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The Student Voice of UNC Asheville

The Blue Banner

The Student Voice of UNC Asheville

The Blue Banner

A young adult’s experience with overcoming the challenges of gap years and independent travel

Jacob Eaton posed with his van after renovations in Asheville.

Years following the pandemic, some 2020 high school graduates are beginning to graduate college, while others are thinking about starting. 

Many students have chosen to take time off, or take “gap years.” A concept that became popularized in the 60s according to CNBC. 

“Some students who graduated high school or were enrolled in college during the pandemic didn’t want to spend record-high tuition costs on remote learning. Even though classes went back to in-person that is what initially deterred me from applying to colleges right after high school,” said Jacob Eaton, a 20-year-old Asheville resident. 

Eaton graduated high school in May of 2020 in the midst of the pandemic. He said he considered going to college but knew there would be better timing in the future. 

“There was just so much I wanted to experience. I had spent 12 years of my life committing to school. I felt like I needed a break,” Eaton said. 

The high school graduate said that he was choosing between remote learning, or the chance to independently travel out west. He said the choice was obvious to him. 

“I spent another year in Asheville. I spent time with my family, friends and saved money while also renovating an old van. Once I got the van finished I planned to drive it out to Utah where I would live at a state park,” Eaton said. 

According to Eaton, the typical high school experience can be restricting. It is a massive time commitment and can limit one’s ability to see more outside of what their school and city offer. 

“I wanted to see more than what my state offered, and I couldn’t afford to go to an out of state school. I wanted to explore new places and things at my own pace without having the pressure of being graded.” Eaton said. 

When students started to return back to the classroom, Eaton was finishing up his van renovations. Many people his age packed up their bedrooms and said goodbye to their families. According to him, he did the same for a different reason. 

Eaton worked on renovations with his longtime friend Austin Forrest, who lives in a renovated school bus with his 5-year-old daughter and partner Chaela Forrest. 

“What I liked about teaching him how to redo this van is that it was hands-on learning. He was learning how to budget while also learning and building new skills that could be applied to daily life,” Forrest, a 31-year-old Asheville resident said. 

Eaton said there were many obstacles he faced and he had moments of doubt, but once he was on the road driving west he knew the hard work had been worth it. 

“I realized it was all worth it like a month in when I realized I was still alive and doing well. I learned how to sustain myself, and learned I could keep doing this lifestyle for as long as I wanted. I was having a lot of fun and feeling so free. I looked around my van and was proud of what I accomplished,” Eaton said. 

According to Eaton, there were a lot of moments during his travel experience when he was grateful to not be in class but one stuck out in particular. 

“The most beautiful moment was Zion National Park in the winter when it was dumping snow. The park was empty like no one was there. It was surreal and I don’t think I would have been able to see that if I had been in school,” Eaton said. 

Eaton said he understands what college is for and he said he believes in its value. He said there is much to be learned at school and the time commitment helps set you up for the professional world. 

“I think college is useful, and I’m looking into applying at school currently, but I will always be grateful for my travel experience. I learned and grew in ways that I wouldn’t have if I was going to school in state,” Eaton said. 

With the rise of social media, it is easier to connect with other cultures and see others’ travel experiences. This could be why gap years are becoming increasingly popular according to Eaton. 

Forrest said there are many values to traveling that college doesn’t offer. 

“You don’t need to be rich to travel, sometimes you do have to be rich or at least go into debt to go to school. Traveling shows you how to live outside your comfort zone, and lets you experiment in ways you wouldn’t find in the classroom,” Forrest said. 

Forrest said that traveling in the old school bus he renovated has helped him realize he can be happy and have financial freedom without a degree. He said that it takes practice and patience to be at that point though. 

“My biggest challenges were dealing with mechanical issues and getting jobs. I was learning how to do tax stuff without any help and in a new place where I didn’t have anyone to ask for help. It was hard not knowing anyone to trust. I feel like at college it’s easier to get help and find guidance from others,” Eaton said. 

Forrest said he supports the travel lifestyle and supports gap years or breaks from school but he said there will always be challenges with any path you take. 

“When rebuilding the van we stumbled on a lot of problems. Sometimes we didn’t have the right tools or didn’t know what to do. When traveling you’ll constantly have to make adjustments depending on where you are and this doesn’t work for everyone,” Forrest said.

Eaton’s mother, Debbi Anderson said she had concerns about Eaton’s year of travel. 

“My concerns included his safety, both physical and mental well-being. I had to trust Jacob as well as the people around him to let me know if there was a problem or mishap,” said Anderson. 

Anderson said that a gap year can be worrying for some parents because they may fear their kid will never want to go back to school which leaves them worrying about their child’s future. She said it takes a lot of trust in your child and it can be hard to let them be independent. 

“Going back to school will be an adjustment and require determination and patience on his part,” Anderson said. 

Attending college is a commitment, whether that be time, mental strain, or financial sacrifices.  According to Eaton, it can be intimidating to go back and it would take a lot of adjusting. 

“I want to go back, and I want to learn, but it’s going to be different from how I’m living now. It’ll be something I need to get used to,” Eaton said.


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