Three years ago, while Lauren Clark's classmates were filling out college applications, the 18-year-old senior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, was making her own plans. Instead of enrolling in college right away, Lauren opted to take time off. The following year, when her peers were freshmen, Lauren flew to Ghana for three months to teach English and math to schoolchildren and help build a one-room library. After spending the winter holidays at home, Lauren left again for a three-month trip to Italy where she studied Renaissance art. The time away, she says, was invaluable.
"I know it helped me get into the college I wanted," says Lauren, now a 21-year-old sophomore at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. "I got personal letters from admission officers about the work I had done." Her experience prepared her to enter college with a confidence and self-assurance normally lacking in college freshmen. And, she says, it helped shape her future. "I'm double majoring in international relations and economics. My traveling taught me a lot. There's a lot going on outside the U.S. that I want to be involved in."
In Europe, taking a "gap year" is a common practice. Instead of heading straight to college after graduation, students take a year-long sabbatical that allows them to travel, explore special interests, volunteer, work a job, or perform community service. In the United States as well as in Canada, the idea is steadily catching on as students, before, during, and after college graduation, find they need time to recharge their batteries before entering the next phase of their lives.
"Colleges find that students who have made this choice are more mature when they arrive on campus," says Judy Hingle, director of professional development for the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Alexandria, Virginia.
As the price of college education skyrockets, more parents are supporting the idea of a gap year because they want their children to be focused when they get to campus, says Hingle. Lauren's father, John, said, "We thought it was a good idea. Lauren met people who can't afford to get beyond grade school. It enhanced her ability to appreciate college."
Students can gain the same appreciation by taking on a full-time job during their year off, says Randall Hernandez, senior assistant director of admissions for the University of Oregon. "When they work right out of high school, students realize the importance of pursuing college. Through interaction with coworkers, they learn how limited their options may be otherwise."
Some people worry that kids who take these breaks will lose interest in college, but Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs in Princeton, New Jersey, an independent company that helps students plan trips, says that's rarely the case.
When Lauren first approached her parents with the idea about spending a semester in Ghana, she says, "My dad was a little nervous about sending his only daughter. But I convinced them it would be okay. They know me and they know I enjoy school and I would return. I got more of a reaction from my friends and their parents who said, 'You're taking a year off, you're never going to return. You'll never get a degree.' I laughed at them. I said, 'I am doing this as a stepping-stone.'"
Lauren formulated her plans after meeting with Bull. As a counselor, Bull matches individuals with domestic and international programs that run the gamut from joining a study program in Nepal to interning in theatrical public relations in Manhattan. Some of the programs pay a stipend for the students' services; others provide only room and board. A few are more costly.
"It can be anything from working with the deaf in a school to following up on language fluency," Lauren says. "We have students going to Chile to work in orphanages. They go around the world from one program to another."
Although many of her clients are students in that interim year between high school and college, Bull also works with college graduates who are looking for a break before heading to graduate school or into the business world. "The job market is terrible, and they want to get some experience. It's a practical time for them to test the waters before making a big commitment to a career."
Karl Kaesemeyer, of Denver, just started law school after a year-long adventure that took him from working as a ranch hand on the Hawaiian island of Oahu to being a house tutor at a New Zealand boarding school. Now 24, Kaesemeyer graduated from Haverford College just outside Philadelphia in December 2002.
"The ranch was fantastic," he recalls. "My time was spent doing all sorts of general ranch work. I built fence, cut grass, painted, drove a Bobcat, used chainsaws, fixed piping and plumbing, chased and branded cows." But it wasn't just practical ranching skills that he came away with; he believes he gained the most from cultural experiences. "Any time you are uprooted from a comfortable life and thrown into a relatively foreign environment, you are forced to survive and adapt. This is the real benefit of immersing yourself in other cultures for an extended period of time, and it is what I took away from my time at Dillingham Ranch."
Such worldly experiences let high school students and others develop into mature young adults. "On so many levels, there is a maturity you get when you travel on your own," says Bull. "Just getting on a plane and navigating the world is maturing. These kids have primarily only been in a school setting. They're around the same age group. They can do it half asleep. Then they get into situations like these that are so different, dealing with different cultures, being sensitive to issues. The people they meet aren't like what they are used to. The year off is a great opportunity. After the experience, kids come back excited to learn."
If your child is considering a gap year, discuss these points before making this important decision together.
- Make sure your child knows why he wants to do this. Tired of the academic grind? Unsure about college? Yearning to explore far away places?
- Set some goals. Identify what it is she hopes to accomplish or learn. There are so many opportunities -- traveling abroad, learning a new language, helping others, exploring career interests, and challenging herself outdoors. What suits her?
- Establish where in the world he wants to be.
- Talk about what you can afford. Some programs cost little; others are expensive. Discuss living and traveling expenses as well as program fees.
- Formulate an emergency plan now so she'll know exactly what to do if things get difficult.
- Decide how this experience will make him a better student when he actually begins college.
Ultimately, it all boils down to having a plan. With a plan, chances are better that your child will accomplish much. Experts recommend that students pursue the college search and application process while still in high school and begin planning the year off then. Once accepted into college, he can ask that his admission be deferred for a semester or a year.
Planning a gap year? Whether you want to go with a group or customize your own adventure, here are some places to get ideas and advice:
National Association for College Admission. Counseling, 703-836-2222 or www.nacac.com, offers gap-year information for students and families.
Gapyear.com. A comprehensive Internet-based resource with advice on getting started and choosing programs around the world, chat rooms for meeting fellow travelers, monthly newsletters, and more.
The Center for Interim Programs, 609-683-4300 or www.interimprograms.com. Through one-on-one interviews, president Holly Bull helps students pinpoint their interests and finds programs that suit them. The charge is $1,900; scholarships are available.
DYNAMY, 508-755-2571 or www.dynamy.org. A nonprofit organization based in Worcester, Massachusetts, that offers Outward Bound experiences and community involvement activities.
Taking Time Off: Check out Taking Time Off: Inspiring Stories of Students who Enjoyed Successful Breaks from College and How You Can Plan Your Own by Colin Hall and Ron Lieber (Princeton Review, 2003). The book and companion Web site, www.takingtimeoff.com, offer information about going straight to college or making plans for a gap year.
All contact and service information were accurate at the time of publication. Contact each organization for the most up-to-date information.
Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, September 2004.