Gap Experiences: are they worth it?
As part of Raising Resilience's series on college pathways, we connected with Thomas Weber, Director of Pacific Wayfinder (and former head of school for Hyla School on Bainbridge Island). Thomas provides educational support for youth and young adults and uses his experience to weigh in on gap years in the following article. Visit our video library to watch CONNECTIONS CAFE: Mythbusting and Destressing the College Process.
“Human beings are not on earth to be citizens, or taxpayers, or socially engineered pawns of other human beings; rather they are here in order to grow, to transform, to become their authentic selves.” --Stephan A. Hoeller
A lot of talk and activity is popping up about young people taking time away from school to do something else, especially in this pandemic time. Often called gap years, or gap experiences, youth I know are engaging in a whole variety of ways:
• Travel abroad to Europe, India, and Latin America
• Forging and making knives with a master artisan
• Childcare or au pair work
• Road trips
• Social justice art expression in a puppet theater
• Improving/maintaining forests, farms, shorelines
• Getting out the vote and/or campaigning
• Working in a coffee shop, for an artisan or other small business
Are gap experiences really worth it? How do young people find success? How can they waste effort and resources?
Many have described this pandemic as an accelerant of some important trends in education, and for young people, choosing gap experiences is no exception. According to Gap Year Solutions and the Gap Year Research Consortium at Colorado College, around 40,0000 students took gap years pre-COVID. The figure has jumped to around 130,000 students during COVID. Many colleges expect a continuance of increased deferments to admission and are improving their processes to handle these.
It’s important for adolescents and twenty-somethings to become more recognizably true to themselves and not just children of their parents. In the end, this happens when they feel more independent of the expectations and obligations of school, home-life, and even their social circles.
A gap experience can provide that independence. Many students find they mature and discover what they want to do with their lives by holding off college and or taking a pause from the four year college track. Let’s look at some actual examples.
Matt is almost 21 and living in Chicago. As a sophomore at Trinity Christian College focused on business management, Matt realized he was getting very little out of his experience and the tuition invested. To succeed, Matt says Covid protocols restricted him to remote online learning in his dorm room and the isolation from peers and teachers negatively affected his ability to focus and stay motivated with his studies. “I liked talking with professors; they helped me move on from freeze [not understanding and applying that learning].” Matt is passionate around cars. Having already gained hands-on work experience with restoring and detailing classic cars and earning money working on his friends’ cars, Matt thought that he’d spend a year working and saving money before returning to college study. Matt is using this year to to work for a car dealership and build his savings. He told his dad that he’d also really like to do a solo road trip through the American south this summer. His dad told him to go ahead, stay off the interstates, and just tour via the secondary highways to get a richer experience of that region.
Maggie is another sophomore now attending Bates College in Maine. As a graduated high school senior, she felt burn-out after a long arduous road meeting the high educational and parental expectations of those years and her school. When Bates offered deferred enrollment as an option, she decided on a gap year to travel to Europe. She wanted to travel to new places and learn more about what she was capable of and she knew this would happen after she’d been fortunate enough during her high school years to travel solo for a three-week program providing health care to people of Ahmedabad in India. Maggie started the year by living and working independently in her hometown of Oakland California for three months to build savings and then flew to Europe where she particularly loved Barcelona. Later, she joined a group touring Berlin and became ill with strep. Recovering, and with the group still out and about, she decided to go on her own to the main train station to retrieve cash. She knew no German and yet she found herself able to negotiate the directions and instructions for the cash machine and felt proud of meeting the challenge so independently in a foreign city. She also shared a deep insight about travelling to really see a place: “You see a different side of where you are when you’re alone and not with a group.” In other words, she saw her surroundings with new eyes as a tourist And so, after gaining a deeper sense of self and the world, Maggie reports that she has a lot of energy for her life and study at Bates and that it truly is her choice to do that.
Cameron was a high school graduate wanting a gap year before college, but their parents were unsupportive, worrying that Cameron would never finish college. They’d already been admitted to Hampshire, a school that allowed more student-centered study, yet having grown up in California and a small city in Iowa, they found Hampshire “cold socially” as a Freshperson. “I wanted to be more my own person and not tied to an academic community. I want acknowledgement that I can work for myself.” Cameron is back in their home town of Cedar Falls, Iowa. Working various jobs to build savings, they are also learning the practice of a doula, taking some classes in film and photography and thinking of making their own studio. They’re planning to move to Wisconsin with their partner. “I was so happy when I first left Hampshire. I feel like I’m being a person” who learns without being fully embedded in an academic community. They’re also taking an entrepreneurship class at their local college. “It’s my acknowledgement that I can work for myself.”
Levity knew that he wanted some time off from school after four years at the University of Iowa. Long an advocate for the well-being of LGTBQ+ folks, he decided he’d put his shoulder to the wheel for the betterment of others full-time after graduation and before any other advanced study. Levity planned on getting an eventual master’s degree but he wanted real-world work experience before that. Levity is spending his gap time working in two research labs at UIowa working for his local county public health department as a peer coordinator to promote HIV prevention, testing and harm reduction. During this time, not only has he realized a Ph.D. track in Sociology was viable for him, he felt he had a great deal to substantively discuss in any application interviews for that route. Working “gave me a lot more to talk about,” in interviews. “not just B.S,“ he told me. He now plans to start an M.A.-Ph.D program at the University of Michigan this autumn.
Tommy was 17 and an accomplished graduate of high school who, knowing his moms wanted him to go to college, saw that route as “four years of prison” at the time. Instead, he travelled, became an au Pair in Berlin and developed fluency in German. He then entered Emory as a freshman, only to realize that he had somewhat outgrown the social scene, given his more worldly experiences, and he also felt left out as one of the few “scholarship kids,” according to Karen, one of his moms. And Tommy had the dream of learning the performance of drag queens and moving to Chicago (and closer to his home in Wisconsin) and felt this presented an exciting opportunity for him. Having learned and grown from the challenges of making a living doing drag, he’s now back at Emory, immersed in both his studies and the social life of Atlanta with a deeper sense of himself and his callings.
Each of these young people - Matt, Levity, Cameron, Maggie, and Tommy - had similar and strikingly unique approaches to their decision to take time away from the college route. That is the magical secret to gap experiences: each made it their own journey; each became more fully their true selves as young people, and each went on to pursue college or a directed career path. And each has good advice about how to make the experiences successful and not waste money or energy.
Their advice falls right in line with what professional and accredited gap year counselors say. So what did these students tell me?
1. Have some really clear questions to ask yourself and others as you think and plan a gap experience.
2. Come up with a clear plan and a clear timeline to prepare, experience and end the time. As Levity put it, “I tend to work really hard and burn out, so knowing when to stop is important [and] a plan keeps me focused.”
3. Once you have a plan, make a plan B and a plan C if one plan doesn’t work out or if you need to bail out of an experience. All students I spoke with had had to adjust and pivot in one way or another.
4. Be independent and still be reachable. Maggie talked about how she communicated only rarely with her parents while abroad, but they always knew how to reach her if there was an emergency. Above all, stay open minded and keep that positive mindset. It’s a weird and wonderful thing called Life, and gap experiences can be just that.
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