Decked out in robes and hats, my 200-something graduating classmates were arranged in rows on the lawn below the stage. Beyond them their family and friends sat waiting for the joint speech that was to be delivered by the salutatorian and me.

It was not to be delivered by the salutatorian and me because I was the valedictorian. I was not. My GPA put me soundly in the lower-most quartile of my graduating class, and it was only a coincidence that my best friend—Andrew—was the salutatorian. We were speaking together because we wanted to and because my school didn’t care about grades when it came to graduation speeches. Anyone who cared to perform was welcome to audition—academic standings be damned.

Our speech was probably as unmemorable as your average student-delivered graduation speech: full of stammers and stutters, creatively bankrupt. But I remember it clearly for two reasons. One, I gave it (and I was nervous as hell). Two, I didn’t think I really deserved to speak at all.

The way I saw it, I didn’t belong behind the podium because I did terribly in high school. I never understood why I was in school, nor for whom I was there, and it reflected in my transcript. By senior year I found myself with a 2.4 GPA and no college acceptances. But there I was, speaking to my peers like I knew what I was doing. I felt like I was saying “I will strike out on the path that lies before me with cool, excited confidence. You should, too.”

I was neither cool nor confident—I was college-less and confused.

School had been hard for me, and I wasn’t eager to jump into another four years of it. But the idea of college was tempting. Maybe I would be good at it, I thought. Maybe it would just magically click. Maybe.

But wistful thinking couldn’t erase bad grades. So, not really knowing what else to do, I came up with a plan. It went something like this: take a gap year; attend a junior college; do well; transfer to a good school. I figured that a break from school might be what I needed. After all, I had no idea what I was genuinely passionate about or what I was interested in doing with the rest of my life.

This was a decent plan. But I was still embarrassed that it was the only plan available. Insecure, I did everything I could to hide my GPA from my friends. I lied, omitted truths, and built up a well-articulated fortress of reasons as to why I wouldn’t be attending a four-year college in the fall. I downplayed my academic track record and focused instead on money: “Honestly, it’s economical to go to community college. I don’t want to pay tuition for my GEs! I could go to a community college and get the same education for a fraction of the cost.” It wasn’t the worst argument, but it wasn’t one I wanted to be making. The contrarian in me doesn’t like to admit it, but I just wanted what everyone else did—a little liberal arts college to call my own.

But, thanks to my ridiculously low GPA, that wasn’t an option for me. My application was too weak to get me into the schools where I wanted to be, and I had no desire to attend the schools that would have accepted me.

Summer vacation came and went. My friends went off to school, and I found myself stumbling headfirst onto an India-bound plane and into the unknown. My gap year had begun.

My trip to India was steeped in new experiences—filled with revelatory moments of both joy and disgust. I saw the nauseating wealth of Mumbai’s upper class, experienced the destitution that slept in the louse-ridden corridors of an Indian orphanage, and got rocked by a magnitude-6.9 earthquake. During a two-week stint in Nepal I met the founder of a non-profit school-building initiative.

The prospect of building a school in a country as beautiful as Nepal was too much to pass up. I asked if I could come build with him. He said yes. I joined him two months later.

I left high school as a set of numbers: my GPA, my class rank, my SAT score. I returned from my gap year as more than that. I returned as a person.

My gap year rebuilt my sense of self-worth. By the end of it—for the first time in my life—I felt comfortable and happy in my own skin. I’m attending a community college now, but I’m doing it with purpose, direction, and confidence. My gap year showed me that I am lucky to have been born in a country where education is compulsory, of high quality, and free. My gap year convinced me that it is not just my duty, but also my privilege to spend my life helping those less fortunate than I am.

Everyone should take a gap year at some point in their life—student or otherwise. It gave me time to figure out who I am, who I am not, and who I want to be. My gap year was a year of introspection and self-exploration—one that changed the trajectory of my entire life.

In retrospect, I’m glad I failed high school. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t.

Alex McNeil was an intern for Challenge Success. Learn more about him at

Leave a Comment