What About A Gap?

By Grace Stratford

At least 13 years of education, followed by another four in college, and likely followed by more, based on the fact that, “the bachelor’s degree is becoming the new high school diploma. Rather than a ticket to a high-paying, managerial job, the four-year degree is now the minimum ticket to get in the door to any job,” as stated in an article about college degrees by Jeffrey Selingo in The Washington Post. That makes 17 consecutive years in the education system, with only three months (or less) of summer break dividing each year.

There is an alternative option to your education, but it is rarely mentioned or encouraged by mainstream education systems. Taking a gap year is an opportunity to finish high school and take a year to do a variety of things, such as following passions, experiencing real-life situations, earning money and experience through employment, re-discovering a love of learning, and many different forms of personal growth.

Joseph O’Shea’s book on the benefits of a gap year. Image courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Over the past decade, gap years have become a more popular, with many people showing interest. Specifically, from 2010 through 2014, gap year experiences increased by a whopping 294%, based on a study from the American Gap Association. Their website states that “taking a structured Gap Year invariably serves to develop the individual into a more focused student with a better sense of purpose and engagement in the world.” These gap years can often lead to a newfound sense of what an individual wants to focus on regarding a major or a career choice.

There exist many programs that offer diverse opportunities for a gap year. Many are religiously based, such as Walkabout Gap Year, Leadership Excellence and Discipleship School (LEADS), and more. Other gap year programs are designed for language immersion, travel, work experience, responsible citizenship; almost anything an individual could want to focus on.

Although these programs do exist, many students who take gap years do not use these planned-out trips. Katie Berdichevsky (‘14) took a gap year after graduating from Collegiate, and she said, “many people, especially at schools like Collegiate, may think that a gap year has to be super planned out, and include some epic adventure like backpacking around southeast Asia or working as an au pair in Spain, etc.” Yet this was not how her experience turned out. She travelled around with her family, drove across the country, participated in a ten-week program called Unschool Adventures, interned at a technology company, engaged in a month-long engineering program, and drove to visit friends in Colorado that she had met earlier in her gap year. Berdichevsky emphasized that that although her parents significantly helped her financially, there are many opportunities through programs and colleges to receive a large portion of financial aid to help fund these years.

Image courtesy of Unschool Adventures.

Another option for a gap year is to work locally in order to gain and save money to pay for school or work later on in the year, or relocating to a different city to gain real-life work experience. Many students take a year off and work locally or focus on projects that they may not have time for otherwise. Every gap year is different, based on the individual’s needs and interests.

As a senior in high school, it is difficult for me to think of graduating and proceeding to take a year off simply because of the environment that I have been brought up in. As Collegiate students, we are offered and extended so many opportunities, especially the aid we receive from our College Counseling office. These counselors work tirelessly in order to find the right college fit for all the students they work with. Because of the immense pressure surrounding college admissions, it is rare to be offered the idea of taking a year off from school, simply because we are raised to believe that naturally that is what follows high school. Brian Leipheimer, Director of College Counseling, says, “we proactively seek to provide a wealth of gap year information to all Collegiate families through our resources, we’re definitely encouraging of the gap year option for any and all students who are interested, and we’re excited to engage those students individually in pursuing it.” Many students feel exhausted after senior year and may just need a year to rekindle their love of learning or desire to succeed at a higher level education system.

Many colleges have begun understanding that this is becoming a common attitude for their incoming freshman, and many universities have become much more open about the idea of enrolled freshmen taking a productive year off. Harvard University is one of the most widely known schools that is an advocate for self-discovery through these years. Their website states, “Harvard College encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way—provided they do not enroll in a degree-granting program at another college.” Over time, these numbers have risen, and now Harvard reports an average of about 80 to 100 students are postponing the start of their college career to take a year off.

Malia Obama joined this group of students as she enrolled at Harvard, and her decision to take a gap year spurred conversation nationwide. Obama may be taking a year to rekindle her love of learning and recall what it was like before her father became president, but, nonetheless, she is a public figure starting a conversation about gap years and her personal decision. She travelled internationally for 12 months with a company called Where There Be Dragons, an organization with a mission statement that reads, “Dragons is a pioneer in the field of cross-cultural experiential education, intercultural communication and team-building, and the development of global studies curriculum.” Since Obama is such a widely known figure, she has made an enormous impact on the debate about gap years.

Image courtesy of Where There Be Dragons.

