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Gap Year Programs | Volunteer Travel

Take a year off and explore, recharge or volunteer!

Gap Year Programs | Volunteer Travel


Gap Year Programs

Have you ever considered taking a year off from college?


Well, to combat your personal fears (and your parents’ fears, too!), we’ve explored what is known as a “gap year,” and made a list of gap year ideas that will keep you learning and growing outside of the classroom.


Paul Mahon, founder and director of the Gap Year website, says a gap year is “a period of time (anywhere from several weeks to a year or more) whereby a young person, typically age 18-27, takes a break from traditional classroom education to explore his/her personal interests, passions, or career aspirations by engaging in volunteer work, international travel, internships, educational and cultural exchange.”


Through his work with, he has seen first-hand how gap year programs have changed students’ perceptions of the world and their studies. “The truth is that everyone’s path is different. Do as much exploring as possible when you are young before committing yourself to a degree program or career,” Mahon advises.

Volunteer Travel


Volunteering abroad - Gap year program ideas

We asked Debbie Mayer, marketing coordinator of Costa Rica Outward Bound, to tell us about why volunteering makes for a great gap year idea.


Q: What is the Outward Bound program?

“Outward Bound is an international experiential education organization. Our semester courses offer academic credit while you explore Costa Rica and take part in adventure activities.”


Q: How does the Outward Bound gap year program benefit students?

“Costa Rica Outward Bound lets students experience a completely new lifestyle where they realize their own strength and capabilities. Students learn leadership and communication skills in addition to...Spanish and natural history education.”


Q: Any challenges?

“Going outside your comfort zone.”


Q: How much does the Costa Rica gap year program cost?

“Our programs cost from $1,500-$9,500, which includes all expenses. The only cost not included is airfare to and from San Jose, Costa Rica.”


Q: How long do students spend in Costa Rica?

“Our programs last between 10-85 days. We have shorter programs during the summer and longer, semester courses throughout the year.”


Q: What kinds of activities do students participate in?

“All sorts of adventure sports, such as white water rafting, backpacking, surfing, scuba diving and more. In addition, there is a strong cultural component where students learn Spanish as well as how to harvest and prepare local foods.”


Q: Any other advice for students interested in a volunteer abroad program?

“Prepare—both mentally and physically. You will not only be backpacking and stretching yourself physically but will also be learning to work with your fellow course members and survive without a cell phone and iPod.”


Independent travel

Most teens consider backpacking through Europe, but write it off as a silly daydream or put it on their lifelong “to-do” list. But Ian Pfeiffer, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Vermont, took himself seriously and actually did it while he was supposed to be in college! Think his gap year idea is crazy? We certainly don’t! Check out what he has to say about his experience and how it has made a huge difference in his education.


Q: How has traveling abroad benefited you academically?

“The two most important parts of the experience were the exposure to new subjects I had never had a chance to study in school and having the time to study each new thing as it came to me. I have never read so many widely varied books that satisfied my curiosity as when I could drive my own education and didn’t have a strict curriculum to follow!”


Q: What other benefits come from volunteer travel outside the U.S.?

“I’d say three things: exposure, instant friends and growing opportunities. First, I was constantly in contact with a new and sometimes strange culture, especially since I kept changing countries. Next: instant friends. When you travel in a country where you don’t speak the language it can be tough to find things to do, people to hang out with and ways to keep yourself occupied. Fortunately, the majority of other English-speaking travelers around you are in the same boat. Finally: growing opportunities. I had to learn (sometimes in expensive ways) how to travel, find a place to sleep, make friends in strange places, meet people without a cell phone, get food and leave behind almost all my shyness, because if I had kept my mouth shut on the trip I wouldn’t have gotten anything so amazing as I did when I opened it.”


Q: What was the most challenging part?

“I guess the hardest part for me was figuring out travel. How to get from one place or city to another, how to read metro maps, how to get to the train station on time (and make sure you’re going to the right station), how to find my way from the station to the hostel where I could get my bearings. I’m sure a more organized person would have been fine, but the amount of trains I missed and the hours wasted being lost in a new city until I learned how it all worked, that was always the most stressful part of the trip.”


Q: Did you need to know other languages to travel?

“Almost all the people I met spoke English or we could normally sign things or write things or draw pictures until it all worked out. I can tell you that if you do make the effort to learn a language before going to the country it makes the experience so much better! You can talk to real people in a way that makes them more comfortable, and it gave me a deeper understanding of the culture with the native tongue. Plus, I had a ton of fun challenging myself to understand what they were saying!”


Q: Where did you stay when abroad?

“I’d say I spent a third of the time staying with friends I made on the trip, a third of the time staying in hostels and a third of the time with CouchSurfers. There’s a website: You get a profile, then you look where you’re going to travel and find people there who will let you stay on their couch and tell you about the city and give you a feeling of the city that just walking around could never do.”


Q: How expensive was it to travel?

“I was traveling in Western and a little of Eastern Europe. I would say that you can expect on average 55-65 dollars a day the way I was doing it, though I knew people who kept things a little tighter. CouchSurfing and friends helped keep me (avoid) the cost of a hostel a lot. I had a Eurail pass, which makes it pretty cheap and easy to ride trains for the period you want- but with a set plan, it may be easier just to arrange for cheap journeys in advance.”


Q: Would you recommend volunteer  travel to a student interested in a “gap year program”?

“I would absolutely recommend traveling to anyone interested in a year off. It was a constant education on real life both saving up the money to travel and traveling itself. I think of the trip as the best decision I ever made.”


Sarah Girouard is working toward a masters in inclusive adolescent education at Nazareth College ( in Rochester, N.Y. She specializes in English and aspires to teach at the high school or college level.




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