Alessia Mainardi (’21), an international student from Bologna, Italy, came to Hope College with the class of 2020 but chose to leave school after her sophomore year to pursue personal growth through travel. Many students choose to take gap years but often do so between schools—like between high school and college, or between undergraduate studies and graduate school—but Mainardi’s story shows how transformational a gap year can be at any time in your schooling. “In my 16-month gap year, I traveled to 14 different countries and took 46 flights,” she shared. Currently a junior studying business with a marketing concentration, Mainardi is also a member of the Delta Phi sorority but says that her “biggest passion is definitely traveling.” Before leaving Hope for a year, Mainardi said she was “a nursing major, but was always very confused and indecisive about my major and future career because I was never passionate about something to the point that I knew I would’ve liked doing it for the rest of my life. Towards the end of my sophomore year, I decided to take a step back and take a gap year.
As soon as finals were over in May 2018 I left for Australia and started to work as an au pair for a lovely family of five in Sydney.” An au pair, as described by aupairworld.com, is “an unmarried young adult ages 18 to 30 years, who has no children and travels to a foreign country for a defined period of time to live with a host family. The au pair supports the host family with childcare and light housework.” In return, the au pair has a place to stay for the purpose of cultural exchange. “I found my host family on a facebook page called Aupair Australia,” Mainardi told me. “It is very common for people to seek a job this way because it is more intuitive than aupairworld. com and other websites. There are multiple Facebook pages, and they all have over 30k members posting everyday for job opportunities.” During her eight month stay in Australia with her host family, Mainardi “went on a couple vacations with the family. We went to Withsuday islands and Byron Bay/Gold Coast. My host family was truly amazing and I enjoyed spending extra time with them on these occasions and the trips were all paid for. The rest of my travels I did on my own or with family or friends,” she said, alluding to several of the other trips she took during her gap year. She also “was able to travel all around the east part of Australia. I also got the chance to go to Bali and other islands in Indonesia.” After leaving Australia, Mainardi “went to New York City for a few days and then went back home to Italy for Christmas.” In the next two months, Mainardi packed in lots of traveling before returning to the U.S. for an internship. “In January and February of 2019 I traveled to many countries all around Europe including Germany, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and many more,” she said. “In March 2019, I was offered an internship at MB America in Miami, Florida. MB America is a private wealth management company, and I worked as their marketing and sales intern. This experience helped me realize the passion I had for marketing and sales, and after just three months I knew that was what I wanted to do in life.”
The experience of working as a marketing intern during her gap year is what inspired her change from a nursing major to business: “An aspect I love about the business major is the variety of jobs you can get and the endless options you have,” Mainardi said. Her internship ended in June of 2019, but her passion for travel remained: “I flew to San Francisco and then took a road trip where my cousin and I drove all along the coast of California from the north to the south. After that, I flew back to Italy for about two weeks. I then decided to go backpacking solo in Asia for six weeks and visited China, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.” Naturally, my next question was about the safety of traveling alone in a foreign country. “There was not a single moment where I felt unsafe in SouthEast Asia [SEA]. SEA is one of the safest places for solo-traveler women and I would highly recommend it,” Mainardi shared. “Solo traveling provides you with the ultimate freedom that you can’t have if you’re traveling with someone. You can create your schedule and follow it without making compromises with other people. You’re your boss during the trip, and you can do whatever you want.” “One of the biggest challenges when traveling solo is most definitely the level of safety. I never felt unsafe during my solo travels; however, before going somewhere I would always do research, and I would never put myself into unsafe situations. Some places aren’t the safest in the world by default, so when you’re traveling alone, you should know how to take extra care of yourself. Your luggage, belongings and even pockets are an easy target, and you can’t leave them unattended for a minute. If anything happens to your belongings or yourself you will additionally struggle to ask for help. Although you will be facing many challenges and obstacles along the way, these events will strengthen you as a person as you’ll constantly be outside your comfort zone. Eventually, you will also learn how materialistic possessions are not as valuable as advertising makes us believe. Solo traveling is definitely a learning experience that everyone should experience at least once in their lives.” Mainardi listed several other
considerations for when traveling solo: “another interesting benefit is meeting new and interesting people. It’s a real challenge to force yourself to meet new people each day, but that’s the life of a solo traveler. You need to have more interactions with people not to feel lonely or bored. I am a very extroverted and a people person so I had no problem meeting new people, and I was rarely on my own. Traveling solo improves your confidence and talking or networking skills. Additionally, you will become more comfortable with yourself. As you start to explore new locations, you genuinely want to see and make connections with people. You will learn more about yourself too. You will have enough time to spend with yourself and observe things around you. That way, you will definitely learn more about people, places and cultures which will give you other perspectives on life. One of the most challenging things is to plan and organize everything by yourself, but believe me, it also can be a huge benefit. Having expertise in planning and being organized not only is a great and necessary skill for travelers but for regular lifestyle too. Traveling solo means you’re entirely on your own, so you need to think of yourself regarding everything.” I also asked Mainardi about how she planned her trips and what types of things she liked to do or look for in each new location. “I think it was a mixture of historic and cultural attractions and fun things to do. I went snorkeling with turtles, ziplining, swam with elephants and drove 500 kilometers in four days on a scooter in Vietnam. But, I also visited many historic places such as the Great Wall of China and the Grand Palace in Bangkok and temples,” she told me. “For every country I visited I would have a very detailed itinerary with all the things I wanted to do in those specific locations. I spent countless hours doing research on the things to do for each and every single place. However, I always kept an open mind on things that other people I met suggested to do. For example, before leaving for southeast Asia I was not planning on doing the Ha Giang Loop (500 kilometers in four days driving a motorcycle on some of the most dangerous roads in the world), but then I met several travelers both in Thailand and Vietnam that told me that the Ha Giang Loop changed them forever and was the best experience they ever had!
