The last trip of my gap year (a study camp in Iceland) left me in disbelief that the year was already over, yet appreciating home more than ever.
In a year of globetrotting, I had encountered precarious situations: having my money and ID stolen in New Zealand; being awakened by drunken men trying to enter my bungalow in Thailand, and hospitalized in that country with a suspected case of H1N1; being evacuated during a tsunami alert in Hawaii; finding myself stranded for two days in an airport lobby following a major volcanic eruption in Iceland.
A series of 3 a.m. phone calls no doubt caused my parents a grey hair or two, but for me, having to deal with such events thickened my skin.
The lessons I learned along the way, such as the rewards of volunteer work, the kindness of strangers in unfamiliar cultures, and how to persevere when things do not unfold as planned, made it worth it.
During my gap year, I found myself more frustrated, excited, upset, joyful, embarrassed, outgoing, weak and brave than ever before.
My main goal for the year away from the classroom had been reached. With a clearer career path in mind, I was excited to return to school and to pursue new ambitions with renewed enthusiasm and some much-needed life experience.
My trip to New Zealand at the beginning of my three-continent adventure had introduced me to the Antarctic Gateway faculty at Canterbury University in the south island city of Christchurch.
Determined to focus my academic studies on circumpolar environments, and not yet rid of the travel bug, I decided that studying overseas would be fitting.
I returned to New Zealand in November, a few months before the school year began, to soak up some Kiwi summer and complete an internship within Christchurch’s Antarctic community.
Celebrating Christmas in New Zealand proved to be a sharp contrast to the winter wonderland Christmas season I grew up with in the Yukon.
Tobogganing, eggnog and festive lights were replaced by beaches, bikinis and barbecues. Yet on Christmas Eve, I experienced some familiarity as my friends and I attended midnight mass at the famous Christchurch Cathedral in the downtown core.
No one knew it at the time, but the carols sung that evening within the exquisite gothic cathedral would be the last for a long time.
After being shaken by a 7.1-magnitude earthquake in September, the city of Christchurch had experienced structural damage, yet no loss of life. By the time I arrived, the aftershocks had subsided considerably.
Then, on February 22 – my second day of lectures at Canterbury University – the peace was dramatically disrupted again. As my first calculus lecture finished, a rumbling of the floor started and would not relent.
The walls of the large lecture theatre began shaking violently as ceiling lamps swayed and students dove under desks to protect themselves from the possibility of falling debris.
We were experiencing a powerful, shallow 6.3-magnitude quake centred just 10 km southeast of the city. The 20 seconds it lasted felt like a lifetime.
When it finally let up for about a minute, I followed other students down the stairwells and outside the multi-storey building just as the first aftershock began to hit.
Of all the natural disasters I had experienced to that point, this was the most terrifying and upsetting. The quake caused widespread damage throughout the picturesque city, especially in the central business district, where buildings weakened by the September quake could not withstand this new shock.
The cathedral where we had celebrated Christmas suffered extensive damage, including the loss of its landmark spire. Yukon friends living in Christchurch had their home completely destroyed, as did many of my Kiwi friends.
Nearly 200 people from more than 20 countries lost their lives in one of the deadliest natural disasters in New Zealand history.
The damage to the university and the emotional impact of the quake and constant aftershocks ultimately led to my decision to return home and continue my studies by correspondence.
Although this was not the best note on which to return, the experience forced me to see what is really important in life. I don’t regret for a minute the choices that I made to take off on a gap year.
Now I find myself much more appreciative of each day, and frequently look back with fond memories of New Zealand, Thailand and Iceland, and the different lessons each journey instilled within me.
There is a lot more that can come out of a gap year than a bad hangover.
In my case, travelling abroad allowed me to connect more with my own country. In an international setting, I was able to reflect on what made me most proud of Canada, such as our peaceful global reputation, and what I did not, such as our lack of environmental policy.
With friends sprinkled across several time zones, I now find myself globally connected, which can make telephone dates difficult, but more engaging nonetheless.
Although these adventures have left me penniless, they have also left me more confident and sure of my academic and career direction.