HMI was on my radar for a few years before I ever dreamed of signing up myself, because I knew a couple of people who had gone and loved it. But my Junior year, when I was starting to think about a gap year, I had an English teacher who prioritized talking about what a meaningful education looks like. That class convinced me that I wanted to use my gap time to pair rigorous academic questions with place-based, hands-on learning, and HMI was the perfect marriage of those two things.
Maya is an avid hiker and reader who decided to postpone college for a year in favor of seeking a different type of education. She plans on studying sustainability at McGill University upon her return to the world of academia.
What did your program provider (or university) assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?
The wonderful staff at HMI were fantastic at answering all of my many questions leading up to the program. I remember feeling confused about everything from forms to gear to travel arrangements, and they were so patient with every single inquiry.
They also gave us participants a recommended travel itinerary, so while we had to make bookings on our own there were pretty clear suggestions, which really simplified the process.
As for gear, the packing list had a ton of information about where to buy certain things and what to look for in various pieces of equipment. Additionally, the program had options to rent most pieces of gear from the High Mountain Institute campus.
What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?
I'd tell someone about to embark on an HMI semester to leave their expectations at the door.
With any big transition, things will (and should) surprise you. Let yourself be open to that, even if the surprises aren't always comfortable. Maybe your pack is heavier than you'd bargained for, or it's really cold, or you're just not 'feeling it' that day.
Whatever the circumstance, remember that those unexpected moments have value, and for every jarring discomfort there's a moment (or two, or three) that will take your breath away with its beauty and majesty.
What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?
When we're in the field, every day shares a pretty similar routine: wake up, make breakfast, hike, set up camp, eat dinner, have evening meeting and maybe a class or two on topics ranging from land management in Utah to group dynamics to the geology behind Patagonian rock formations. But within that outline, there's a ton of room for variation.
Some days on my semester included mid-hike sledding breaks, hilarious, deep, and/ or completely random conversations on the trail, swimming, and gazing at ancient ruins. We both got into a rhythm and woke up each day knowing anything could happen, which felt like the perfect mix.
Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?
I was really nervous that I would come away from the program and still not feel totally comfortable in the backcountry. Within a few days in Colorado's Sawatch Range, these fears became irrelevant.
Regardless of experience level, everyone got up to speed pretty quickly, and by the end of the semester, we were comfortably traveling without instructors and completed a 24-hour solo in Patagonia. These are feats that would have terrified me just 2.5 months prior, and it was amazing to see how quickly my confidence grew in that regard.
What would you say to someone who is unsure about taking a gap year?
I think that gap years are an incredibly unique opportunity in your life to redefine what education has the potential to be and the power to do and to take ownership of your learning in a way that just isn't possible in a typical classroom setting. Chances are that college, or any next step will be there when you return. However you use your gap time, I firmly believe that it can be just as much or more of an investment in your future - personal, academic, and financial - as any more 'traditional' life path.