Hannah Repke graduated from high school outside of Washington DC. She was accepted to the University of Virginia, but something about going straight to college didn’t feel right. Hannah recognized she was burned out, and decided to look into other options—which is the moment she fell in love with the idea of taking a gap year.
Not long after, Hannah packed her bags and spent the following year on a Rustic Pathways Gap Year, traveling to Tanzania, Morocco, Ghana, Burma, Peru and Costa Rica. We sat down with Hannah and learned how she began her freshman year feeling confident, more focused, and more prepared than ever. Read on to hear why Hannah chose to defer her first year of college, and how her gap year set her on a fulfilling and life changing path.
What sparked your interest to pursue a gap year?
“During high school, I spent too much time focused on my small world of academics and pleasing my parents and teachers that I forgot to remember the things in life that were truly important. I realized three things during the winter of my senior year after I had already applied to colleges: 1) I’m burnt out, 2) I’ve never fulfilled my desire to help others on a larger scale, and 3) this was the perfect time to change both of these.
“I always thought I would go straight through high school on to college and then on to medical school, but I had this crazy revelation: It was OK to change my plans. Why not travel the world before I go to college? Why shouldn’t I use this time to help others and learn about myself?
“I quickly found Rustic Pathways and fell in love with the trips they had to offer. Even now that I have finished my freshman year of college, I haven’t ONCE regretted my decision to take the year to better myself and help others. Everything that I thought I would miss by delaying my college experiences for a year were waiting for me when I got there and I appreciated them so much more than I would have without my year abroad.”
What did you hope to get out of the experience? Were your expectations met?
“I hoped to leave my comfort zone and challenge myself in ways that I didn’t know existed until they were presented to me. I wanted to meet people and learn perspectives that I had closed myself off to in my high school. I wanted to see and experience things that words and pictures could not describe.
“At the end of the year, I had all my expectations met beyond what I could imagine. I definitely would not have been able to do so without the people I traveled with, but also if I hadn’t pushed myself out of my comfort zone. I told myself to always say yes to any opportunity, and some of my fondest memories are those I normally wouldn’t have agreed to do. Although Rustic Pathways provided the foundation for my growth, I also had to push myself to get what I personally wanted from my gap year: simply being isn’t enough, you have to truly engage with the people and places (and sometimes animals!) around you.”
Are there any lessons learned from your Rustic experience in Africa and Latin America that still apply and you think about today?
“I learned to truly respect everyone around me for who they are and believe that every life has value. I learned to be friends with people from all walks of life and how to really get to know someone. I appreciate everything around me and live in the moment more than I ever have. I learned to entertain myself and find enjoyment in my downtime without the use of technology or the Internet. Most importantly, during my travels and even still today, I started to care less about what things I had or how I looked and started to value experiences and time with others over anything else.”
Do any memories from your Africa and Latin American Gap semesters still stand out to you today?
“There are many memories that I will always cherish, some personal that I will never share with others, but some that I will always point to moments when I was happiest. I remember waking up before the sunrise in the Sahara and meditating as the sun rose over the desert. I will never forget hiking to Machu Picchu and being disappointed that the fog made it impossible to see anything, but waiting and watching as the clouds eventually lifted and I sat and stared at one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
“I remember a time in Peru when four local children guided me and a friend on a 3-hour hike to a waterfall and having to run off the path as a flood of alpacas came running down. When wandering through the streets of Morocco’s ‘blue city,’ Chefchaouen, my friends and I were utterly lost, but right when we were most frustrated stumbled out upon the most beautiful view over the entire city and mountainside. Don’t ask me how we got there or back to the plaza because I have no idea.
“I will never forget watching the sunrise from the top of Kilimanjaro or how proud I was that I had made it there. One of the coolest things I saw was a pride of lions kill a water buffalo in the Serengeti. Although these might not have been the coolest things I did, my gap year would not have been what it was without these moments.”
Did you feel prepared to enter college post your gap year?
“I felt more prepared to enter college than I would have going straight from high school. I thought (and my parents feared…) that if I took a gap year I would never want to go back to school, but I actually found the opposite to be true. By the end of my year I was eager to get back into the classroom and apply what I had experienced and learned to my education in a more formal setting. I also valued the opportunity to go to college more than I did before. In high school, I thought of college as something that I had to do, I didn’t really think I had an option. However, once I actually started, I realized how fortunate I was to be able to go to college and learn so much about so many different topics. I was not only more academically prepared, but also more socially ready for school. I became more comfortable striking up a conversation with a stranger, hanging out with people that seemed really different from me, and learned to embrace the weirdness in myself and others.
I also learned how to deal with difficult situations that arise when living with someone for an extended period of time. I cannot imagine having entered college without having the experiences from my gap year.”
Rachel joined Rustic in 2013 and led programs for three summers in Costa Rica, Peru, and Ghana. She’s also led programs in Fiji and Tanzania. A graduate of the University of Vermont with degrees in sociology and Spanish, Rachel focuses her love for travel, writing, and her unquenchable curiosity of our natural world as Rustic’s Brand Engagement Manager. Based in Tahoe, CA, Rachel is a talented ceramicist and lover of the outdoors.