Gap Year Series, Part 3: Global Citizen Year

In the first two posts of this series I discussed how gap years are beneficial to students and how universities are putting programs in place to encourage them to take advantage of these opportunities. In this post I will focus on an outside organization that is aiming to make gap years universal in the US.

Global Citizen Year (GCY) does not consider itself a gap year program. Gap years have the stigma I have already discussed, so they call themselves a Bridge Year. This way, it is framed not as falling into a gap, but as crossing a bridge that will transport students from the life stage of high school to the life stage of college. GCY prides itself on preparing kids for success in college, careers, and our global economy. They see the American education system as failing to prepare students to succeed in facing global challenges—“High school graduates are entering college underprepared, families are questioning their return on investment, and colleges are facing growing concerns about relevance and retention.”

Why join GCY? Their arguments are convincing. They say being a Fellow helps develop leadership in the form of undergoing training in the US and abroad, becoming fluent in a new language and culture, and learning alongside global experts. They also market themselves as helping students uncover their passions on their own time and terms as well as finding meaningful ways to have an impact through their work. It also allows those who participate to be at the forefront of a movement that GCY sees as reimagining education and leadership in America.

They see themselves as being a step apart from other bridge year programs in several main ways: total immersion, personalized apprenticeships, a diverse cohort, intensive training, and a lifelong network. The Fellows work in community apprenticeships alongside local people where they can learn a language, form lasting relationships, and gain firsthand insight into the issues that shape their hosts’ lives. Fellows come together with staff to participate in monthly training seminars to amplify their learning and to come together as a country cohort to process their experience.

Many people question how a bridge year can more adequately prepare students for college. GCY addresses these concerns by saying that their program is uniquely designed to bridge the high school and college experience through a combination of immersive learning and world-class training in areas directly relevant to the higher education environment. They focus on three main learning spheres: entrepreneurial leadership, global skills, and college and career readiness. Their curriculum is unique, rigorous, and involves two-week departure training, ongoing training blocks, and a one-week re-entry training to tie together the year’s learning. They actually train the Fellows before they leave on Stanford’s campus, which exposes them to the college setting. They also ensure that all Fellows develop intentional learning plans for their year abroad and for their college experience after which allows them to test their interests and define their passions.

They also have a Capstone phase to their year in which Fellows must reflect, analyze, and express their learning and growth. There is a final presentation in their country about the work they’ve done and the lessons they learned over the year as an apprentice and member of the community. Once they are back home they deliver a product of presentation that encapsulates their experience to “instill the power of global citizenship in their friends, family, and home community.” They leave the way they can do this wide open, so Fellows can choose how they want to present their experience.

This all sounds too good to be true, right? Well it is unless you can come up with the money to pay for it. According to their website, all fees for GCY are determined on a sliding scale based on the Fellow’s family’s ability to pay. Over 80% of Fellows have taken advantage of their financial aid packages, including a third whom who have had their year fully funded. Aside from tuition, each Fellow is responsible for any passport and visas, vaccinations, or early withdrawals from the program, but airfare is provided by GCY. Students submit the FAFSA for aid like they would for any college and their aid is determined based on that. Fellows are admitted without looking at their financial situation and any aid awarded is determined after acceptance. If a family was getting no aid the full tuition price would be $30,950, which is roughly around the same average price of tuition and fees for a private university in the US for the 2013-2014 school year.

Fellows are also required to raise $2,500 in the summer before they leave for the fund that supplies their financial aid as well as sign on 50 blog subscribers to follow their year. The website is very vague about how students are supposed to succeed in this summer campaign besides that staff will provide them with guidance and tools to do so. This is something students need to consider before applying for this program as it will require extra time and effort on their part. They also don’t mention anything about what happens if they don’t raise the money. Do students then have to make up the difference themselves?

Despite this, GCY seems like a good option for students who want an organized program to follow on their gap year that gives them tangible results, like a Capstone project. Currently GCY only has programs in Brazil, Ecuador, and Senegal, but they are looking to expand. Programs like this, along with the university initiatives mentioned in my last post, have the potential to change the views on gap years in the US, but there is a long way to go with reversing the negative stigma associated.

Gap Year Series, Part 2: How Universities are helping

In the first post of this series, I talked about how gap years are not commonplace in the US, but can be very beneficial for students as well as American society as a whole. In this post I will talk about what universities are doing to encourage students to take a gap year before entering college and in the next post I will look at one specific example of an organization whose goal is to make gap years universal.

As mentioned in the previous post, gap years have negative associations in the US, but some colleges are taking strides to reverse this stigma. University of North Carolina, Princeton, Tufts, and others have instituted programs to encourage students to take a gap year for travelling and volunteering around the world before they come to college. Even though the program at Princeton covers almost all costs, American students still “struggle with the idea of separating from the education fast track that parents and educators expect.” It is the norm to go straight into college from high school and it’s hard for students who have worked their whole lives to get into a good school to see a gap year as a viable option. There are many benefits of doing so, as already explained, but combating the negative view of not going straight to college will take a lot of effort on the part of universities.

Princeton’s program aims to start small and then eventually send a tenth or more of its incoming students to a year of social service work in a foreign country before they set foot on campus as freshmen. They see this program as giving students a more international perspective, adding to their maturity and giving them a break from academic pressures. The president of Princeton called it a year of “cleansing the palate of high school and giving them a year to regroup.” They plan not to charge tuition for the year abroad and offer financial assistance to those who need it. Proponents of the program say it allows students to discover themselves and the world before they enter college. Some say they enter college too young and immature and this would be a way to combat that while doing something constructive for the world.

Even college counselors, whose job it is to get high school students into good colleges, tell their clients to take a year off before they go back to school. One such counselor said she had previously only recommended gap years to students who needed to mature, but now is telling most of her students to follow this path. She says she sees students never slow down and breathe and think about the person they want to become before going to college. A psychiatrist at Duke says that freshmen who delay college for a year tend to be more altruistic and empathetic because their brain continues to develop over this time period. He says taking a gap year is beneficial as long as students have a mentor, a plan for intellectual growth, and a commitment to do public service. When they finally come to campus the next fall they will be better prepared to succeed at the college level after living free from parents and the school environment for a while. They will also have a unique perspective on themselves and the world we live in that they would not have gained had they not taken a gap year.

Students who take gap years also have more real-world experience which gives them a leg-up on applying for internships and jobs while in college as well as after. With the job market as competitive as it is, it is important to stand out and this is a perfect way to do that. “Personal growth and a sense of fulfillment and purpose” is something most students get from a gap year that they would not otherwise receive.

Many of these types of programs have aims of helping students in any financial situation still be able to take advantage of them. The program at Princeton uses need-based financial aid and nearly 100 students have participated thus far. UNC offers their students $7,500 for a gap year and Tufts’ program will cover housing, airfare, and visa fees which can add up to $30,000 or more.

These incentives seem to be working at least somewhat because in 2013, 40,000 American students took a gap year, which is a 20% increase compared to past years. But there is still a long way to go. Businesses catering to gap year programs have been booming because of this increased interest. One specifically, called Where There Be Dragons, has had its revenue doubled in the last year to almost $1 million.

Can outside organizations along with universities help students gain this international experience? Stay tuned for my last post in this series about one organization that is trying to do just that!

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!