Katy Jane Tull of Austin, Texas, dreaded an overwhelming college experience after breezing through high school. So she took a year off to pursue other interests instead.You’ll be surprised, and maybe relieved, to learn that the European tradition of taking a "gap year" is gaining ground in the United States. "Gap year changed my life in ways I don’t even know yet," says Katy Jane. "I would encourage all students to consider this. It helps you get ready to learn how to be an adult."
Now a freshman at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., Katy Jane’s academic and social adjustment has proceeded more smoothly than she expected.
For nature enthusiasts, Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., through its Audubon Expedition Institute (AEI), offers gap-year students the opportunity to spend a semester or two studying environmental science from a mobile classroom that travels through the Pacific Northwest, the Atlantic Coast and Hawaii, says Lily Fessenden, program director. A typical session involves three weeks of travel on a bus fully equipped with a kitchen, a 500-volume library and file cabinets filled with articles.
"This experience is good for students coming out of high school. Instead of putting themselves in another box, this gives them a way to see the larger community," says Fessenden.
Emma Fawcett, who graduated from high school last June, deferred her entry into New York University to intern in communications at World Hunger Year. She is getting an insider’s view of journalism and international relations as she gains experience writing press releases and performing other communication-related duties. Following this internship, she plans to travel to Guatemala to teach English to Spanish-speaking children.
"The things I learn at NYU will mean a lot more," she says. "Gap year will give me a better perspective on life."
Jordan Comins decided to delay his entry into Harvard for one year after he graduated from Loyola High School in New York City. After two months of working at a local office supply store, he saved enough money to assume a full-time internship at Social Accountability International (SAI), which focuses on creating humanitarian labor conditions abroad.
"Even though I knew I would not be writing policy, SAI allowed me to obtain concrete experience in that particular field, something which cannot be gained in any classroom," he says. After his internship, Comins traveled to Baku, Azerbaijan, where he immersed himself in the culture and learned to speak Russian.
"Upon graduating from college, those who have taken the gap year will most likely find themselves with enough real-life experience that the pressure of leaving a structured environment, such as college, will seem less of a challenge," says Comins.
Harvard is among the growing number of colleges encouraging taking a gap year. William Fitzsimmons, dean and director of admissions, explains that some students risk burnout and stress as they face the challenges of growing up. He recommends a "time out" to engage in career-related, academic or personal pursuits and to "gain perspective on personal values and goals, or to gain needed life experience in a setting separate from and independent of one’s accustomed pressures and expectations."
Even though he never experienced a gap year, Ron Lieber agrees with Fitzsimmons’ assessment. He and childhood friend Colin Hall penned Taking Time Off, which chronicles the adventures of 26 individuals who worked, studied, traveled and volunteered before heading for the hallowed halls of higher education.
Lieber, a consumer reporter for The Wall Street Journal, calls his college experience "amazing," but believes that students who take time off get better grades and eventually better jobs. Hall, a London banker, delayed his college experience to work and travel before enrolling at Amherst College.
Students who take a gap year to explore the world bring a different perspective to the classroom that can enrich the academic experience for everyone and can help you decide what you don’t want to do with your life.
James Montague, director of guidance and support services at Boston Latin School, finds that parents often frown upon the gap year concept, fearing their children will become sidetracked and sacrifice higher education. However, if you are determined, there are volunteer opportunities, internships and work options available.
Montague worked a year before entering college, giving him the chance to mature. "My gap year served me extremely well," he says. "Whenever I faced frustration in college, I thought of working in a factory, and I didn’t want to do that all my life." Although not for everyone, a gap year might enable you to better assess your career choices, gain some maturity and, ultimately, land you the perfect job.