The following post was written by Global Gap Year Fellow Jacob Gerardi.

I have to admit it: I’m a huge fan of cheesy, totally cliché and horrible young adult romance novels. The academic part of me says that they are silly and unrealistic, that things never work in such an idealistic fashion. I know it is true, yet again and again I find myself returning to these same teenage-brain tickling tropes. There is something deeply settling in the fact that the stories usually end well, a neat bow tied on top of a package of purely farcical plot. Their neatness appeals to the sense of organization I’ve had steeped into me.

Every day of high school, I’d write down all of my homework and my personal objectives as well, things as basic as “floss twice tonight” or as weighty as “finish UNC application”. My fellow gappers, many passionate in their love for astrology, would tell you that it’s my moon-rising Leo combination driving me to be this way. Whether you agree with the cause is up to you, but one thing is for sure: regardless of my generally disorganized nature growing up and tendency towards spontaneous decision making, by the time I had reached high school, I’d clipped my own wings in the name of “success”. Success, or so I was taught by my surroundings, was a grade, an SAT score, an Ivy-league acceptance letter. It was never something that could be achieved through simply being without any particular intention.

Despite this, as I have found in the past few months, there is something deeply pleasing about simply being. My first visit to UNC-Chapel Hill was during the finalist weekend for the UNC Global Gap Year Fellowship, a tense time in which I was riding a wave of self-doubt following rejection from what I thought at the time were the Universities I belonged at. I came to campus for finalist weekend, quite skeptical of the whole thing. I was playing along with the programming, speaking of how I would enjoy a gap year, but I held reservations. Deep down, I was thinking “No, that gap year thing isn’t for me. I have purpose, why would I go astray from it?”

As I stepped back, however, I noticed a disturbing trend. I had worked under an incredible amount of self-enforced academic and extra-curricular pressure for years, constantly pushing myself to the brim then somewhat recovering. I hadn’t done many of the things I love in years, and definitely wasn’t devoting enough time to maintaining relationships with those I value. My oil paints were put to rest come freshman year, my sewing machine lay vacant, its needle sharp with the virginity of neglect. I barely had time to do beadwork, and my violin arpeggios were quite poor at the cost of high grades in the classes I studied when I should have been practicing. “Why,” I began to think to myself, “Should this be something to strive for?”

The more I thought about it, the more taking a gap year seemed to be a logical step off of my damaging trail of academic and career progression. Anyone who was at the gap year summer institute will tell you that I talked many, many times about my desire to use this year as a way to “hop off the treadmill,” and I really mean that. As I made my final college decision, the option of this fantastically different gap year became more and more enticing, pushing me towards attending UNC (University of Oklahoma; I love you, I miss you, I’m sorry). I eventually accepted my gap year fellowship offer, readying to embark on the most unclear year of my life.

Notice, I didn’t say I am ready for my gap year, rather I am readying. I won’t exactly say I am ready to embrace uncertainty, as that would be dishonest. In reality, I am not ready for this at all. How could anyone be? I tell myself again and again that things don’t need to be perfect, yet I still aspire to a standard impossible to obtain. As I write this post, sitting in my friend’s home in Modi’in, Israel having just arrived from Helsinki, Finland, I am overwhelmed by possibility. I have never truly lived on my own, nor without easy access to luxuries like high speed internet, something I will be giving up while I spend three months in Cuba this fall. I have never had to cook all my own meals, something I will do both in Cuba and while living in the Navajo Nation this spring. Mi español isn’t great, and I don’t speak a lick of Diné (the Navajo language). Despite all of this, I look forward towards this coming year, let myself say “let’s see how it goes,” and exhale. I do not expect to emerge from this gap year having fully solved any of the issues I will be working to ameliorate, something that would’ve bothered me incredibly a year ago and still does to some extent. Still, if anything, I am working to accept the fact that often, things don’t go as planned.

Unlike the romantic YA novels I consume voraciously (yes, voraciously), plot lines in real life are not clean: they converge, they end, separate, they have new genesis. If there is any one thing I would hope to get out of this gap year experience, it’s the elusive but peace-giving acceptance of what could be called “antiprogress”. I aim to reinstate in myself the fun-loving, spontaneous nature I stomped out of my own soul, exploring cities and countries anew as I did in Finland over the past few days. As I work through my own stringent definition of success, I ask myself why, I step back, and I reconstruct. My final presentation regarding my gap year was titled “Reconstruction and regrowth”. I think that, if anything, truly summarizes my goals.

Success should be defined by joy and personal progress, not by a number or letter grade. Success is having time to do the things I enjoy, read that horrid teen literature, or practice my violin, learn a new beading technique. There has never been a better time for me to realize this, no matter how long it may have taken. It is the time for me to process and sustain this reconstruction and regrowth, a process I may not be ready to go through, as how can one ever really be ready to so shatter their worldview? Rather, it is to be a process that I have accepted, one I look forward to stumbling over. The gap year path is not a path I would’ve seen myself taking at any point in my schooling thus far, but it is one which I have now unwaveringly accepted. I may not be ready for this uncertain time, but if anything, of this I am sure: it’s time to embrace it.