A “Break” from the Norm

Clare Meehan

When I was in Africa over the summer of 2014, I stayed at an orphanage that was open and dependent on its volunteers. With my group and three other people volunteering, there was a combined seventeen people. There was a girl from Germany named Susana who was on her way to college, and she said that some kind of gap year was actually required where she was from. Students did not have to travel, however some time away from the standard classroom was necessary. A job, service, travel, an internship, etc were all considered part of this “gap year.” Susana came to Africa without knowing what she wanted to do, however she knew that she loved working with children. By the end of her gap year, she discovered that she wanted to be a classroom teacher. She described the process as “enlightening” and “helpful in the real world.”

A gap year is most commonly known as a “break” from education and academic life. Ranging anywhere from a few weeks to a full year, the purpose of a gap year is to serve as a way for students to explore their interests or seek other/additional opportunities. A gap year takes place most frequently in between senior year and freshman year of college. Whether you take time backpacking and eating your way through Europe, taking an internship, or volunteering, gap years have continuously proven themselves to be helpful in a student’s education.

According to Rasmussen, gap years have become increasingly popular in American students, following the trends in Europe and Britain. Since 2010, the numbers have increased, from 1,420 students to nearly 4,000 in 2013 (Pfeffer). Jennifer Pfeffer, a content marketing specialist at Collegis Education on behalf of Rasmussen College, put together an infographic, showing the statistics of a gap year up until 2013. She explores the question of, “Is the gap year worth taking time away from traditional learning?” As one of the most controversial questions and concerns, this data that she gathers provides valuable insight on this question and other concerns. She states that it [gap year] “can deflect scholastic burnout, help students foster autonomy and determine what they want to do in life.” Although a gap year can be expensive, there are many organizations that are offering scholarships. In 2012, the American Gap Association awarded $2.5 million in scholarships (Pfeffer). Specialized programs can be as expensive as college tuition, however, they can be designed specially to a student’s social, professional and financial needs (Driscoll). Some schools are even offering programs that are in line with their curriculum. Tufts University and Dickinson College have both partnered with the Global Citizen Year for their Bridge Year Programs. They offer scholarships for students that apply to these programs, and encourage them (globalcitizenyear.org). Princeton and the University of North Carolina also offer scholarships and fellowships for incoming freshmen that take a gap year. Harvard University has also long encouraged this practice as well (Hoder). Every state has colleges/universities that either support and offer scholarships for gap years or accept deference in admission (http://americangap.org/fav-colleges.php). There are also low expense programs such as WWOOF-USA, City Year and AmeriCorps, which all pay for room and board. These programs allow students to gain the experience and knowledge that an expensive one would offer at a lower price, and sometimes are even more fulfilling.

In taking a gap year, one has the opportunity to gain valuable life experience. Learning about a new culture, for example, has the ability to give someone an edge in the job market, as well as support them once employed. In this economy, nations are working together more and more, and being culturally aware, empathetic, as well as experienced can give someone an advantage when getting out of college and searching for a job. Many worry that with a gap year comes a loss in sight that an education furthers earning power. As a student is imbursed in daily life without the stress and rigors of academic life, one may not want to return to education for another two or four or more years. Many of these students take a gap year in order to find clarity for what they may want to study and pursue (Knoll). As a high school student, it is very stressful and anxiety-provoking to get all your work done, your tests completed, college apps submitted and figure out what you want to do with your life. No matter how many times “You have time” is said to us, the reality is that high school has become more and more intense, and the competition of getting into the college one wants has gotten more and more extreme. A gap year is an opportunity for students to do something simply because they love doing it. It is not just so that one can ask themselves, “How would that look on my college application?” That being said, taking a break in our competitive society for the sake of simply ‘resting’, should not be an option.

The right and wrong reasons for taking a gap year are important to understand. A student can feel underprepared for the academic rigors of college, or perhaps does not know what school he/she wants to attend. Another just reason for taking a gap year is wanting to seek out experiential opportunities and/or work experience (Rubenstone). However, one should not take a gap year to just take a break, and not worry about the rigor of academics and life. With a gap year, many say that without a clear cut plan, it is a simply a waste of time and students risk falling behind their peers in today’s society. Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs, LLC. says, “When students take this kind of time, they don’t forget how to learn — they’re much better students. I’ve had parents tell me their child would probably have dropped out after first semester or year because they were so turned off by their classes in the academic experience, but a gap year helped them get excited and gave them a focus” (Driscoll). Students in 2013 and their statistics tend to agree with Bull- 66% of students said they took their academic work more seriously after their gap year. Additionally, 75% are more likely to feel “happy” or “extremely satisfied” with their careers after their university experience (Pfeffer).

Corinne Monaco, who took a gap year in 2009, says that “it was one of the best decisions of her life” (Hoder). Jules Arsenault is another student who took a gap year, and his parents, although skeptical at first, have grown to praise the process. His mother, Abbe Levin, says that, “As parents we raise our kids to think for themselves, to be creative, to follow their own path. But then suddenly, starting in their junior year, we are asking them to go along this very prescribed path that might not be right for them. Now I feel like when he does go to college, he’ll really be ready.” This statement has been backed up by numerous studies, one of them from a senior admissions officer at Harvard University. He found that those who delay a year before starting college have GPAs that, on a 4.0 scale, are 0.15 to 0.2 higher than otherwise would be expected (Hoder). Students from Thinking beyond Borders said that, “All the issues we were learning about were so loaded, and the whole experience challenged a lot of my assumptions about a lot of different things; A year off is an adventure; don’t expect it to be easy. Welcome the new challenges you encounter as you enter into the ongoing process of creating the life you want to lead. The real question of life is beyond college credit” (NACAC).

As someone who has experienced time immersed in a different culture, I think that it is a very interesting option to explore for post-high school opportunities. My program included immersion with culture, learning a language and volunteer work, all of which are good ideas for a gap year. When I came home, after being away from my phone for a month, and being surrounded by people wanting to do good, my perspective on my own society that I lived in changed. I did have a stronger work ethic, as well as a deeper understanding. With this knowledge came an appreciation and a feeling of necessity to do well and take advantage to what was given to me, such as education, shelter, money and family. With a good plan, clear goals, and hopes during a gap year, students have the potential to become even more successful in their futures, especially in today’s time period.

This generation is consumed by technology, and social media. This generation does not know empathy, and how to be culturally aware. In taking a gap year, one will develop personal as well as social maturity, academic focus, and a sense of direction.