Gap Year Series, Part 1: Why?
In my last post I talked about Study Abroad and how crucial it is for students to gain international experience in the world we live in today. In this and the following posts in this series, I will talk about another kind of international experience for students—Gap Years. This post will focus on Gap Years in general and why they’re beneficial to American students. The next posts will focus on what universities are doing to encourage more students to take advantage of these opportunities and a specific example of an organization devoted to this cause.
I always found the idea of a gap year fascinating, probably because I have always loved to travel. When I heard of my cousins in England taking a year off before University, I was intrigued and also a bit jealous that they got to go off on worldly adventures for a year while I was applying for four (or more) years of sitting in classrooms directly out of high school. Gap years are not common in the US like they are in many countries abroad, although I wish they were. They are typically seen as something only the very rich can afford or an alternative option for an off-track student who is not ready to attend college yet. It’s pretty standard in the US to fast track kids straight to college and not let them take a breath until after that’s taken care of. In doing so, students shut themselves off from the world and only focus on their studies in order to get into a good college.
Gap years allow students to see the world outside of the classroom where they will have to live after they graduate from college. Not only do students “return to school more focused, self-reliant, aware and confident, but they also become part of the global movement to improve the world through their volunteering throughout the gap year.” After college, students rush to get jobs so travelling and learning about the world is not seen as important. Taking advantage of these programs between high school and college is really the best idea for most students. It would benefit them personally and also the greater population, by producing more worldly educated young adults.
Many see the year abroad as a release from the pressures of getting into a good college. Some high schools now hold gap year fairs to inform students about this option, and the number of companies that place students in gap year programs is increasing as well. Some of the growing interest in gap years might be because of the rising cost of higher education. Parents are less willing to pay for their kids to go to school and not know their purpose in life. Around 50% of students who begin four-year colleges don’t graduate within five years, and only 54% will graduate in six years. It’s important for kids and parents alike to make sure that where they go to school is the right place for them and they want to learn.
Since the pressure to get into college is so great, some students need to take a breath when they finally do get accepted. One recent graduate put it well when he said he needed time to “create a person rather than a college student” where he would get to recover from schoolwork and find himself. This also reflects the changing attitude about going away to college as a rite of passage. Some see college as merely a continuation of their very difficult high school experience. The gap between high school and college has shrunk in comparison with previous generations.
I’m of the strong opinion that gap years would be extremely beneficial to both students personally as a way for them to grow and learn about themselves and the world, as well as for American society as whole. These students will come back from their year abroad with a better understanding of the world around them and how they can be a productive part of it. As with Study Abroad, this kind of international experience is vital in today’s globalized world and if it were to become more commonplace in the US I think it could only have positive consequences.
Stay tuned for my next post about what colleges and universities are doing in order to encourage their students to take advantage of gap year opportunities and reverse the negative stigma associated with them!