So in that case I decided to give up other things planned and do the Ha Giang Loop, and I have to say that it was one of the best experiences of my life. It allowed me to discover the untouched parts of northern Vietnam that tourists usually do not visit. Listening to other travelers’ suggestions is probably one of the best things you can do because you can get better insight than on the internet. I think that for the most part it is important to have a detailed itinerary, but it is also important to be open minded and leave some space for other things you didn’t even know were an option.” Mainardi also told me that “traveling solo was the best decision I have ever made in my entire life, it helped me learn more about myself, discover my weaknesses and my strengths, and improve my self-confidence. During my gap year, I learned so much more than what is on the syllabus of a class, giving me invaluable opportunities as well as insight and global perspectives that just cannot be taught in a classroom setting.” At the end of her gap year, Mainardi returned to Hope. “After all that traveling I was ready to get back to having a routine and studying,” Mainardi said about her transition back to Hope. “Since the start of my gap year I knew I wanted to come back to college after those 16 months. My parents and I decided that it was going to be no longer than that because we did not want me to lose focus on my college degree and future goals. I always knew I was going to come back in the fall of 2019, so I think I was ready for it since the start of my gap year.”
Mainardi’s family was very supportive of her taking a gap year mid-college. “My parents saw how much I struggled trying to make a decision for my major and they were the ones that suggested for me to take a gap year,” she said. “My parents believe that we are still young, and it is normal not to know what you want to do in life and sometimes all you need is to take a step back and have some life experiences that will help you understand yourself and grow as an individual.” Mainardi’s parents also helped her finance her travels, but she also shared how she was able to afford all the different trips she went on. “My parents supported me throughout my gap year and I am so grateful for them,” Mainardi told me. “In Australia, I would make almost 500 AUD every week from au pairing and had no living expenses so everything I made from that I saved up for travelling. With that money, I funded my trips around Australia, Indonesia and part of my trips to Europe, and the rest of it was paid by my parents. Traveling on a low budget is more than realistic nowadays, especially in Southeast Asia. I was traveling on my own and staying in hostels which were between five to 15 dollars a night and some of them even included breakfast! Also getting around southeast Asia is also extremely cheap. Flights are about 40 to 50 dollars on average and overnight buses in Vietnam are also a cheap alternative. You can have a meal in southeast Asia for as low as one and a half to two dollars, making it really affordable for backpackers on a low budget.” “I met some of my dearest friends during my travels,” Mainardi told me after I asked her about how she stays in contact with the many people she has met during her trips. “I think getting to know new people is one of the best aspects about traveling, I know I found lifelong friendships because of it, and I am so grateful for HA GIANG LOOP & THAILAND – Mainardi changed her plans to include this dangerous road trip through Vietnam (pictured left). The right picture features her in Thailand swimming with elephants. it.
I started travelling internationally on my own since I was 16 years old, so I am used to having long distance relationships with family and friends. Nowadays, there are so many ways to communicate making it easy to keep in touch, so I think maintaining a friendship is quite easy even with long distance. It’s all about how much you want that person to be part of your life!” Mianardi told me that “taking a gap year was the best decision of my life and I would suggest it to anyone considering it.” She believes that gap years, especially to travel and experience different cultures, can give countless critical experiences that will apply to jobs later in life. “Nowadays our world is more globalized than it has ever been, and it is becoming more important for modern businesses to hire a well-rounded individual with experiences abroad. Taking a gap year and having the opportunity of exploring the world not only will help in the future career, but it will also allow them to grow as an individual because I think it is one of the most beneficial experiences.”