A few years ago I thought that there are two kinds of people in this world. Confident people and shy people. Although some people would never believe me, I counted myself to the shy people. For me it was a miracle how others could have so much more confidence than me and I wondered if I would ever change my situation. Now I realized that confidence isn't something you are born with, you can gain it throughout your lifetime. I guess confidence is build by the experiences we make and I built most of my confidence by travelling.
My very first alone travel experience was when my mom gave me a train ticket to Bremen and said: "I'm sure you will find your way alone" Of course I was afraid that I would get lost, but the way turned out to be very easy to find. From that day on I had my first positive travel experience and became a very independent child. I'm glad that this happened to me and that my parents gave me a kind of freedom my friends didn't have.
The following years I expanded the distance from my parents when I travelled alone. By the age of sixteen I had my first alone flight to Italy and when I turned eighteen I bought a ticket to China. The experiences I made were both, frustrating and absolutely great. I wouldn't be the same person without travel experiences and and I'm thankful that it made as confident as I am now, because if I'm honest: Being shy really sucks!
Self-development during gap years
So many people I know did a gap year. I didn't and I'm often asked why. The question shouldn't be why I didn't spent a year in another country, wasting a whole school year for a lot of money I've never had. The real question should be why you need to do a gap year! I don't want to offend anyone and I am pretty sure that gap years are a great chance to improve language skills and to get to know a foreign country and culture.
I don't understand those people who want to grow and envolve, but choose a country that is very similar to their home country. Sure, you can get great experiences in the US, in Australia or Spain, but tell me where the real challenge is? For self development I would always recommend a country with a completely different culture, language and landscape. A friend of mine went to Botswana for a year and came back as a completely different woman, I'm jealous of her experiences and proud that she did such a great progress.
I would also recommend to do an exchange semester of your study course, when you can afford it. You should always consider if spending so much time in another country is worth the price. Sometimes going on vacation for two or three weeks can teach you more than half a year studying abroad.
When I turned eighteen I got some money for my birthday and bought a ticket to China. I first bought a ticket and then told it my parents, so they had no chance to hold me back. I had some contacts in China due to the Adopt-a-student program, so I wasn't really alone over there.
The country really challenged me, because I found out quickly that not all Chinese people understand and speak English, even when they look like in my age. In addition to this they also have a very strong accent, which can be hard to understand. I remember that I wanted to meet friends at a subway station, but I didn't really know how to get there and got lost on my way. My cellphone wasn't working in China and I forgot to take some water with me. I asked several people if they could help me and only one of them was able to understand me. I was kind of frustrated in the end of the day, but when I found my friends I was super happy.
I made a lot of experiences like this when I was in China and although I wasn't really alone over there I often felt helpless. Sometimes it just needs time to get to know how things work in a different country and that your plans will mostly not work out as you want it. That was one of the most important things I learned there.
Travelling alone makes you really independent. You will make decisions for your own, not for anyone else, which can make your travel easier. The time you invest in thinking what you really want is as important as reaching all goals. Everytime you achieve something and may it be by indirect means, you will feel great!
Jump into the cold water
Of course it is easier to travel to countries you've been before and where you speak the language. To repeat what I wrote before: Take a challenge! It doesn't mean that I recommend to travel in areas that are dangerous, because of wars, diseases or the culture. Jump into the cold water and explore something you've never seen before. Try activities you've never thought of. Like hiking, windsurfing or swimming with elephants. Don't try to translate the menue, just point on a dish and find out what it is.
Losing my way, tasting food I normally don't eat, nearly jumping into the wrong plane, walking through the streets of Beijing alone - all those things weren't fun at first. Then I realized that those moments made me stronger than ever before. There is nothing that could ever stop me and knowing this makes me extremely confident.