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The GOOD Guide to Hustlin': Why The Gap Year Isn’t Only For Rich Kids

You don't have to be a privileged hippie to save a few months of salary from a shitty job and stretch it out in a foreign country.

In our series, The GOOD Guide to Hustlin', we go beyond the pitying articles about youth in recession and discover ways our generation is coping. The last few years may have been a rude awakening, but we're surviving. Here's how.

In many parts of the world, young people break away from their academic and career tracks for something called a “gap year”—a couple of semesters of young adulthood dedicated to exploring the world. The concept of a gap year is different everywhere—in Europe, it’s often the year between high school and college; in Israel, it follows your obligatory term in the army. In the United States, taking a year off to travel in your late teens and twenties is still the exception, not the rule. When you turn 18, you’re expected to either work or go to college. Kids who travel instead are often passed off as spoiled rich kids, trustafarians, or flaky drifters.

And sometimes these stereotypes are true. But you don't have to be a privileged hippie to save a few months of salary from a shitty job and stretch it out in a country where the cost of living is a fraction of what it is in the States. And contrary to what your skeptical parents might think, skipping town before you jump onto the career treadmill may help you get a real job easier than some mind-numbing office internship.

We've all heard how personally “fulfilling” and “transformative” these trips can be—a quick tour of Google reveals endless accounts of the blog generation’s culturally rich experiences abroad. But what these glowing narratives don’t usually emphasize is how taking a “gap year” can save you money and even give you a major leg up in the job market. Here are a few things to remember before you wave off living abroad as unrealistic and indulgent:

You don’t need all that much cash to leave the scene. Preparing for a yearlong trip can be daunting, but sometimes all it takes is a plane ticket and a little extra cash lining your pocket to launch an adventure. Rachel, 26, knew that she wanted to go to Buenos Aires after school, so she worked 60 hours a week during the summers to save up for a $1,200 plane ticket. The day after she landed, she spent weeks walking up and down Buenos Aires streets, dropping her resume at bars, restaurants, and hotels. Despite what she calls her “superwack” Spanish, someone took pity on her and gave her a part time job at a bar, which eventually led to future gigs as her Spanish improved.

“I promised my family that I would not ask for any assistance and I stuck to that promise,” Rachel says. “I was completely self-sufficient and was even able to save money to travel in South America after I was done working.”

Granted, that strategy is a lot easier to pull off if you have the option of living at home or elsewhere on the cheap for a few months while you're plotting your escape. But the younger you are, the more likely your parents are to allow you some leeway. Andy, for instance, was able to fund his trip abroad by working two jobs for eight months while living at home in Atlanta right after college. Bettina, 27, fled her expensive hometown of New York City and lived in a dirt-cheap beach town in Rhode Island with her boyfriend, working odd jobs and saving for a ticket to South Africa. In each case, they only needed a couple thousand dollars before they were ready to take a risk somewhere else.

You can end up saving money in the long run. Few countries have the exorbitant cost of living that major U.S. cities do, so half a year waiting tables can go a long way. And going off the grid can help. Ben decided to take a semester off in the middle of college to save his parents money. “I saw all my friends signing up for study abroad programs, which all sounded like a blast, but were also as expensive or more expensive than a normal semester or year’s tuition,” he says. So he decided to design his own program in Brazil. The entire trip, including airfare and a crash course in Portuguese, ended up costing $6,000, which Ben saved up for by cutting grass in a cemetery and working at a ski shop during the school year. Once he got back to school, he retroactively finagled the school into giving him credit for his journey, saving an entire semester’s worth of money.

Michi, 24, also fled the United States to Brazil—just as the recession hit. “All over the international news were reports about the financial crisis and hardships in the United States,” she recalls. “Here I was recounting the stories of my family members losing jobs in the first world …as I was in the middle of the favela in one of the poorest cities in Brazil.”

Michi got used to living an ascetic life with few material resources, which allowed her to stay in Brazil for two and half years while subsisting almost entirely on her savings from waitressing—money that would have only stretched a few months funding an “extremely expensive New York lifestyle” instead.

You’ll learn a marketable skill: another language. When it comes to bilingual citizens, the United States lags embarrassingly behind many other countries. An obvious way to close the second language gap—and, incidentally, make yourself more attractive to employers—is to live somewhere else for a while. Rachel learned Spanish fluently in Buenos Aires, and now she “speak[s] Spanish all day every day” at her job at a non-profit immigration law firm. Aaron, 35, acquired “passable fluency” in Japanese after a stint on the island in his twenties, and he still gets well-paid freelance translation work that helps keep his journalism career afloat.

With jobs scarce, proficiency in a second language can make a young career. Briana, 24, was working in a teen pregnancy prevention center right out of school where “a huge number of families and children I worked with were Spanish speaking," she says. "I often had to rely on coworkers to translate for me, which was a pain in the ass.”

So Briana quit her job, moved home, and worked in a café for most of the year to save up for a trip to Latin America. After traveling through Peru and Bolivia for five months, exchanging hospitality work for a free meals and place to stay, she could speak, read, and write Spanish at a “high level.” She ended up getting two job offers when she came back, where she knows “it didn’t hurt” that she spoke Spanish.

Adventurousness helps get you a job, especially if you work on a project on your trip. “Just living” somewhere else can have its own merits, but if the inspiration hits you, why not make your traveling part of a creative project? In 2007, one of my best girlfriends and I set out on a months-long road trip to figure out what our generation thought about feminism. From the start, we wrote a blog about the experience and knew we wanted to turn it into a book. But really, the impetus for the project was a desire to get out on the road, an urge we funded with the same odd jobs and bartending stints as our peers. I’m convinced that every gig I’ve gotten since was at least partly a result of that project, which allowed me some precious traveling and soul-searching as well as a bankable resume item.

The fact is, gutsiness impresses people. Andy likes to tell his story about going after a job with the Obama campaign while living in Argentina. “I ended up getting two interviews from Locotorios [phone booths],” he says. “My boss always used me as an example of dedication, like ‘This dude was calling us from paradise wanting to work for us.’ But actually, I just think he respected the fact that I was adventurous, that I wanted to go to Argentina and I did it. It shows that I can be committed to something, even if it’s just an idea.”

Illustration by Andres Guzman

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