Often I am asked by students who are heading to top universities, “Are there any options for an experience prior to attending college, that is not necessarily academic?” The answer is a resounding, “yes.” The gap year or semester interim alternative is being utilized more than ever before by students and welcomed by colleges.
A gap year can be the time for soul searching; a time for adventure into areas students have not had the opportunity to explore, if for example their summers have been crowed by academic pursuits or sports camps in the past. The concept began in the U.K. and has become remarkably popular in the States. For many youngsters who have never left home, it is a time to thrust themselves into activities that may not require academic work; programs can be academic, or philanthropic however. Gappers can travel with college age peers to places such as Europe, the Middle East, Asia or Canada, where they can polish their language skills or even try-out a new language by living in abroad. For the students whose future may lie in the fashion industry or the culinary arts, there are local and international gap year programs as well. It only takes opening the door to adventure and curiosity; asking questions that just can’t be answered by simply reading a text book.
Over time the gap year has become more influential in its impact on students’ college majors. Rather than selecting a major in which gappers have little experience, the respite before college affords students the occasion to explore their passions in more depth, or to discover a new passion they overlooked while buried in a text book. Going abroad or enrolling in a program in the States, young adults step out of their comfort zone and push through many of their doubts about future life designs.
Parents ask, “What can you guarantee will be the benefit of a gap year?” The response is each student is different, but yours will, without doubt, have a life altering experience. To me, it is the lack of certainty that is so appealing about the gap year. A family has to permit their child to be open minded, tolerant and flexible to receive the full benefit of this time out from academics. I want to emphasize however, that I also have students who enroll in academic programs to study in-depth interests they are intensely passionate about investigating: economics; history; writing, fashion, volunteering or sailing the seas.
Perhaps my passion for the program extends from my personal experience with the gap year. My son was a gapper prior to attending the University of Pennsylvania. He worked several summers before leaving to have extra spending money and then departed to explore the unknown and uncharted waters of the world, without any specific plans. For my son, who had attended a boarding school, he had already experienced the independence of being away from his family and had the self-confidence to travel without being a part of a group. His travels took him throughout Europe and the Middle East. At times lonely, at times questioning if he had made the correct decision, he returned home with astounding personal narratives; stories he would never have had if he had enrolled directly into yet another more highly competitive arena. He learned the importance of silence when he was alone, the ability to meet up with other traveling gappers, to share time with total strangers and read books avidly. He pushed through those moments when he was most frustrated with the hostel he slept in or tried to find a safe place for his backpack on the days he remained in a city for an extended period of time. When he was in Israel for example, he lived and worked on a Kibbutz (which is a story in itself!) But I'll save that for another article.
Perhaps most important, universities do not look upon the gap year as a negative, but as a sign of a mature, well-rounded individual. There are no negatives; only regeneration for the longing to learn more about the world and oneself. Thus, when working with a student who is inquisitive and ready to meet life head-on, I offer the families that I work with the electrifying option of a gap year.
Paula G. Feldman M.S., CEP
4618 Dorchester Road
Corona del Mar CA 92625