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Oakes's Corner
 

The Gap Year Experience

By Oakes Hunnewell, Ed.M., CEP

The “gap year” or “bridge year” is a concept that has been around for centuries. In many cultures, it is considered the “bridge” between childhood and adulthood, a time when boys and girls are put through a sort of initiation, testing their skills and exposing them to the dangers and challenges that may lie ahead. In some cultures, the young are put through extreme pain. In others, they are banished for a time to discover, on their own, the temptations and choices they will have to confront as adults. The “Rumspringa”, for instance, is a period in the life of the Amish when teens are encouraged to go out into the unknown, leave their traditions behind and experience life outside of their world. They are given the time to “get it all out” so that when they return, they are ready and willing to accept living by the rules of the Amish. Western culture has its own versions, one of them being the “gap year”. This is a period when teenagers graduate from high school and spend a year having experiences that take them outside of their own norms. They do this before they begin the next stage of their life, college.

After having spent twelve years of formal education, many students may wish to take a break, to refuel or to explore an interest before launching themselves into the final stage of their academic lives. The last four years are often viewed as the most important ones, a period scrutinized by future employers and postgraduate institutions. "Once you lock in to the next four years of college, there are expectations, and you'll never have this time to do whatever you want," says James, a 17-year-old who recently graduated from a prep school in the Boston area. In many countries, students are encouraged and, sometimes, expected to take a year or two off before college. In Sweden, for instance, students often take up to two years to do public service work, to serve in the military or to gain experience in a field of interest. G. Jeoffrey McDonald of USA TODAY wrote “In the United Kingdom, about 11% of the 300,000 college-bound seniors take a gap year before enrolling. Australia puts up similar aggregate numbers in what's known Down Under as "going walkabout."”

Here, in the United States, the concept of a “gap year” has taken on a different connotation. Many view taking a “gap year” as a time to fix something. Students may need an extra year to work on their grade point averages or, in many cases, to mature or, for athletes, to grow into their own bodies. This is fueled by programs offered in many boarding schools called the “PG year” or “fifth year” of high school. Although, these programs are, in many cases, legitimate and necessary, they minimize the benefits of taking a “gap year”.

When I graduated from high school, I was expected to continue on to college the following year. I did so hastily. I arrived unprepared, not because I was unqualified but, rather, because I was disinterested. I was “burned out” and disconnected. I went through the motions my freshman year without enthusiasm or any hunger for knowledge. Half way through my sophomore year, I finally came to the conclusion that I was not benefiting as much as I would like from my college experience. I needed to have a different experience. I remember the phone conversation with my parents. Before the call, I was terrified at how they would react. Surely, they would be disappointed. Surprisingly, they completely understood. Why should I do something I am not fully committed to? It seemed like a waste to me and to them. Financially speaking, they were happy that I had arrived at my decision. College was and is expensive. If someone is to spend that kind of money, they had better get the most out of it. After assuring them that I fully intended on returning, we were all in agreement that taking time off was the best decision. The spring of my sophomore year, I drove out to Colorado and worked as a lift operator at a ski area. I was able to experience life as an “adult”, living independently, earning a pay check and being responsible for my own actions. It was not easy. Holding down a job to pay the bills was something I had never done before. I am glad I did it. During that time, I grew up a lot. When I returned, I understood the value of an education. From then on, my performance reflected that. Today, I think about the first year and a half I spent in college and wonder what would have happened if I had taken time off prior to my freshman year.

What prevents many from viewing a gap year as an option? Aside from having a negative stigma attached to it, many believe that the gap year is reserved for upper middleclass families. Some programs can be expensive, almost the price of a year's tuition. To those families, they view it as paying for an extra year of schooling. That is not always the case. There are many ways one can experience a “gap year”. In some respects, the cheapest ways are often perceive by colleges as the most desirable for admission. A gap year can either be experienced through or independent of a program. Holding down a job, for instance, is a powerful experience for an adolescent. Setting parameters in the household creating a higher level of independence can also enhance the experience. Parents can charge rent and utilities. But programs can also be affordable. There are many non-profit and government programs that charge minimally and, in some cases, that pay participants. Some colleges have taken additional steps to “even” the playing field. For instance, Princeton University is planning to subsidize students who spend a year doing public service. Comparative Literature professor Sandra Bermann, who heads a committee at Princeton that is working out details of what they call their "bridge year," is hoping that 10 percent of freshmen will eventually take advantage of the offer. "There's this chasm between the kids who have everything and get every possibility as they prepare for their college years, and those who are working every summer as cashiers just to get to college," she says. "We want to be really sure to make it as easy for them, as for anyone else, to experience something as transformative as the bridge year."

So, how do colleges view the Gap Year? Is a student a stronger candidate or not? According to Danielle Wood of Today, “Princeton encourages it. Harvard's a big fan. From Tufts to MIT, some of the most prestigious universities in the nation are urging students to consider something that would make most parents cringe: The idea of putting off college for a year in favor of some much-needed downtime”. "You're building a resume before you hit college," says Holly Bull, president of Interim Programs. "I've had students who have taught in schools, acquired language fluency, got experience in business ... this is a very practical accrual of skills and recommendations and references that can actually help them get jobs down the line. And, a gap year can ease the transition to college as well as the work world to follow. Gap students are going to have a leg up," Bull says. But, while colleges and universities recognize the value in taking a gap year, they are careful to point out that some experiences are more highly regarded than others. David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, says colleges increasingly view a gap year as a valid exercise for students, but the substance of the program will affect how a college views the time off. "Personal, educational, or professional enrichment is generally encouraged," he says. "Simply traveling or doing nothing for a year is not likely to impress college admission officers."

When I work with students who express an interest in taking a “gap year”, our approach to the college application process does not change. Student will apply to colleges in the fall of their senior year. They will hear back from them in the spring, at which point, they will decide whether to defer a year. If the student does decide to defer a year, most colleges will immediately grant the deferral. Typically, the process can be as simple as picking up the phone, dialing the number for the admissions office and simply stating that the student wishes to defer a year.

The following is a list of some “gap year” programs and their links-

 

School of the Month

Southern France Youth Institute- http://www.sfyi.org

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The Southern France Youth Institute (SFYI) is located between Toulouse, France and Barcelona, Spain at the foot of the Pyrenee Mountains. Situated in a small French village, the building is the original school house for the village. Students are housed in a renovated 300 year old townhouse next door. SFYI is a secondary school also offering summer and gap year programs. The students typically enroll for one year or one summer session. It is also possible to enroll for one semester. During the school year, the program is very much centered on academics. Each student gets an individualized study plan. Most courses are offered. Classes are small, often with a ratio of four to five students per teacher. Naturally, an emphasis is put on languages. Students choose between French and Spanish. Juniors and seniors have access to college guidance. An on sight counselor is ready to advise them through the process and make sure they meet all their deadlines. In the afternoons, there are excursions where groups can explore the medieval towns that have made the region famous. In addition, students can hike, ski and raft in the Pyrenees with the help of professional outdoor guides and educators, some of whom are their teachers. SFYI also encourage students to explore their own interests. The school assists them in finding internships using local resources. These resources can extend to both Barcelona and Toulouse. The summer programs are more geared toward language, culture and travel. Students visit places as far as Morocco and South Africa or they can remain closer to home in France and Spain. Summer programs typically run one month while the academic year is split up into semesters.