Take a year off

Gap year raising popularity amongst grads

A tremendous push at Owatonna Senior High School has students being flushed into colleges immediately after graduation in June. For many young adults, this is the right decision. As many seniors receive their college acceptances, they are excited to meet their roommates, sport the school’s gear, be on-their-own-but-not-really–in other words, live the classic college experience. For some however, the path is not so well paved. Higher education is certainly a goal, just not one that needs to be accomplished in such a rush. These are students who would benefit from a gap year.

The name implies that students are taking a gap in their education, when really the gap is to fill in what they haven’t learned in school”

— Gail Reardon

A gap year or “gap experience” can be defined in many ways, but the umbrella definition is any period of time (typically between a student’s senior year in high school and freshman year of college) where one explores other areas of interest. The term was coined in the United Kingdom during the 1960’s, and now is considered a rite of passage for many European students. In the United States, gap years are not nearly as popular due to stigmas surrounding them. Many parents fear that once their child leaves school, they will never return. In fact, 90 percent of gap year students enroll in a four year college within one year, according to the article ‘Delaying College to Fill in the Gaps’ from the Wall Street Journal.  Many people think that they are ‘breaks’ that the wealthy can take to party. “American culture is go, go, go, succeed, succeed, succeed – taking a break is seen as a sign of weakness,” says writer Lilit Marcus in the article ‘Why Gap Years Are More Common in Europe than the U.S.?’. “We’re a country permanently in hyperdrive.”  While no one is criticizing a strong work ethic, just because something does not directly benefit a short-term career does not discard its valuable or mean it was easy. Many students describe their gap year as one of the most challenging things they have ever done. Gail Reardon, who runs the gap year counseling firm Taking Off, agrees that the term is a bit of a misnomer. “The name implies that students are taking a gap in their education, when really the gap is to fill in what they haven’t learned in school,” she says. In fact, Harvard’s acceptance letters have even suggested that their students take a gap year to gain life experience while avoiding academic burnout. For efficiency, students will apply for college and then ask to defer acceptance for the following year. Some universities, such as Princeton, even offer scholarships for those who opt for gap years.

I went to college because that’s what was expected of me. But I was so unprepared, it was like sending kindergartener to take their driver’s test. It was a colossal disaster in every way possible–emotionally, financially, academically”

— Polly Shives

Just like there are many options of colleges for students, there are many different ways of spending one’s gap year. Some want to save up money for college and mature before jumping into the huge financial investment that a university is. OHS English teacher Polly Shives agrees with this mind set, based off of her personal experience. “I went to college because that’s what was expected of me. But I was so unprepared, it was like sending kindergartener to take their driver’s test. It was a colossal disaster in every way possible–emotionally, financially, academically.” She dropped out in order to work at a job she loved on the North Shore for three years. After realizing her calling was teaching, she returned to college with the urging of her Grandma Amy. Throughout that period, Shives said she gained perspective and maturity by becoming financially and personally independent. Others, such as senior Micah BigEagle, are using this year as an opportunity to travel. Without the financial responsibility of a mortgage, car payments, or students loans, traveling can become a priority. In May, BigEagle will leave for India as an exchange student through Rotary International. “I have always wanted to see the world and this was the perfect time.”Other common options for students taking gap years include obtaining internships or doing some form of volunteer work. There are many programs that offer such opportunities, although many of these ‘programs’ are unsafe scams. Oftentimes, if something sounds too good to be true, it is.  One of the most popular and respected programs is AmeriCorps, which is an initiative started by the government in 1994. It gives young people a chance to work with at risk youth, protect the environment, and further serve their country’s communities. Additionally, it provides student loan forgiveness and a modest stipend for workers.

While not for everybody, gap years can have considerable benefits. They propel students into maturity while forming them into global citizens. Statistically, those who return have a greater focus and passion for the field of study they persue. Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson, authors of the “Gap Year Advantage” completed an independent study of 300 gap year students from 1997 to 2006. Over 60% of students said that their time volunteering, working, or traveling had an effect on their choice of major and overall, gap year students have trended toward being more satisfied in their careers. By developing themselves as a whole human, instead of stuffing a resume full of meaningless ambition, gap year students are giving themselves breathing room to figure out their place in the world and how they can use their gifts to benefit others the most fully.