Gap years can not only refer to a break between high school and college, but a break during the college years as well. Kyle DeNuccio, writer for Wired, Pacific Standard, The California Sunday Magazine, and San Francisco magazine, wrote for The New York Times in “Independance Days: My Perfect Imperfect Gap Year,about his gap year, which happened in between his freshman and sophomore years at University of San Diego. He felt burnt out and lost any will to succeed in school. He said, “A gap year presented itself as a chance to claim the independence that formalized education had not encouraged. It was an opportunity to discover a sense of purpose outside of school, to prompt some thinking on those questions before graduating. Without classes and the path to a degree as a crutch that gave structure to my days, I’d be forced to create a structure of my own.”

Many students are anxious about the entire college process, not only because of the fear of rejection, but also the thought of leaving home and a newfound independence. Many parents are nervous about gap years because they feel as if their child may be taking a year off to do nothing. There is advice out there for students about how to explain to their parents that they may be interested in taking a year off. Another worry from parents is a loss of control or influence in their child’s life, but this is how children grow to be adults and make decisions for themselves. The American Gap Association states, “Thus, in conversation with a student, parents must understand that to get the most benefit of a Gap Year – much as in life – the student has to take ownership in their decision to take one: it can’t be a mandate by the parent.”

Some people who are considering a gap year are under the impression that it must be a year of education, yet for many it is a time to escape from the expectations of society and school. This can create an ability to detox and destress and allow yourself to find peace and happiness that may have been previously missing. DeNuccio said, “A gap year was about removing those expectations, at least temporarily. It was a time when education ceased to be an act of dependence, an act of fulfilling my parents’ wishes.” Finding this time of temporary pleasure and peace through unloading some stress is beneficial to not only the mind but the body as well.

A 2014 study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons showed that 37 out of the 42 gap year participants in the study said they gained confidence, patience, gratefulness, open-mindedness, and maturity. The study concluded that, “These qualities can help students weather the storms of higher education and make it less likely that they will encounter mental health issues.” Non-cognitive qualities can heavily impact an individual’s college experience.

Collegiate alumna Katie Berdichevsky also found that slowing down and doing an activity she wanted to do benefitted her overall experience. She said, “The gap year helped me realize that I didn’t need to be perfect and life was more than just grades, which sounds silly.” Often our educational system stresses the grades instead of the learning. The Glossary of Education Reform explains the grading system that is implemented nationwide, yet also states, “While the use of grade point averages has been common in public schools for decades, critics of the practice may argue that averaging grades over a semester, year, or school tenure can misrepresent student learning, particularly learning growth over time, and that it can adversely affect a student’s academic performance, educational confidence, and sense of self-worth.”

There are many critics of the current education system, and there is no perfect solution to the problems in American schools. Some students feel that grades are preventing the actual learning, and that a focus on rote memorization actually impedes real education. There isn’t much that can be done to change the current education system overnight, although a conversation has started surrounding the ideas of grades and how effective they actually are. For the time being, students are becoming more creative in finding alternative study methods, many being hands-on learning experiences.

Programs such as week or month-long summer programs have become increasingly popular for students looking for a change of scenery in their studies. Lauren Lynch (‘18) travelled to The Island School in the Bahamas this past summer. She studied environmental issues and sustainability. There are also semesters and gap year programs available through that organization. Lynch came back with a newfound love of learning and a burning passion to make a change at Collegiate and in her life. She became very involved with earth studies and environmental issues, and that has led her to focus in on what she may be interested in studying in college. This experience has also led her to heavily consider taking a gap year. Lynch says, “I feel like I would get so much more value out of a college education if I can envision what I learn or create could be applied in the real world.” Hands-on learning is so vital, and summer programs and gap years can provide that needed education. Many students say similar things upon their return from their gap years, commenting on their personal growth and exploration.

This 2015 chart, from the American Gap Association, details advantages of taking a gap year. The largest percentage of that chart represents personal growth, which, some would argue, is more important than anything else.

Image courtesy of American Gap Association.

Living in a society where pressure surrounds us, decisions are made for us, and we may be learning just for the sake of memorizing, taking a year off to refresh our minds and interest in learning can have many benefits. Young people can experience amazing opportunities that would never be presented otherwise, while possibly traveling the world or creating real-life work experience; something any student should consider.

Featured image by collegeadmissionsbible.com.

About the author

Grace Stratford is a senior at Collegiate.