A little over a year ago, I arrived home from Cape Town, South Africa, where I had been living and interning for four months for the second half of my gap year.

Setting aside the obvious—jetlag, the lack of beaches and breathtaking views, and painful goodbyes—I had a remarkably easy transition from my gap time to returning home. This might not sound surprising to those who were ready to go home or who don’t know me, but as my time in Cape Town came to an end, I was extremely apprehensive about coming home:

I loved Cape Town. Halfway through my stay, I realized that three months was not nearly enough time. I wanted to stay enough that I ended up extending my visa. Despite staying an extra month and a half, I still didn’t feel ready to come home when the time eventually came. Throughout my gap time, more than anything, I relished the independence of it all. My internship was the first time I was perceived as an adult. That level of freedom was confidence-building and identity-defining, but it was also somewhat heady. Frankly, I was scared of going from total autonomy to living at home and having to pass my plans by someone else. I’ve never liked being reliant on others this way, but I’d never gotten to live the alternative before.

Between not wanting to leave and the abrupt loss of independence, going back home and then to college could have been a disaster. But it wasn’t, and here’s why:

My plans for that summer addressed my concerns and provided a structured and gradual transition from gap year to home to college.

Here is how I spent that summer transitioning:

  • Arrived home, reunited with my cats (and family), slept, and adjusted to the timezone

  • Spent time with my friends and caught up on each other’s years

  • Went through photos of my gap time, printed lots of them, and created a detailed photo album/travel journal of my year

  • Returned to my childhood sleep-away camp as a camp counselor
  • Went home and prepared for college

  • Drove to college and moved in!

Creating a photo album/travel journal

I did this because I wanted to have a visual record of what I did each day/week of my time before it became too distant in my memory. Additionally, having a creative and hands-on project enabled me to process and reflect on everything I had done during my gap time.

If you can, set aside time to go through and create an organized (and fun) record of your gap time. I recommend allowing lots of time because it gives you the space to pore over photos of beloved moments and release any pent-up emotions. I was surprised by how many feelings came up, and I’m grateful that I could process the end of such a monumental experience on my own terms and in a structured way. Looking back, I think this was crucial in mentally moving on from my gap time. I also indulged in catching up on shows I had missed while I created my photo journal.

Spending time with friends

This was what I had missed most throughout my year, and before I returned home, my high school friends and I had scheduled hangouts and activities as we were all eager to see each other.

This part of your transition can take any form, but anything that you missed or are excited about at home that can be scheduled for a specific date shortly after your return is essential. This way, instead of just focusing on the ending of your program or gap time, you can also have a concrete plan for your return. For me, having something to look forward to is always important because it keeps me energized, refreshed, and motivated. If this works for you, great! If not, try to figure out what adds excitement to your life and ensure you can engage with it. It was also helpful for me to have plans so that I didn’t go from having a bunch to do every day to sitting around the house. So, try to build excitement/structure for yourself before you return.

Working at camp

If you can do one thing to help your transition, it should be this: engage in a familiar place or tradition that has been a source of consistency in your life.

For me, this was returning as a counselor to my summer camp. Every year (excluding 2020), I have gone to the same sleep-away camp since I can remember. The summer before my senior year of high school, I worked there as a camp counselor and knew I wanted to again before going to college.

Returning to camp was centering and acted as a reset and return to normalcy because it is part of my annual routine. However, returning – particularly working – provided several other benefits: It gave me a concrete structure, and being away from home comes with some of the same freedoms I experienced in my gap year. As a counselor, I regained much of the responsibility and independence I had in Cape Town and made some money. I was responsible for my campers and ensuring that I fulfilled my obligations as an employee. Working at camp provided a transition between my gap time and college, allowed me to maintain my independence, and restored my sense of normalcy.

If you can find something that can center you, maintain your independence, and, if you’re like me, get you out of the house, I would highly recommend it for transitioning from gap time to college or your next step in life. If not, I would try to find a couple of separate opportunities to fulfill those needs.

Tips for a positive post-gap transition

Use. Your. Summer!

1)     Have something exciting to look forward to when you get home

2)     Take space to reflect and process your gap time on your terms with intention

3)     Return to something or someplace that is centering for you

4)     Consider working (on-site if possible) to maintain newfound independence and self-reliant