The Center for INTERIM Programs

The Possibilities of the Gap Year

By Holly Bull
The Chronicle of Higher Education - July 7, 2006

In the 18 years I have been counseling students through their gap-year experiences, the most common refrain I hear from parents is "I wish I could have done this!"

It is a telling response to the intriguing array of options now available to students who choose to wait a year before starting college, or who want to take a year off during their studies. It also underscores something students themselves often do not realize: As one grows older and accrues obligations, it becomes increasingly difficult to take an interim period of time to explore different areas of interest or fully immerse oneself in another culture. In fact, the reality of America's manic work ethic barely allows an individual to take a consecutive two-week vacation. The gap year is, therefore, a jewel of a period of time for students to creatively step away from the lock-step path of high school to college to graduate school or job.

When my late father, Cornelius Bull, founded the Center for Interim Programs in 1980, the gap-year option was virtually unknown in the United States. Twenty-six years later, I would not describe it as mainstream, but there is certainly far greater general awareness and appreciation of the value of a well-crafted gap year. I see this in the increased number of articles written each year about the phenomenon, and in the rise in inquiries from students and parents, as well as in the growth in gap-year programs. No formal research has yet been conducted on the gap-year trend in the United States, so we must rely at this point on accumulating anecdotal evidence.

The gap year started gaining popularity in Britain in the early 1980s. A 2004 study commissioned by the British government found that the numbers of young people taking gap years there had been rising each year. The study also dispelled common myths about the gap year being a privilege of affluent young people. Those findings correlate with what I have been witnessing, in microcosm, through the experiences of the more than 3,000 students who have worked with my center.

On this side of the Atlantic, top-tier colleges are publicly endorsing the gap-year option. I have enthusiastically quoted Fred Hargadon, former dean of admissions at Princeton University, who said that the ideal age of an incoming freshman class would be over 21. He believed that they would then have the wisdom and experience to take full advantage of Princeton's offerings. And almost every gap-year article these days references the "Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation" essay written by William Fitzsimmons, Marlyn McGrath Lewis, and Charles Ducey at Harvard University. They state, "Perhaps the best way of all to get the full benefit of a 'time-off' is to postpone entrance to college for a year." Colleges are recognizing the obvious benefits of a freshman student who is more mature and focused, and less likely to drink to excess or flounder about changing majors.

Despite greatly increased pressure to race their seniors into good colleges, many boomer-generation parents seem more open to the gap-year option than their predecessors were. They understand the value of having a broad range of skills and the ability to reinvent oneself. Also, as college costs continue to soar, some parents are pausing, with good reason, before writing a hefty tuition check. They may recognize that their student is heading to college merely because it is the expected next step and not because he or she has a clear academic focus or passion for learning. Or perhaps their student has learning differences and is burned out on the formal academic process.

Worse yet, some parents may be witnessing a student eager to head to college primarily for the social life. College is an expensive venture, particularly when many students take more than four years to complete their degrees.

The National Research Center for College and University Admissions estimates that over 50% of students switch majors at least once. These statistics underscore the fact that most students have not been able to sufficiently clarify their interests before matriculating in college. It can make real economic sense for students to explore their interests through a gap year of varied experiences.

Although burned-out or unfocused students fit the profile of some gap-year candidates, a common misconception is that the gap year is only for those who "need" to take a break. There are plenty of high-powered students who choose a gap year because they are drawn to the extraordinary range of options, or because they prefer to head to college with a clearer idea of a major.

Weeding out what is not of interest is as helpful as discovering what is. During my own gap year, I spent four months in Hawaii doing aquaculture research with visions of becoming a marine biologist. Within three weeks, I realized I had no patience for field research. This is not the kind of knowledge one can easily glean from a classroom setting.
Several of my recent students have volunteered in medical clinics in Costa Rica, where students have more contact with patients than in American hospitals. Their hands-on experience has helped them determine whether medical school might be in the offing. Some students with an interest in environmental conservation have chosen to work in national parks in the United States, while others have followed up on the idea of being a teacher by heading to Ghana or Thailand to teach at local village schools. Still others have sought internships in business, radio, politics, or photojournalism in places like England or New Zealand.

On a personal level, these students have a better idea of who they are and what they can handle away from the familiarity of friends, family, and culture. They may have determined what kind of work they want to do in the world, or at least have a sense of work environments that may or may not suit them. On a practical level, they are building a resume before they hit college.

Another misconception, to my mind, is the view that the gap year is "time off" -- the implication being that it is something apart from, and less important than, one's formal education. There are parents who worry that it may just be an extended vacation. The reality is that well-planned gap-year experiences can be more challenging and engaging on any number of levels than a freshman year in college. A simple example is immersion in a language that students may have studied for years in school. Anchoring the language in the culture, and speaking it, brings it alive in a way rarely possible in a U.S. classroom, and students bring their newfound passion back into the college classroom.

From student feedback I have received over the years, the gap year is often described as a pivotal experience, with students coming back "on" during their "time off." For most, it is a first chance to hold the reins of their lives for an extended period of time and choose what they want to do. Wielding this ability to choose, and taking responsibility for the results, is an empowering learning experience, to say the least. I would invite people to reframe the gap year as an integral part of a student's education rather than as a break from it.

Who generally takes a gap year? I work with an even mix of public- and private-school students whose academic abilities range over the full spectrum. Most gap-year students probably come from middle- or upper-class backgrounds; however, I have quite a few students who pay a good portion of their own way, which belies the perception that one has to be wealthy to afford a gap year.

Emma is just such a student. She graduated last year from public high school and requested a college deferment. Her main interests were service work, building, teaching, and getting to Africa. She began by working in the summer to save money, and then headed to Alaska in September to build a house, receiving lodging and food in exchange for her labor. Her mother wrote, "Emma is having a blast: sanding floors, building container gardens, taking a flight around McKinley and over glaciers, drinking root beer at a climbers' bar in town, and seeing moose!" In October, Emma flew to California for two months to volunteer in a national park, paying only for food and miscellaneous expenses. She said in an email message: "Right now we are re-routing a trail around a GIANT spruce…It is hard work but I am really enjoying it. It just feels great to be outside, breathing the Pacific air."

When she returned home for the holidays, Emma worked again to save more money for her trip to Africa. She did three main projects in South Africa and Namibia: volunteering at a baby-baboon sanctuary, assisting with elephant conservation, and teaching swimming to mentally and physically disabled students at one school and health classes at another.
Emma's email messages from Africa have been amusing and thoughtful. At the baby baboon sanctuary, there were "19 bundles of energy and poo…They pull your hair and pee on your head, but they suck your finger and kiss your ear and sleep nestled into your arms…I am so joyous here…I feel at home and alive…"

While working with a group called Elephant-Human Relations Aid and feeling angry with a farmer for saying he would kill an elephant that came onto his property, Emma wrote that "I thought I had gotten good at seeing issues from both sides, that I was growing up and becoming more aware of the complexities of life, but the way I reacted showed me that I still have miles to go…" Her last e-mail message before returning home this May included a quote from the revolutionary hero Che Guevara: "I am not me anymore, at least not the same me I was…"

I suspect that most parents value any process that fosters independence and happy self-confidence. If the process can guide their young adult toward a meaningful and fulfilling career, there is even greater incentive to take part. A well-constructed gap year can offer all of this -- and the invaluable benefit of a life enriched by varied experience and the inspiration to continue to create such a life.

Holly Bull is President of the Center for Interim Programs, which has offices in Princeton, N.J., and Cambridge, Mass. She did her own gap year before college in 1980, and another one after her sophomore year at the University of Virginia.

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