in China and is a senior at Middlebury College in Vermont. Gledhill’s younger sister, Julia, is a junior at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania and will likely also do a gap year.
She traveled in five countries, sometimes alone and also with Where There Be Dragons, a program for students studying abroad or taking gap years. She also worked for a conservation project in the Galápagos Islands.
Experiences like spending a few days with a family in Bolivia put her life in the United States in perspective, she said.
“They only spoke the indigenous language Quechua,” Gledhill said. “They were really untouched by the rest of the world. Waking up at 4:30 and going to bed at 7, working in the fields, eating potatoes for three meals a day, it was pretty cool.”
She said her parents were excited and supportive, though they were nervous about the 18-year-old traveling alone at times.
“I just said the benefit outweighs the burden,” said Her mom, Karen Gledhill. “You need to throw yourself out there and learn about the world. It’s a life-changing experience, very positive and formative.”
Her father, John Gledhill, also said his daughter became more outgoing and appreciative of her life in Charlotte after the gap year.
“One of the biggest changes is it broke her from texting and Facebooking,” he said. “She realized the power of being with people and being in the moment.”
Gledhill also wrote in a blog during the trip, “Sarah Down South,” to reflect on the cultural lessons she learned.
“Though it is so normal to me, not all 18-year-olds talk about AP tests and sports games,” she wrote while in Bolivia. “It’s strange to try to understand my own life from the perspective of someone from this small rural community, with my glasses on my face and plastic raincoat and nylon caterpillar sleeping sack.”
She said she loved the friendly people in Colombia and the salsa dancing. She said she was also fascinated with Bolivia, where she witnessed several large political protests.
“You see real life things, in my life in Charlotte and at Country Day it was very in my own world, and you’re not exposed to things like that,” she said.
Gledhill will study environmental science at Middlebury College in the fall.
“I knew beforehand that I wanted to study environmental science, but that really solidified in my year,” she said. “In the third world you really see the effects of consumerism. In the countryside they don’t have the infrastructure to deal with waste, so you see all the trash in the streets and the rivers.”
Gledhill said she looks forward to her next opportunity to travel abroad.
“For the rest of my life I’ll make time to travel, go to the Third World, it’s an important way to remember what life is really about,” she said.